The Garden Life: For gardeners, roses have an irresistible charm



Northwest gardeners love to grow roses.

This is not to say we don’t curse their faults as vehemently as we praise their attributes. Gardeners know from experience what a “pain in the garden” roses can be. Still, we find ourselves drawn to their unique charisma enough to try, try again. Despite the perennial battle with black spot, aphids and mildew, we continue to plant roses in the garden for their charm.

In the Northwest, we do two major rose prunings every year. Once, in late fall, we trim plants back to about waist-high. This is mainly to tidy up borders in preparation for winter dormancy but also to prevent taller roses from doing damage to themselves or other plants if they should thrash around in windy winter weather. The main branches of climbers should be tied securely in place rather than cut back, as these established branches are the source of next year’s blooms.

A second major pruning is recommended for late winter-early spring; sometime around President’s Day in February. Around this time, roses will break dormancy because of changing temperature and lengthening daylight. Now, you prune your roses down to about knee height. The purpose of these cuts is to remove dead and diseased wood as well as to stimulate early spring growth.

If you wait too long to do your first pruning, you will be cutting off new growth that the rose has made up to that point. Waiting too long for the first spring cut will not harm your roses, but it may set the plants back a few weeks. Definitely make these cuts before roses begin to bloom. If you don’t, new growth will be spindly, leggy and too weak to support full flower heads.

The large family of shrub and landscape roses are becoming more and more popular with Washington gardeners. To begin with, they are easier to care for than many other roses. Since I do not use insecticides in my garden,

I rely on roses that are disease- and insect-resistant. One long-standing favorite of mine is Jackson and Perkins hedge-forming Rosa ‘Simplicity Red’, which grows quickly, blooms early and is a true red.

Hybrid teas have the classic long-stemmed, flower vase form. The creamy-yellow and red Rosa ‘Double Delight’ is often praised as the favorite rose bush in a gardener’s collection. It is disease-resistant in our Northwest weather and it blooms continuously through the summer and fall. Few roses out-bloom the hybrid musk rose ‘Ballerina’ which carries big clusters of dainty, fragrant pink blossoms well into late fall. Rosa ‘Wild Spice’ is a hybrid rugosa rose that flaunts blowsy, pure white single flowers with the best spicy scent in my garden.

For a climbing rose that has proven itself in gardens all over America, plant Rosa ‘New Dawn’. This double-flowered, silver-pink rose is sweetly fragrant and reblooms throughout the summer and well into fall. I

David Austin’s English roses are known for combining the romantic flower forms and perfume of old roses with the broad color range and repeat flowering of modern roses. As a rose breeder, David Austin’s achievement is in marrying the lovely English Rose look with vigorous growth, disease-resistance and season-long bloom. Two new varieties are Rosa ‘Princess Anne’, a cerise pink, fully double rose, and R. ‘Skylark’, a lilac-pink semi-double rose.

The best recommendations for growing a specific rose in your garden come from fellow gardeners. They will tell you the truth about a plant, which includes its failures as well as its successes. Relying on a catalog description or the photo on a plant tag is unrealistic at best. As always, your choice of roses comes down to personal preference for color, form and scent. Only you know if you prefer dainty, single petals to voluptuous double-layered blossoms.

Pruning roses in February is the first step from winter lethargy to the exuberance of spring. Just as plants that have slept through winter will come to life with the change of seasons, we gardeners will have to stretch and yawn and rise from our own winter slumber. The magic of spring sends a surge of energy through our veins, just as it does for the roses. We will need it as the busiest garden season of the year gets under way.

Robb Rosser is a WSU-certified master gardener. Reach him at