The Garden Life: Appeal of roses is difficult for gardeners to resist




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. I have made numerous pronouncements that I will never plant another rose in my garden, and I have removed any roses that do not thrive on low maintenance.

Still, as a garden writer, I cannot deny the desire of fellow gardeners to have roses in their own gardens. If a garden plant conversation goes on for any amount of time, readers invariably ask me which roses are my favorites and which I would recommend. 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 compelling charm.

In the Northwest, we do two major rose prunings every year. First, 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 Presidents Day in February. Around this time, roses will

break dormancy because of changing temperatures and lengthening daylight. Roses should be pruned 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 any 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. You should 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. I do not use insecticides in my garden so I rely on roses that are disease- and insect-resistant. One long-standing favorite is Jackson and Perkins hedge-forming Rosa “Simplicity,” which grows quickly, blooms early and repeats blooming through the growing season.

Hybrid teas have the classic. long-stemmed, flower vase rose 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.

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. Rosa “Princess Anne” is cerise, pink and fully double. R. “Skylark” is a lilac-pink semi-double. Both have vigorous growth, disease resistance and season-long bloom. Probably the best-known and the favorite in my garden is “Graham Thomas.” a rich, pure yellow climber with fresh, tea-rose-scented flowers.

The best recommendation for growing a specific rose in your garden will come from fellow gardeners. They will tell you the truth about a plant, which includes its failures and successes. Relying on a catalog description or the photo on a plant tag is unrealistic at best. 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. Writing about roses makes me reconsider adding just one or two roses to my next garden. I can only imagine the magic of scented roses blooming by the armful around my garden and not a deer in sight.

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