Roses no longer receive a free pass through the garden gate: Instead of accepting lovely roses despite their many faults, gardeners now expect them to earn their place in the garden.
The famous roses of the last century -- Peace, Mr. Lincoln, Queen Elizabeth and dozens of others -- produced beautiful flowers on gangly plants that required a strict regimen of fertilizer, pesticides, pruning and pampering. "Times have changed," says Jeff Epping, horticulture director at Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison, Wisconsin. Time-consuming, chemically dependent old-time roses aren't really welcome any more. "It's bad for the environment, and it's bad for us," Epping says. "We have to ask ourselves if it is really worth it, when there are so many other great plants out there."
Fortunately, new pest- and disease-resistant shrub roses are stepping up to fill the gap. Shrub roses are not an official category, but an informal designation for hardy, healthy roses that flourish in real-life garden conditions. These reliable, repeat-blooming roses aren't prima donnas, but versatile plants that look their best in mixed flower beds among other flowering shrubs and annual and perennial flowers.
Shrub roses tend to produce clusters of flowers, not long-stemmed florist-style blooms, and they have considerably more impact than a garden full of roses on sticks. Knock Out and other roses in the Knock Out family (Blushing Knock Out, Pink Knock Out and four others) are the best-known of the bunch, but hybridizers have introduced many other lines of shrub roses, including Easy Elegance, Oso Easy and Drift roses.
"Shrubs play an important role in gardens," says Natalia Hamill, brand manager for Bailey Nurseries in Minnesota, which introduced the Easy Elegance line of shrub roses. "They give a garden definition, structure, height and color, interest and texture -- and they are easy to grow." Consumers who have given up on traditional roses are coming back around to give shrub roses a try, she says. There are 24 shrub roses in the Easy Elegance series, including roses that sail through bone-chilling winters, stand up to summer's heat and humidity, do not need spraying, and can be pruned with confidence even by novices.
"They sell like hotcakes," Hamill says.
Gardeners like red roses best, Hamill says. Pink comes in second. Bicolor roses -- pink with a touch of salmon, for example -- are popular, too. Consumers are attracted to plants with both buds and blooms, and shrub roses are such prolific bloomers that they usually have some of each at all times. Fragrance is not so important, Hamill says, which is good because shrub roses have lots of charm but little scent, at least at present. "The golden goose is a fragrant shrub rose," she says, "and hybridizers are starting to make progress on that."
The rose garden at Olbrich Gardens sets one of the prettiest examples of the new style that you'll ever see, full of romance. Along the garden's paved pathways, visitors make the acquaintance of dozens of roses, planted right in among ornamental grasses, hydrangeas and other flowering shrubs, small trees and lots of annual and perennial flowers. The roses are chosen for a great summer show and for their hardiness through Madison's deep-freeze winters. They include Easy Elegance shrub roses and roses in the Canadian Explorer series, hybridized in Ottawa and Quebec and known for their extreme hardiness and disease resistance.
Over the years, Epping has reinterpreted the use of roses throughout Olbrich's 16 acres. Old-fashioned rugosa roses were once among his favorites, but they're plagued by Japanese beetles in summer, "and they're just not going to make up the backbone of a rose garden," he says. Rose midges, tiny larvae that infest rose buds and blight the blooms, can also be a problem, Epping says, particularly on florist-type roses. Beating the bugs requires drenching the soil with parasitic nematodes several times to kill the larvae, and it doesn't always work. "We're phasing these roses out," Epping says. Shrub roses take their place. They resist pests and bloom strongly, partly because they produce so many flowers that you may not even notice if you lose a few buds to the bugs.
Spring and summer are the best time to plant these shrub roses. Look for roses growing in containers, not bare-root plants wrapped up in bundles. Container-grown roses make a quick transition into your garden. They need a sunny spot (eight hours of sun a day) and well-drained soil. Pay attention to watering while they are becoming established, and spread an organic mulch around them (compost, or mulch from a garden shop) to help moderate the soil temperature, preserve moisture in the soil and help control weeds. Get these roses off to a good start, and they'll take it from there.
(For editorial questions, please contact Clint Hooker at firstname.lastname@example.org.)