All That They Can Be
by ARS President Bob Martin
This article was published circa 1998
My first rose garden was planted by the landscaper in 1971. My wife Kathy and I had bought a new house that came with no landscaping. We sat at the kitchen table with the landscaper who sketched ideas. Kathy said she'd like a rose garden and that seemed fine to me so he sketched one in.
I had earlier developed an affection for flowers. At the age of 13 I had found a job selling flowers on street corners on the weekends. This was to continue well into high school. We sold many flowers, mostly carnations, some chrysanthemums in the fall, tulips and violets in the spring, daffodils, stock and occasionally, just occasionally, we had roses. I liked all of the flowers, especially the roses.
I did not, however, like gardening. Gardening to me was mowing the lawn and raking the leaves and then going back the next week and the week after and doing it again and again. I liked it so little that at one point I traded all my outside chores to my brother in exchange for all of his inside chores. The truth was that I preferred to clean the toilets to working in the yard.
But with the new yard things had to change. It was mostly lawn with some shrubs on the borders and some ground cover on the slopes. Over in the corner was the small rose garden and there were four climbers on the fence. My favorite was Climbing ‘Golden Showers’. It grew as a pillar and produced long straight stems with beautiful fragrant buds of yellow with a red edge. I cut the buds since they looked like the florist roses I had sold on the street corners. In the house they opened quickly and the fragrance filled the room. I liked them.
My late mother-in-law would come to visit and would marvel over the cut roses. She declared that I had a green thumb and was talented at growing things. Even though there was not more than an ounce of truth in what she said, I liked it anyway.
I also felt a little guilty. Because the fact was that I really didn't do much with the roses. Every week I mowed the lawn and raked leaves. I occasionally trimmed the shrubs and even tried my hand at growing vegetables. But as for the roses, well I didn't do much with the roses.
But the beauty of the Climbing ‘Golden Showers’ and my mother in law's praise did have an effect. I guess I figured that maybe I should do something with the roses to deserve the praise. So I got some books and learned a little about pruning and a little of this and a little of that. And this is when I began to discover something unique and remarkable about roses.
Left to their own devices my roses were quite beautiful. But when I started to do some things they got better. Not just a little better, but a lot better. And in every case the return was a multiple of the additional effort. This went on for year after year.
In 1986 I joined a local rose society and worked as a clerk in my first rose show. At that time, I had been growing roses for 15 years and thought I knew quite a bit. But after working the show I remarked that "I thought I knew everything, but now I see I know nothing." So I became determined to take my rose growing to a higher level. I wanted my roses to be all that they can be.
Today, after 27 years of growing roses, I am continuing to learn. But I have found many techniques for growing outstanding roses and the purpose of this article is to share some of them with you.
This is not an article for the beginner. Instead I am going to assume that you have been growing roses for a while and that you grow some pretty fine roses. And if that is all that you want them to be, then that is fine and you need not read on. But if you want to take your roses to a higher level here are twelve steps that are suggested as a program of action to make your roses all that they can be.
ABOVE: 'Show Stopper'
1. Downsize Your Garden
You are growing too many roses. I know this because all of us who fall in love with roses reach this point. There are so many beautiful roses that for the first many years of our hobby we acquire and add roses but rarely do we subtract roses from the garden.
It is time to accept the fact is that you cannot grow every rose. Nor can you grow every rose you fall in love with. Modern Roses 10 lists over 15,000 roses and I am certain MR 11 will put this number over 20,000. The Combined Rose List tells us that there are over 10,000 roses in commerce. And since you cannot grow them all you have to make choices.
'Queen of Hope'
You also cannot grow roses well if you have too many. We all have a tendency to keep roses even though they perform poorly in our garden. We crowd them together so that none of them have the room to do as well as they can. But there is an optimum number of roses that each of us can grow well based on the space and the time we have available. The first step then is to recognize and admit this fact. The next is to get rid of the excess. How shall you do this? Well a good place to start is ....
2. Stop Beating Your Head Against the Wall
Roses perform differently in different places. All the horticultural skills in the world are not going to make a rose perform well in a climate that it does not like. So it is very important to learn what grows well where you live and to grow those roses.
On a more immediate level there are also places in your yard where roses will do well and places where they will not. For example, one of the most common questions I find asked by new rosarians is for a list of roses that do well in the shade. Here is a list of roses that do well in the shade:
That's it. Roses are sun plants. You must stop trying to fit roses in those extra "slightly shady" spots in your yard. It doesn't work. Roses also require well drained soil so if you have a spot where try as you may you can't get the soil to drain, then forget about trying to grow roses there. Roses will also not grow in close proximity to trees. The biggest natural enemy of the rose is the tree. Their roots will invade the root system of roses and choke them off. Their branches will shade them from the sun. If you have a tree that you must keep or that is too big to remove then add its domain to the area in which you cannot grow roses. Yes this will reduce the area you have for roses. But that area can be increased if you follow the next rule which is...
3. Get Serious
You want to grow roses? Then resolve to only grow roses in those places in your yard that are suitable for roses. Quit fiddling around with other plants that are occupying the spaces where roses can grow. Forget the silliness you have read about "companion plants". Roses don't want companions - they want to go it alone. Companion plants compete with the roses for water and fertilizer. They harbor insects and choke off air flow. They restrict your access to your roses and make them more difficult to care for. The only good companion plant for a rose is another rose. Birds of a feather fly together. If you feel like you must grow other plants then put them in the area where roses do not grow. I personally divide the plant kingdom into two great groups: shade plants and roses. If you have a sunny spot that is suitable for a rose than why would you want to plant anything else? I wouldn't. And while I am being real blunt about it how about the following step...
4. Get Real
People prefer to believe what they prefer to be true. But believing doesn't make it true. Rose growing is a science. You must adopt horticultural practices that work and discard those that do not. And this must be done without regard to how you might have designed Heaven and Earth had you created them.
Take "organic gardening" for example. "Organic rose gardening" is mostly a political point of view about the allocation of resources. To many it approaches a religion. Its converts prefer to believe that they can grow great roses "organically". You cannot. You can grow good roses; indeed as I have observed at the beginning of this article you can grow beautiful roses without much care at all. There are also a number of organic gardening principles that are quite valuable. But if you want roses to be all that they can be you must find other ways to save the planet. Roses care only about that part of the planet in which they are planted.
Along the same line is the fiction of "non-toxic" pest control. There is no such thing. The word "toxic" means that the substance kills and to kill pests you need something that is toxic. Of course it is a good idea to select something that is only toxic to the targeted pest and not, say, to your cats or to your fish. But the fact remains that roses are subject to various pests and disease and steps must be taken to maintain their health.
In all respects rose growing is a task that requires work. To borrow from Thomas Edison, roses are 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. So you also must forget about the quest for "easy care" roses. Certainly some roses require a little less care than others but as a general rule the growing of outstanding roses requires that you commit yourself to taking the time and making the effort that is necessary.
So lets get real and get ready to work hard at growing outstanding roses. This brings us to the next step which is to....
5. Get Good Tools
It stands to reason that if you're going to work hard at growing roses, you need some hard working tools. Inadequate tools make the job much tougher. Although they are more expensive initially they will if selected and cared for properly last much longer and be a much better long term investment.
Review the tools you use on a regular basis and see what upgrades may be required. At a minimum, you should have a pair of Felco or similar quality pruning shears as well as decent loppers. You also need a good quality heavy duty wheel barrow and a good planting shovel.
One of the most important tools is an easy to use full capacity sprayer. The sprayer should be of a size adequate to your garden so that you do not have to refill it often. It should also not require a physical work-out to use. The most likely choice is a battery operated sprayer.
Remember that your job is never finished until your tools have been cleaned and put away. I keep cans of WD-40 in several different places and always clean and oil my tools with it. I also rinse out the sprayer after each use and remember to clean the trap at the bottom.
6. Buy in Quantity
Since you are going to be serious about your roses, you should also make a practice of being serious about buying your fertilizers. mulch and spray materials. It is usually cheaper to buy your materials in larger quantities. Shelf life is seldom a factor since as a general rule most materials will last for years. Having larger quantities on hand also minimizes trips to the store and encourages you to use the material on a regular basis, which leads to the next very important step...
7. Get Regular
Rose require water, nutrition and good health maintenance. They require these things on a regular and continuous basis. Roses do not care what your excuse is for having failed to water them, to feed them or to look after their health. If you fail to do so they will respond accordingly. So to make roses all that they can be, you must adopt a regular program of care and you must follow it.
The three most important factors in growing roses are water, water and water. Do not overlook any of these factors. Do you know how much water your system delivers? You should. You can measure it by putting cans around your roses and running your water system for a fixed period of time and then observe the level of water in the cans. Do you have a timer on your sprinkler system? You should. This will enable you to deliver water at fixed and regular times. Do you have a rain gauge? You should. This will allow you to determine how much water nature has provided. Is your drainage adequate and have you checked how fast the water will drain? You should know these things since a rose must have drainage so that its roots can breathe.
And how about your fertilizer program? Too many rosarians think that fertilization is a once in a while thing or that the secret to good roses is in some magic combination of peculiar ingredients. It is not. The secret to feeding roses lies in the regular and continuous applications of fertilizer during the growing season.
So what fertilizer should you use? The best fertilizer is the one on sale. The most important nutrient is nitrogen; it is in fact more important than all the other nutrients put together. So buy fertilizers with lots of nitrogen and buy them in large quantities to get the best price. Then use them in a regular program of feeding.
What about phosphorus? Phosphorus moves very slowly in the soil and all the surface applications in the world of high bloom/high phosphorus fertilizer is no substitute for having put it in the planting hole where it belongs. And do not forget the potassium - roses needs potassium as well so make sure that they are getting potassium - regularly of course.
Regularity applies also to health maintenance. Roses are susceptible to fungus diseases and such diseases can only be controlled through prevention and not cure. So learn what fungus diseases afflict the roses in your area and the climate conditions which favor those diseases. Then adopt a regular and continuous program of disease prevention.
Insects and arthropods such as spider mites need only be killed when their populations are apparent and threaten your roses. But regularity is important here as well, a regularity of inspection and examination to learn when the pests are active and threaten the health of your roses. This regularity leads to the next step which is...
8. Observe and Listen
I love walking in my rose garden. I walk the garden every morning and every evening that I am home. I can think of few more pleasurable activities and suggest you try it as well. While you are at it observe and listen. Watch what the roses are doing. Examine the blooms. Pull off some leaves and look at them. Poke around in the soil at their feet. Pick off diseased leaves and crush insects with your fingers. Tie up falling canes to a support. Deadhead spent blooms and cut off dead and dying stems and foliage. Watch what is happening in your garden. And listen to what the roses are saying to you. They have a "body language" and you can hear what they have to say if you listen carefully. Get to know your roses by name and by their habit. Once you get to know them real well they will tell you of their happiness and of their problems. You can then rejoice in the former and do something to remedy the latter.
9. Make Mistakes
I once wrote an article titled "Stupid Things I Have Done." It was pretty funny. This is because I have done some real stupid things in my efforts to get roses to be all that they can be. But I have also learned a lot from my mistakes. I have come to believe that we tend to learn more from our mistakes than from our successes. Roses are very hardy and they are very forgiving. So don't be afraid to make mistakes. Experiment with different approaches and observe their effects. Be honest with your assessments of the latter. This is how you will learn. And where do you get ideas of what to try?
10. Get Past the Pictures in the Books
There are hundreds of books on roses. But books on roses require pictures in order to sell them. There are but a small handful of successful books on roses that do not have pictures. And yes, those pictures are undeniably lovely. They show the rose is all of its variety and beauty . But to grow roses that look like those pictures, or even better than those pictures, you have to get beyond the pictures. Read the text. Look for the horticultural advice. Get a botany text and learn how roses work. I never thought much of botany in school but now I cannot read enough. Read, read and read some more - there is lots to be learned.
11. Teach Others
It has been said that the best way to learn a subject is to teach it. This is certainly true of roses. Pick a subject and research it. Put together an outline for a lecture for your local society. They are always looking for someone who has something to say. Get your camera out and take some slides to illustrate your talk. Ask your program chairman for the opportunity to give your talk. Then take your outline and write an article for your local society newsletter. And when you are done, do it again. The more you teach others about roses, the more you will learn yourself. The more you learn, the better your roses will be. And when you think your roses are pretty good then you are ready for the last and the most important step...
12. Exhibit Your Roses
Exhibitors grow the best roses. So a rose show is a good place to see how good a rose can be. Therefore to learn how your roses are really doing it is a good idea to put them in a rose show and see how they measure up. If you have followed the steps I have outlined, they should measure up very well indeed. They will receive ribbons; some even will be awarded trophies and certificates. Showing your roses will also give you a chance to talk with other exhibitors to get new ideas of how your roses can be improved. Exhibitors love to talk about such things and are very open about sharing their information. But always keep in mind that roses do differently in different places and the things that work in their garden may or may not work in your own. In time you will find what works for you. You might even find out all that a rose can be. Let me know if you do - I'd like to see them and talk to you about how you did it.
All photos by Bob Martin