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Everything’s Coming Up Roses!

How to Grow the World’s Most Romantic Flower
In Central Virginia

By Virginia R. Rockwell, VSLD

“Roses? HERE? No thanks, I’ve tried!” So goes a typical Saturday morning conversation at The Gentle Gardener with novice and avid gardeners alike. Yet, The Gentle Gardener has grown its expertise to now take “Rose Reservations” from clients and customers all over the Commonwealth for heirloom and David Austin English roses, and a select list of old fashioned climbers, rosa rugosa, and floribundas.

As a landscape design and garden center business dedicated to sustainable and organic methods, a specialty in roses that draws customers from all over the Commonwealth (and, via the Web, well beyond) may seem surprising. But, by trial and error, and with a deep and abiding romance with the rose, we now know what will work here in the extremes of Central Virginia.

Here in Orange County we benefit from the resurgence in propagation of old-fashioned heirloom roses across the United States and in England. We are no longer limited to the scentless, stiff beauties from the 1950’s and 1960’s, bred for show as single stem specimens competing for blue ribbons at rose shows. Thanks to ‘rose rustlers’ in hot, dusty Texas and all across the South, and to the wizardry of English rose breeder David Austin, the look and scent we remember from grandmother’s garden, plus the prolific and repeat blooms we desire, are all available.

And, thanks to the interest in ‘cottage garden’ style both in America and England, where a lush, exuberant layering of plants provide interest over the seasons, roses are no longer relegated to their own special ‘bed’, but integrated into the mixed border, mingling companionably with bulbs and peonies, iris and sedum, daylilies and clematis.

Really! Roses for Beginners

The three easiest to grow, most rewarding roses are featured in my own garden: two David Austin roses, luscious, peachy “Abraham Darby” and buttery golden yellow “Graham Thomas”, plus the prolific “New Dawn” climber. All repeat bloom in the spring, throughout the summer, and into the autumn. “Abraham Darby” is the most highly fragrant of the three, Graham Thomas’ parent “Iceberg” gives it its resistance to blackspot and mildew, and New Dawn can grow up and cascade across twenty to thirty feet of length, with pale pink blooms and shiny neat foliage. “New Dawn” is the perfect boutonniere rose, neat, faintly fragrant, and romantic. Rich purple Clematis “Jackmanii” is the traditional companion for New Dawn, clambering up the thorny rose, and both can climb a trellis or old apple tree with abandon. Two other rambling roses mingle with shrubs and perennials: “The Fairy” and “Ballerina”. Fairy roses are tiny, true pink, the flowers held in clusters. In November I cut the last Fairy roses to come in the house with ornamental grasses, asters, and the late-blooming garden chrysanthemum “Clara Curtis” or “Pink Sheffield”.

Sharing the Romance of the Rose with Other Gardeners

Much of what I have learned about roses is from experience, and from the generous, enthusiastic sharing of knowledge from other gardeners here and around the world. The “Eden” climber, and two newer roses, “Daybreaker” and “Tiffany”, all came by request from customers; and we found them tough and beautiful in steamy garden center conditions in summer. Travel reveals the strengths of roses in different settings: rosa rugosa scents New England beaches all summer, withstands cold salt spray well and sets fat, vitamin C rich rose hips in the autumn. Though they only bloom once for us here in Central Virginia, they withstand our cold winds across the mountains well. I saw “Iceberg” roses in the Sydney Botanical Garden in Australia blooming in November (their May) steam heat, without blackspot: this versatile rose is available as a shrub rose, a climber, and as a tree form standard.

Essential to Enjoying Roses: Growing Healthy Soil

Roses are heavy feeders: with amazingly small roots they produce leaves, foliage and blooms prolifically. Organic matter is essential, in the form of compost like locally produced and bagged Down Home Dynamite or Panorama Paydirt, and organic fertilizers like Rose Tone are critical. Feeding roses every two weeks in March through June ensures blooms to cut and enjoy. While roses are amazingly drought tolerant, and the plant rarely dies from lack of water, they may not bloom prolifically without water to carry nutrients to the roots.

Summer Heat, Humidity and “Hangers-On”

To reduce the use of pesticides, summer is best treated as a vacation for the roses. Companion plants like Heuchera “Amethyst Mist”, Echinacea, Perovskia, Phlox “David” and Veronicastrum virginicum come into their own and create lush beauty amongst the rose foliage. The Summer Solstice on June 21 signals the arrival of Japanese Beetles. Like clockwork, the beetles emerge from the ground, usually accompanied by a summer thunderstorm and lingering humidity.

On the Solstice, even the most dedicated rose gardeners should simply mix a stiff drink, sharpen your pruners, and ceremonially cut back by at least a third shrub roses, taking all the blooms for arranging as you go. While you can spray BioNeem organic beetle/aphid repellent that also acts as a fungicide and reduces blackspot, care must be taken not to spray ANYTHING on foliage in direct sunlight or in temperatures above 70 degrees. Foliage can sunburn and drop off. The first two years in the garden center business I defoliated a good number of roses by exposing roses to sunlight after spraying with nothing stronger than Safer Insecticidal Soap, and though none died, and all came back more vigorously than ever, it’s probably not the look you want for a summer garden party.

In high summer, cut back on water and feeding the roses, mulch heavily, knock sleepy beetles into a bucket of soapy water early in the morning, and resume feeding when the beetles depart around Labor Day. Use Milky Spore (produced here in Orange County by St. Gabriel Labs) in spring and autumn to treat Japanese Beetle grubs in the soil. Then, enjoy roses until heavy frost.

Virginia R. Rockwell, VSLD, is landscape designer and owner of The Gentle Gardener,
where she creates landscapes, container gardens, and country weddings and events.
She is certified by the Virginia Society of Landscape Designers.


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