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Foolproof Roses | Winter-Hardy Varieties

Yankee Plus Dec 2015


Foolproof Roses | Winter-Hardy Varieties
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Rose envy may be a thing of the past with these winter-hardy varieties.

Not far from Mark Twain’s home in Hartford, Connecticut, is a garden that defies all weather. Planted in 1904, just six years before the humorist died, Elizabeth Park is the oldest public rose garden in the country, a spectacle of color and fragrance hidden away in an elegant old city neighborhood. Tunnels of roses converge, like spokes on a wheel, pointing deep into the heart of the garden. There, at the center, a vintage gazebo supports viney climbers, and pink and red blossoms tumble over one another in a race to the sky.

Who wouldn’t want even a tiny patch of this heaven in one’s own backyard? It’s the apotheosis of our rose-loving fantasies—bowers brimming with flowers, benches buried in blossoms, the sweet, heady scent of billions of petals warming in the sun.

“In the spring I have counted 136 different kinds of weather inside of 24 hours,” Twain once remarked. He lived and wrote in Hartford for 17 years, and he nailed it when he satirized our Great New England Gardening Challenge: weather as fickle as a teenager and just as headstrong. When it comes to growing roses, the effects can be devastating. Past experience has shown them to be notoriously finicky, demanding celebrity-level pampering, and yet still they drop leaves or keel over.

But plant breeders have been hard at work for decades coming up with cold- and disease-resistant roses that really do survive winters with little or no help: roses that can outlast harsh winter climates, like the popular shrub roses marketed under the Knock Out brand created by Milwaukee breeder William Radler; more than 80 million plants have been sold since they were introduced in 2000. Then there are roses designated Earth-Kind because no fertilizers or pesticides are required. These are roses that give you everything they’ve got, and in the end leave you with the impression of an English country garden with much less fuss.

I headed south and then north, to learn more about the friendly new face of this remarkable flower. My guides on this quest: two gardening experts as different as red and yellow roses (which is to say very, and not at all). In the south (Connecticut), I spoke with master rosarian Mike Fuss, who’s deeply connected to Elizabeth Park, a traditional rose garden that’s gradually bringing in more easy-care roses; in the north (New Hampshire), I talked to Roger Swain of PBS’s The Victory Garden. Both love roses. And each convinced me that even the most novice gardener can enjoy abundant blooms that were once available only to the masters.

The Southern Rosarian

“Some of our roses are Knock Out roses,” Mike Fuss says, as we roam the artful tangle of Elizabeth Park’s archways. “They don’t need a lot of care, and here you can find singles or doubles in pink, although the best is the original red, in my opinion.” His eyes appraise the arches expertly, and here and there he quietly points out favorites among the park’s 800 varieties, including climbers and bushes.

A master rosarian and longtime Elizabeth Park board member, Fuss is also co-founder of the Connecticut Rose Society. His late wife, Donna, was a driving force behind restoring the park. The rose that Fuss is praising is a tough shrub that produces flowers continuously, and even resists deadly “black spot,” a fungus that causes leaves to yellow and drop—the rose world’s equivalent of the Black Death.

City budget cuts have affected maintenance at the 2.1-acre rose garden, so “the push is on for more sustainable, winter-hardy, shrub-like roses that give a lot of bloom, rather than the traditional hybrid tea roses, which are harder to keep alive over the winter,” Fuss explains. Fortunately, volunteers pitch in regularly at the 102-acre property, especially when the park gears up for its Rose Sunday extravaganza in June.

As for the park’s magnificent rose-covered archways, echoing the look of Monet’s gardens at Giverny? “Our best rambler is ‘Excelsa’. It’s winter-hardy, but not disease-resistant,” Fuss says. His own park favorites include ‘Yellow Submarine’ from Easy Elegance, another line of hardy, disease-resistant roses, and ‘Home Run’. Fuss grows them at home in his own garden.

Despite Connecticut’s relatively mild temperatures, there are still weather challenges, Fuss concedes. “Freeze-and-thaw does more damage in Connecticut than anything else,” he says. “But roses aren’t difficult to grow; they just take a little work.” He smiles softly: “If you don’t want to work, plant a marigold. But if you’re a gardener, you want to work with plants.”

Northward Bound

Difficulty is relative, of course, and climate zones are definitely on my mind as I head north to New Hampshire, where we’re at least one planting zone colder.

Annie Graves


Annie Graves


Annie Graves is a regular contributor to Yankee. A New Hampshire native, she has been a writer and editor for over 25 years, while composing music and writing young adult novels. Find out more about Annie at
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