Foolproof Roses | Winter-Hardy Varieties
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.”
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.
“Everybody has this idea that roses are impossible to grow around here, and that’s just not true,” sputters Roger Swain, former host of the long-running PBS series The Victory Garden. He’s wearing his signature red suspenders today, and his keen eyes, encircled by wire-rimmed glasses, cut through all doubt. Swain, 63, lives in southern New Hampshire in a town he refers to, vaguely, as “Monadnock.”
“Look at the Canadian Explorer series,” he shouts. “They were bred in the North by people who said, ‘Screw it! Unless it grows without care, without protection from cold, I’m not going to grow it!’” These rugged Explorer roses—shrubs and climbers—were bred to withstand brutal Canadian winters and temperatures as low as –35°C (–31°F), with minimal care and nothing but snow for protection. ‘William Baffin’, for example, a popular Explorer climber named for a seeker of the Northwest Passage, sends out arching canes loaded with fragrant pink blooms; it’s hardy to Zone 3. Best of all, it’s the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, of roses bred to withstand real cold.
“Here in New England, where the ground freezes down several feet, it’s very difficult to protect a non-hardy rose,” Swain emphasizes. “It’s just a battle. Anything that you have to work that hard to keep alive, you might as well be growing figs—they taste better!”
He becomes even more animated as he ticks off other favorites growing in his backyard. “‘Thérèse Bugnet’ is a Rosa rugosa, a beach rose. It’s pronounced ‘boon-yay,’ but see how it’s spelled? ‘Bug net!’” he laughs gleefully. This four- to five-foot shrub rose is hardy to Zone 3, produces masses of pink blossoms in June, and is one of the easiest roses to grow. Oh, and it smells good, too.
“Put your nose in it and suck it up. It’s not subtle, it’s just wow! You can smell it feet away,” Swain says. “I don’t fuss over it; it doesn’t get sprayed or fertilized or pruned or protected. It doesn’t get squat! It just is. And it has a great name.”