Foolproof Roses | Winter-Hardy Varieties
“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.”
It’s also a very different type of plant from those Canadian Explorer roses that he loves, in that it’s a product of nature herself, not the work of a plant breeder. Wild roses like rugosa are “species” roses—named because each represent its own species, not just a variety within a species—and they’ve evolved over time to be naturally resistant to cold weather and disease.
In a wetter corner of his backyard, Swain points to another species rose, the swamp rose (Rosa palustris). “Roses don’t like wet feet, but Rosa palustris is happy growing in a swamp—the opposite of well-drained soil. It’s eight feet high; has small, single pink flowers; it’s fabulously fragrant; and the bees love it!” Plus, it grows on its own roots. Which, strange as it sounds, is a big deal with roses.
“When you buy a rose from [a traditional rose company], you may actually be getting two roses,” Swain explains. “There’s the root, which is one kind of rose, and then a piece of another rose that’s grafted onto it. When the top of the rose freezes and dies back, what sprouts up is not the rose you wanted but the rose it was grafted onto—the understock.”
To preserve your original rose—and to keep that unknown rose from rearing its head like some weird mythical hydra—you must protect the part of the plant growing above the graft union at all cost. Burying, mulching, or putting a cone over it are all standard measures. But Swain knows there’s a better way: “There’s a whole bunch of roses that don’t require that treatment at all!” For us cold-climate gardeners, these roses growing on their own roots—called “own root” or “single rootstock”—make winter survival possible.
Swain points to another modern hybrid, the French Meidiland series, which are own-root hedge hybrids that bloom repeatedly and are “tougher than nails,” he says. “No banking the soil around the base, no pruning—you just leave them be! Big mass of flowers!
“Every time I go to the garden center, there’s a whole new series of tough roses, like Knock Out. So why would you grow something that diseases attack every year? Or, for that matter, that need to be sprayed? No one needs to spray roses. Knock it off!”
For a few seconds Swain considers the argument of historic, high-maintenance roses versus the newer, easy-care ones, before tossing it aside like compost: “People say to me, ‘Oh, I’ve got to have “Mr. Lincoln” because my grandmother had it,’ or ‘Oh, this is a historic garden—this is what Thomas Jefferson had.’” Swain’s shouting again, but this time he’s grinning: “And I say, ‘It may be what he had, but if he were alive today, he’d say, “Give me the best, give me the newest, give me the hottest one!”’”
This year’s Rose Sunday at Connecticut’s Elizabeth Park, on the Hartford/West Hartford line, is set for June 15. More information at: elizabethparkct.org.