For the Love of Roses

Let’s face it.  Roses are a pain in the neck.  Not only do they have to be fed, watered, and pruned, they also must be sprayed for a multitude of evil insects and sprayed again for various fungi.  So why do home gardeners bother growing roses, always fussing and obsessing over these demanding plants?  The short answer: it’s a love affair. Roses drive gardeners to distraction with their beauty, their fragrance, their colors, and their multiple forms – shrubs, climbers, ramblers, even trees. 

A Brief History of Roses

First, before getting into the nitty-gritty of growing roses, a bit of trivia: roses generally are divided into two classes: Heirloom Roses or those introduced prior to 1867, and those hybridized after 1867 or Modern Roses.  Heirloom Roses are distinguished by a single flush of fragrant blooms in mid-summer, whereas Modern Roses are bred to produce large flowers throughout the summer on plants that have been grafted onto hardy, disease-resistant rootstock.  Generally, it’s the Modern rose most gardeners fall in love with.

Prior to the 1950’s the home gardener had a choice between a hybrid tea rose, a rose with a large flower on a single stem,

the favorite of florists and lovers, or a floribunda that has many flowers, as the name suggests.    

In 1954 a geneticist, Dr. Walter Lammerts, crossed a floribunda rose with a hybrid tea, and the result was the delicate pink Queen Elizabeth rose, a grandiflora, the first in a growing family of roses characterized by large flowers in clusters of two or three on a single stem. 

If a grandiflora steals your heart, be advised, the bushes grow to four or five feet wide and as tall so plan accordingly.


To keep your beloved happy you must have at least five hours of sun, preferably six or more, and give her about an inch of water a week in soil that has good drainage; roses do not like wet feet.    And they are heavy feeders needing a shot of fertilizer such as RoseTone® once a month until early fall, or for those of us lazy gardeners, a dose of Osmocote® or a time-release fertilizer once every three months.  If your love comes into your life not in a pot but bare root, soak her roots overnight before planting and when planting be sure that you do not bury the graft.  A buried graft stimulates the growth of the rootstock, suffocating your chosen beauty.  Spread mulch around the base to minimize weeds and to prolong bloom time, pinch off all dead blossoms.

Diseases and Pests

The first line of defense against an attack by diseases and pests is to maintain healthy plants and the health of the plant depends on the cleanliness of its environment. However, even the most robust rose will occasionally succumb to a fungus infection or a marauding insect.  Among the most common rose pests are aphids, spider mites, thrips and Japanese beetles.  Japanese beetles are easy to spot by their iridescent copper and green bodies and are best controlled by scooping them into a jar of soapy water. 

Pheromone traps are advertised as an effective control, but danger lurks in their draw; not only will they attract the Japanese beetles in your garden but those of your neighbors. Now you have a plague on your hands. Stick with the soapy water. 

Although the sucking piercing insects are not as visible as beetles, their presence is signaled by damage to your rose leaves and buds. 


Spider Mite

These three culprits will suck the very life out of the leaves leaving them shriveled or curled.   Control these marauders by spraying the leaves, undersides as well as the tops, with an insecticidal soap on a regular basis.   If you eschew commercial products you can concoct your own insecticidal soap by combining ½ cup of vegetable oil with 3 tablespoons of dishwashing soap (Dawn is generally the soap of choice) with 2 quarts of warm water.  

Then there are the diseases, but the most common infections of roses are easy to identify:  black spot, powdery mildew and rust.  

Black Spot
Powdery Mildew

To control these diseases keep the plants clean and avoid watering from above since wet leaves stimulate the growth of fungi. If, in spite of all precautions a fungus attacks your beloved, regular applications of a fungicide such as Daconil® will control these diseases, or mix your own by combining 4 to 5 teaspoons of baking soda with 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil in a gallon of water.  `

Now if the scourge of your rose garden is not an insect or a fungus but browsing deer, you can discourage them by planting lavender in among the roses. Not only are deer repulsed by the scent, in the fall you will have all the makings for a lovely potpourri. 


Although tackling the structure of your loved one can seem to be a daunting task, in reality pruning a rose is quite straight forward if you follow a couple of simple rules.  Whether you have fallen for a rambler, climber, shrub, hybrid tea or tree rose, the first rule is to remove all dead or diseased canes.   Then check your rose for canes that are crossed and remove the smaller or weaker of the two.  Nothing more is needed for a rambler or a climber unless you want to rein in her growth, easily achieved by cutting back the long canes to 12 inches or more. For shrub roses, hybrid teas and all repeat bloomers prune the canes back to just above a bud and about a foot above ground in late winter or early spring (some gardeners prefer to prune in late fall – whatever works for you). 

If you can create a vase shape from your rose bush without hacking it to pieces, you will improve airflow and lessen the risk of a fungus infection. 

And Finally…

A tip of the hat to David Austin, that great English rosarian who introduced 190 rose cultivars to the world during his long life (1926-2018).   Striving to reproduce the fragrance of old garden roses in repeat blooming varieties, he was honored with 24 Chelsea Flower Show Gold Medals for his achievements in hybridizing new roses in all categories – shrubs, climbers, ramblers and tree roses.  When anyone mentions “English Rose” the name of David Austin leaps to mind, and the world of roses is poorer for his passing.

David Austin ‘England’s Rose’

Plant Sources

Jackson & Perkins

Heirloom Roses

David Austin Roses

Edmunds’ Roses

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