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Rose-grower Brad Jalbert debunks the myths and tells how you can plan for fabulous blooms with no fuss.
The World Rose Convention and Festival, in Vancouver from June 18 to 23, is an opportunity for rose enthusiasts to show off their best blooms, discover new varieties and – in keeping with this year’s theme, “Roses in the Landscape,” – learn earth-friendlier techniques for cultivating the little darlings with a bad reputation for chemical dependency. Many of the speakers at the convention, including Brad Jalbert of Select Roses, dispute the notion that roses require sprays and constant care.
When Jalbert was a teenager, his big brother brought home a pathetic-looking discard from the local supermarket. The rose was in bad shape, he says, but he stuck it in a hole anyway. “The rose was amazing! It had so many blooms. So I got a few more discards and I thought, ‘Why aren’t more people growing these? They’re so easy and they’re beautiful!’” By the time an aghast family friend told him he wasn’t doing it properly, it was too late. He and the rejected roses were stuck in their easy-care ways.
George Mander started from the top down
Now the first question Jalbert asks when people come to browse the perfumed petals at the Langley nursery is, “How much work do you want to do?” If they admit to being fanatics, he politely directs them to the gorgeous but helpless hybrid tea roses, or, as Brad likes to tease: “the boring ones.” But if the visitor confesses to just wanting to plant and never worry again, he has plenty of “interesting” options, which he insists are easy to grow.
Jalbert has ten essential tips for those who want gorgeous roses with minimal effort.
Nowadays, the local rose society may be your best source of advice on climate-appropriate varieties, but in decades past, these clubs may actually have fuelled the myth that roses are tender. Members were typically aficionados who enjoyed taking the extra time to coax perfect blooms from ideal stems. Other culprits are big-box retailers that sell varieties not suited to the local climate. Hence, they take twice as much work to keep alive, perpetuating the myth that roses are sickly and delicate.
The trick to being a truly lazy gardener is research. Consider carefully and realistically your climate, gardening habits and conditions – the amount of watering you will neglect to do, the winter straw you’ll never get around to scattering, the scant amount of sun your yard receives, and the sprays of gravel from the car which you will regularly park far too close – then choose your rose accordingly. With tens of thousands of varieties in the world, finding the right rose for your bad habits isn’t ridiculous. There are 20-cm-tall (8-in.) miniature roses that thrive on constant flattery. There are tough-talking ramblers that, on their own, with no care, have been known to rip the front porches off of neglected English country houses. There are climbers winding their way 15 m (50 ft.) up into trees, where they produce blooms in the shade. There are roses with purple stems; roses with silvery-blue foliage; roses that smell of baby powder or oranges; roses with unremarkable blossoms that, Brad explains with excitement, one day burst into hundreds of deliciously rich, red hips; and roses that happily grow beside highways in dried-out ditches choked with car exhaust. Whatever your personal style of neglect or abuse, there is a rose tough enough to take it.
To find the right variety, go to a reputable nursery, contact a local rose society, or read a book that gives specific advice for your area, such as Roses for British Columbia by Brad Jalbert and Laura Peters.
The Royal National Rose Society of England famously conducted a pruning experiment to determine the optimum height, angle, hour and season to prune a rose. For comparison, they subjected one test group to “rough pruning,” indiscriminate lopping with hedge trimmers. “The ones pruned with the hedge clippers did better,” laughs Brad. “For three years running.” It is virtually impossible to kill a rose by pruning, he says.
While it may be tempting to buy a smaller rose bush at only $8 to $12, lazy gardeners are better off spending twice that much. “For people that want a rose bush that they can plant and not have to baby, they should buy a slightly more mature plant, one that’s a two- or three-gallon size. The price now is $25 or $30 for a number-one plant.” The reason: established plants are more resistant to disease, insects, drought and cold. If you balk at the price, it’s worth remembering that your $30 rose bush will produce armloads of cutting roses all summer long and live for decades.
The fussy, pest-prone reputation of roses usually comes from the hybrid tea varieties, bred in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s to produce the biggest, most perfect blooms, but with no regard to disease resistance or hardiness. Climbers, ramblers, shrub and groundcover types, as well as the old garden (heritage) rose varieties are generally much more resistant to disease and able to withstand extremes of temperature and drought. “My biggest rose is growing 50 feet up our cedar tree. It has no care, no fertilizer, no spray,” says Brad. “And it’s in the shade!”
City dwellers should take note that you can grow any type of rose in a container – though if you want a climber, you’ll need a pot the size of an oak half-barrel. For the best bloom to pot-size ratio on a smallish balcony, choose a floribunda. Brad says, “They get tons of flowers and they’re sturdier than a hybrid tea. There are many good fragrant varieties, which everybody wants in their cutting rose.”
Traditional wisdom says you should be watering once or twice a week. However, if you aren’t entering competitions, you can ignore this rule because all varieties of rose are actually extremely drought-tolerant. “A rose will just shut down and go dormant, and once it gets water, it’s going to start growing again,” Brad explains. “Shrub roses will survive alone at your cabin on whatever water happens in the summer, if you get them established the first year.” Tip: “Plant in the fall to take advantage of the rain. As long as they’re in the ground, and the soil is reasonably prepared, you don’t have to worry for the rest of the summer.”
“I always laugh when somebody who has one rose bush says, ‘Oh, I’ve got aphids. I’m going to spend half an hour, drive around to the garden centre, buy some spray, come back and hunt for them,’” says Brad. “Aphids are the dumbest insects in the world and the easiest thing to kill. Squeeze them with your finger. Or take a hose and blast them off a few days in a row.”
Many roses are also surprisingly tolerant of cold weather. “I don’t prune any of mine back. They just stay in the ground the way they’re planted.” What? No mulching or straw? “Nope, nope, nope,” insists Brad. “If the roses are tender then I don’t grow them. I try and make it easier for myself.”
You can make it easier on yourself too by purchasing a rose specifically bred to survive cold winters. Choose a rugosa, or one of our homebred varieties. The Canadian government sponsored two breeding programs: the Explorer series in Ottawa, and the Mordon series in bone-chilling Mordon, Manitoba. Both lines offer roses hardy to zone 2.