Roses—now more than ever


How did your roses do this year, and are they still going strong? Friend of Rant Pat Leuchtman/ Commonweeder wants more people to grow roses—here’s her guest rant explaining why.

6-26 Pink Grootendorst
Pink Grootendorst

How many times have I heard people say, “I love roses, but they are too much trouble and I can’t be bothered with all that spraying.” The problem with that statement is that the people who make it are usually thinking about hybrid tea roses—which means they are not keeping up with the real news in the rose world.

When I met with the amazing Peter Kukielski, Curator of the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden at the New York Botanical Garden I learned that he has tripled the number of roses in the garden since he arrived four years ago. He chose roses that are disease resistant and will not need spraying. Indeed, they cannot be sprayed because New York State has outlawed most of the ingredients in the traditional sprays.

Where did he find all these disease resistant roses? It turns out that this isn't such a new idea. During our chat, he mentioned the EarthKind varieties, which are old roses that have been tested by Texas A&M. The test involved caring for roses for one year, with proper planting, watering and weeding. For the next nine years the rose care was minimal. The result? A list of hardy roses that can take it, providing carefree beauty, as well as (often) scent. Last spring The Rose Garden began hosting a Northeastern version of the EarthKind trials. I am eager to see what they learn.

Speaking of Carefree Beauty, the popular variety was hybridized by Dr. Griffith Buck at Iowa State University. He wanted to create roses that were hardy and disease resistant, a novelty in 1950. Now dozens of Buck Roses are available.

Applejack 2

Buck got help and advice from Wilhelm Kordes, the world famous German rose breeder. Over the years the Kordes family has continued to work on disease resistant roses; they stopped spraying their fields entirely 20 years ago. American gardeners can now buy Fairy Tales roses like the brilliant orange yellow Brothers Grimm (highly resistant to black spot and mildew) and Felicitas (equally resistant with double pink blossoms on arching canes). And the Fairy Tale series is just one of the disease resistant Kordes families. There are also low growing Vigorosa landscape roses, climbing roses and even Kordes hybrid teas.

Most people are familiar with Conard-Pyle’s KnockOut roses, but may not know about hybridizer Ping Lim’s Easy Elegance line. Easy Elegance is so confident about the hardiness and disease resistance of these roses that they offer a two year guarantee.

Currently the NYBG website lists the top 115 roses of 2010. I watched Kukielski and a volunteer go over an exhaustive evaluation form. When he says a rose performs well he is speaking from documented evidence.

Harrison's yellow 5-31-10
Harrison's Yellow

If Peter Kukielski at the NYBG can find thousands of disease resistant roses, we can all find at least a few varieties that will provide beauty and scent without compromising the health of our gardens for ourselves, our children, and all the other creatures we welcome.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. I agree. It’s amazing the number of people that just assume if you grow roses, you spray. I grow a number of roses, and have never sprayed. I hope more people learn of these disease resistant roses. Every garden needs a rose!

  2. I live in the semi arid front range of Colorado, and have roses that I never do anything to, except cut and put into vases. We had a late spring this year, and my roses are still going strong. That said, though, I didn’t plant these (the previous homeowner did) and I haven’t added more in the 10 years we’ve been here. Prickly.

  3. The only nice thing that I can say about roses is ‘job security’, and ‘clothing allowance’.
    I have one maintenance job and it is maintaining an e$tate ro$e garden. I would give this job up in a NY minute if I felt safe in this crappy arse economy.
    I don’t spray but use a systemic (Bayer 3 in 1) to go into battle with black spot, rust and mildew.
    Asking my client to forgo her precious hybrid teas is futile so I happily apply a systemic while ruining at least one shirt and a pair of pants a month while earning my living. Bleeding arms and punctured hands and fingers through leather gloves goes with the rose territory, …. but its all worth it , at least for my client, to have her lovely vases of roses in her beautifully decorated abode. We have dozens of other supposed disease resistant rose varieties and they are all just as high maintenance in one form or another.
    There are just so many other fine flowering plants that are just as beautiful and do not require the high maintenance time, special attention and bodily injury.

  4. Where I live (SE MI), I can certainly grow disease-resistant roses and I do have about 3 bushes. The bigger problem for me is that the rose chafer beetles and the Japanese beetles eat my rose leaves into shreds. I did discover that once I planted my climbing “Show Garden”, then all the Japanese beetles ate it instead of the pink Rugosa. I don’t want to spray insecticide. I do knock off the Japanese beetles but I rarely see the chafer beetles.

  5. I have no experience with rose chafers, but I can tell you that I haven’t had Japanese beetles in my garden for years. The secret is Milky Spore Disease. Once applied the disease remains in the soil killing grubs for decades. I have to admit this might not work so well in a less rural area if your neighbors have beetles.

  6. Poor gardener’s can’t afford to shop chain store’s for roses.
    Bayer’s products have been banned in Germany where it’s made.
    Rose breeders are broke cause they’ve got what no one wants.

  7. Thanks for tips on finding tough roses. I must say, though, I am pretty sick of Knockout roses. Some nurseries carry little else these days, and they’re just not that beautiful. I preferred my thorny old Pink Meidiland, which also got orange hips in the fall. And I’ve never had must trouble with Rugosas.

  8. My observation is that the reason for the declining interest in roses is because deer eat them. Gardeners have generally become more aware of disease resistant varieties. Now if someone could come up with a deer resistant rose then maybe we would have something.

  9. I moved to a house with tons more sun and decided to have some roses. It can be tough here in the humid MD climate, but I did a lot of research about disease resistance varieties. The most helpful advice (not surprisingly) came from local gardening lists. I am still in my first season and so far so good, though it has been an unusually good rose season for everyone locally this year.

  10. I couldn’t ever imagine not having roses in my garden. I’ve got Austins, Romanticas, an old tea, hybrid perpetuals & even 2 hybrid teas which I grow organically. While I might, might occasionally have to spray for powdery mildew in my zone 10 coastal So Cal garden, that’s rare. I did take out my climbing Polka though as I was getting tired of dragging my aging self up on a ladder to prune.

  11. In Minnesota the Buck roses and Knockouts aren’t fully hardy. A real Zone 4 winter (like last winter) will knock out either. Fortunately the Canadian Exporer series and Morden series are super tough, and relatively disease resistant, and some can supposedly grow even in Zone 2!

    We have Morden Blush and Winnipeg Parks, two Morden series roses in our front yard. They’re gorgeous, and I’ve never sprayed them. The M. Blush had a little black spot last year, but nothing serious, and cleaning up the dead leaves seems to have kept it away this year.

    Apparently the Morden series are based on a couple of species of wild prairie roses found on the steppes of western Canada and bred in Manitoba. If they can survive there, they ought to be able to survive most anything. The Canadian Explorer series was developed in Ontario, and is similarly tough. William Baffin is one of the most beautiful and abundant roses I’ve seen, and it thrives in Minnesota. Our neighbor has a huge one that has taken over a trellis and would grow taller if it could find something to grab on to. I’ve never seen them spray it. It’s a fantastic plant. If only all roses could be Canadian roses.

  12. Here in southern Ontario, I grow Rugosas, albas(once blooming), centifolias(also once blooming) and the amazing hybrid ramblers with their healthy foliage. I grow the ramblers as ground covers, and they bloom prodigiously! No winter protection and a lot of mulch in really dense red clay! They are astonishing in late June and early July and the rugosas continue on after the others are gone. Most set hips which are lovely in the fall. Mine cone from Pickering Nurseries, which I also used to buy from when I lived in MN, and as mentioned above the Morden and Explorer series are also great.Haven’t grown a hybrid tea in thirty years. Do yourself a favor and experiment with the old fashioned ones.

  13. I moved into a new home a year ago and there were already several roses planted. Way too many too close together and apparently only a couple (which look like some kind of rugosa) that are not affected by every disease or pest known to man and rose. I have pulled up several and just let the others fend for themselves. I hope to one day replace them with disease resistant kinds. So basically I have a rose “circle” that right now looks like a bunch of thorny sticks with a couple of rose buds on them! Benign neglect works for me.

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