Dear Tom Fischer,


Welcome to Garden Rant, where we love troublemakers! And we adore the books you publish there at Timber Press.

But to borrow a concept from New York Magazine, I’d like to offer a backlash to the backlash on roses.

Roses, in my opinion, are like spouses. Selecting the right one in the first place is much more important than managing one well afterwards.  A sturdy choice won’t need much fussing over.  And a lot of fussing won’t redeem a weak one.

I generally only buy roses that have stood the test of time. My favorites are always the ancient and super-hardy once-blooming Europeans.  (Is anything in life more beautiful than a full-grown ‘Madame Plantier’ or ‘Charles de Mills’ or ‘Empress Josephine’ or Madame Hardy’ or ‘Complicata’?) They did well for me even when I gardened exclusively in Zone 4.  But now that I’m in the banana belt of Zone 5, I have planted some later inventions, such ‘New Dawn,’ which is a young 80 years old.

None of these senior citizens requires any particular care. My roses never get a lick of special treatment from me, other than a shovelful of compost around the crown in late fall.

And it’s silly to deny that they add something special to the garden. I’m not much of a photographer, but I do have some photographic evidence.

Here, hiding the fact that my porch needs a paint job is an ancient climber called ‘Russelliana.’  The fuchsia color is so vibrant/gaudy/wonderful with my first Asiatic lilies that I ordered another last year from my favorite rose source, The Antique Rose Emporium, for the other side of the stairs. By the end of last summer, the canes of this one were just getting long enough to wrap around the porch post. Can’t wait to see this more integrated with the architecture in June.



Here, hiding the fact that my carriage house, too, could use some work, is ‘Climbing American Beauty.’  One insane flush in early June that lasts about ten days, and all we’re left with is tender memories.


Below is a science experiment.  I’m trying to turn the Hybrid Perpetual ‘Souvenir du Docteur Jamain’ into an ungrafted tree rose, since grafted tree roses are not hardy in my part of the world.  The photo was taken in year two.  As year three dawns, Dr. Jamain appears to be still alive and ready for even more sadistic pruning in spring.



Here is ‘New Dawn,’ an aggressive climber–in fact, a psychopath among plants that reaches over the fence to threaten the neighbor’s dog when it barks at my chickens and then tries to eviscerate me when I tie it to its trellis.  Also, I have no idea what to do with that pale flesh color in a color scheme.  An artist friend advised slate blue delphiniums.  Delphiniums, sigh.  Cost $12.50 apiece and couldn’t even wait politely for winter before kicking the bucket.  But no way am I yanking any plant that is reaching 15 feet in either direction and producing hundreds of big gorgeous flowers every July.  Not to mention, has violent tendencies.



Here, out in the country, guarding my vegetable garden, is my one concession to new-fangledness: the quarter-century old Canadian Explorer rose ‘William Baffin.’  The color’s on the obnoxious yellow side of pink.  But it is one of the few climbers with canes that will survive a Zone 4 winter. And I think it adds a cheerful note to the produce.



Here is my Zone 4 garden of yesteryear, as well as haircut and dog of yesteryear.

Cambridge rose
That rose bed was awfully lush and satisfying in a place where it routinely got down to below minus 30 on winter nights.

Yes, if you put a gun to my head, I’d probably pick lilies and tulips over roses. But that doesn’t mean that certain roses aren’t great plants.

I think we need to have a beer sometime, Tom, and grouse about bearded irises and peonies, which are overblown/ridiculous/embarrassing–yet somehow entrenched everywhere in my yard.




  1. Which all goes to make a point: In ANY given group of plants, there are spectacular ones, and terrible ones. (except: echinacea which are ALL UGLY. I don’t care if they are native and drought tolerant and all the rest. Still. Ugly. And the new orange ones are ugly AND whimpy.)

  2. Gardening is like a horserace- you get to make your picks and lay your money down. The obvious difference is in the different racetrack/gardens the race is run on and the winners each produces.

    Me? I’m an equal opportunity gardener – I’ll give almost anything the right to die in my garden.

  3. You’ve offered Mr. Fischer a very friendly and respectful difference of opinion. I hoep he reads this and takes you up on your invitation. While I’m not a particular fan of roses myself(mainly b/c of the short blooming period), I loved your perspective on them and the beautiful pictures. I am a closet peony-lover, though, so maybe I shouldn’t be so quick the judge the roses.

  4. Michele, if you’re still looking for delphiniums, Bluestone Perennials sells several varieties for a reasonable price. I’ve now grown close to a dozen different types of flowers from them, and they do very well in my zone 4 paradise. I’m looking forward to seeing my fall-planted delphies from them bloom in June!

  5. Good job defending roses ! I don’t dislike roses personally, but I am going forward with freeing myself of the self-imposed obligation to have the fussy hybrids I thought I would love. Someone else will hopefully enjoy them, while I find something that is drought-tolerant, hummingbird friendly, native and mostly maintenance-free. I’ll hang on to the rugosas, mostly for their disease-free beauty, but also because they’ve done so well I’d need a chainsaw to cut them out at this point.

    @ Joseph : I’ve always thought echinacea are gorgeous !! While I’m not a fan of the new neon day-glo varieties, the original purple coneflower is a fabulous accent to dry, hot gardens.

    @ Michele : If you’ve got lots of unwanted bearded irises, I’d be happy to take them off your hands !

  6. Michele–I’d be delighted to sit down with you over a beer (or maybe a Manhattan?) sometime. I certainly can’t refute the points you make, but I think a good part of my impatience with roses comes from the overblown, artificial look of the flowers. They seem to belong to a cottage-garden aesthetic that just doesn’t get my blood racing. And, at least in my part of the world, I think they keep gardeners from experimenting with exciting shrubs that are better suited to our modified Mediterranean climate. I’m glad you enjoy your roses, and they seem to make good sense in your garden. The West Coast offers different opportunities and challenges, and maybe eventually I’ll come full circle in my attitude toward roses. But for now, I plan to keep on exploring the brave new world I found when I moved here five years ago.

  7. I feel this way about music. Ever genre has a couple Achy-Breaky Hearts, but there is always a good one in there. Find me the right song and I’ll tell you I like Rap.

    Find me the right rose and I’ll declare my love.

    (And I love peonies – let me count the ways. I love the ants that climb all over their buds, and their trefoil leaf and their too big for their stems flowers. I love that they mark where the old farm houses used to be. They are one of the few herbaceous perennials that can out live the gardener. And I don’t know what I would bring to the cemetery on Memorial Day if not peonies.)

  8. Beautiful rebuttal, Michelle. I have no problem with the look of some roses — at least the ones I like (who wouldn’t welcome Lady Hillingdon or Veichenblau to any garden?) Sawfly larvae swiss-cheese the leaves of roses every year here without exception. I grow no other plant that looks so plagued. Spraying is out of the question. And roses require a rich diet and more water than this zone conscionably has to give. It’s a big country, though, isn’t it? (And what about a packet of larkspur seeds for your New Dawn?)

  9. I have named my Cl New Dawn ‘Darth Rose’ because of its lethal tendencies and aggressive growth habit. I have to whack it back at least 3 times a year to reclaim my clothesline. My husband jokes that it is the rose that covered Sleeping Beauty’s castle, and it’s true that the first time I braved a pruning, I discovered 3 lost princes, a couple of knights and four unhappy witches, tangled in its branches.

    But in my Zone 3-4-5 climate, I am happy to have any rose, especially a climber, grow and bloom with such enthusiasm. Yes, the color is totally blah, the flowers uninteresting and the fragrance pitiful, but hey — it still makes a glorious mass of …. uh, pale pink … in one neglected, shady corner of my someday-perennial border, for which I am grateful. I may try some delphiniums this year.

  10. A much more reasoned rant on roses! Thank you. As for Mr. Fischer’s comment, if I hadn’t already been snorting disdainfully over the comment about roses looking overblown and artificial, I might not have actually blown coffee out of my nose when I got to the part about Portland having a modified Mediterranean climate. Garden Rant continues to be good for a laugh.

  11. Michelle D., hilarious post!

    Maybe the difference is, my standards are lower because I’ve never been able to afford YOU to take care of my plants.

    Or maybe nothing bothers my plants because I settle for less highly bred varieties and accept a single moment of bloom.

    We do have Japanese beetles, but the once-blooming roses are largely finished by the time they appear.

    That said, I’m sure I will someday meet my end attempting to prune ‘New Dawn.’ I don’t just need gloves, I need a leather suit for that one.

  12. I’ve grown roses of various kind, but in the end the only rose I absolutely have to have is Rosa glauca. I’d grow it even if it didn’t bloom so lovely are it’s purple foliage, violet stems, and cinnabar hips. All the others demand too much water in our dry Seattle summers to look good.

  13. I had my own issues with roses. Mine was ‘Golden Celebration.’ It was my Pam from the True Blood TV series. Dressed up in pretty designer suits looking classic on the outside, with a cold-blooded streak to draw blood from me on the slightest whim, faster than I could figure out where I was punctured. She even went through my pig skin men’s work gloves like a vampire goes through a cotton turtleneck!!

  14. Michelle – I am right with you on roses. choosing the right rose, just as choosing the right perennial for the site and climate, is the key to success. Peter Kukielski, Curator of the NY Botanical Garden, pointed out that EarthKind roses are roses to consider when making a choice. I spoke to him last fall, and he explained that EarthKind is not a type of rose but a rose that has been tested by Texas A&M to be sturdy and fuss free. Peter has almost completed replanted the NYBG rose garden with disease resistant roses because NY State laws now forbid many traditional sprays etc. And some hybridizers, espcially in Germany where they are really serious about sustainable non-poisonous gardening, have been hybridizing disease resistant varieties for over two decades. Longer bloom periods too. I love Antique Rose Emporium too!

  15. As someone who has worked in the nursery business for more than 20 years and lives in Portland, I can say that roses have a love/hate
    reputation. If you don’t like roses then don’t plant them. If you do then
    drive down the 405 freeway all summer long. Studded with bionic gaudy ‘new’ everblooming shrub roses in alternating pink, red, and
    white. It looks like Cupid threw up.

  16. Michelle those are beautiful pictures.

    However, I will point out that though we share the same zone (5) roses just do not do well equally in all parts of the county. I live in Chicago and it is a rose killer for all but the most hardy. We just don’t have the same reliable snow cover (oftentimes Jan can mean freezing rain in lieu of snow) and I think that is a real deal breaker.

    I don’t hate them but I don’t particularly like them either but that’s because I’m looking at it from a fine gardening maintenance standpoint. After having to prune and pull out leaves from the crowns of dozen of roses for clients each year it’s pretty much ruined most of the experience of just plain enjoying them. I know that the Knockout Roses have taken a beating for being overused and commonplace but from a rose maintenance standpoint – they have less dieback (which means less pruning and training for me) and much higher disease resistence and much less aggressive thorns then some of their pickier friends.

  17. I also live in chicago metro area, and there are good years and bad years. I have learned to value cane hardiness, and realize that there are some varieties that even if the canes die, they are so vigorous they will spring back with a vengeance in the spring.
    I have also been rewarded by the rugosa roses which survive even when the canes are completely surrounded in ice.
    Unfortunately the severe japanese beetle problem here puts a damper on things from July through Sept.
    If I could find a way to keep critters from munching the canes over the winter, my once blooming antiques would be the way to go…

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