Roses: Phooey


Guest Rant by Tom Fischer, editor-in-chief of Timber Press

I live in Portland, Oregon, one of whose nicknames is “the City of Roses.” Why, I often wonder, couldn’t we be the City of Ferns, or the City of Large, Imposing Conifers, or even the City of Hardy Geraniums? All those plants do quite well here, and most of the time they look a hell of lot better than the FischerRose bedlocal roses.

Maybe it’s just this thing I have against plants that can draw blood, but it made perfect sense to me when the late, great Christopher Lloyd tore out the decades-old rose garden at Great Dixter and planted cannas, dahlias, and hardy bananas. Why wouldn’t you trade a bunch of disease-prone, blobby shrubs for a scene of tropical exuberance? In fact, one of the first things I did after moving into my house was to dig up a bunch of ‘Iceberg’ roses growing along the front path and throw them away. It felt good.

Oh, I know what the rose-lovers will say—the fragrance, the romance, the long blooming period, blah blah blah. (OK, I’ll grant you that there are some roses that smell pretty good. But not so good that they’d make me dig up a daphne.) They’ll say they don’t all get black spot and powdery mildew, and that one or two actually have foliage that you might, in a charitable mood, call interesting. Whatever. (And yes, I know about Rosa glauca; I used to grow it.)

My problem with roses goes beyond the fact that for a third of the year you’re looking at thorny sticks. Assuming that their main function is to produce flowers—rather than to serve as a noble example of form, or a paragon or foliar beauty—what is it that you’re getting? A rather large wad of petals that looks at home only in the company of other highly bred flowers, in a highly traditional setting. (We won’t even talk about that monstrosity, the rose garden, where the thorny stickiness—or sticky thorniness—of the individual plants is unrelieved.)

But, you will object, what about single roses? What about the unimproved species? I’ll give you some points there, and for the varieties that produce attractive hips. I still harbor a few glowing embers of affection for Rosa chinensis ‘Mutabilis’, a single whose flowers start out peach-color and gradually turn a deep coppery pink, and ‘Darlow’s Enigma’, a large shrub that bears dense tresses of small, white, sweetly perfumed flowers all season (and doesn’t need deadheading). But I wouldn’t give either one space in my garden nowadays. I have yet to encounter a rose that I would plant for the beauty of its overall outline, or for its textural interest. They contribute just one note to the garden, and if you like that note, then great. But I want a symphony.

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So, if not roses, what? For voluptuous flowers and good foliage, Paeonia rockii. For warm color in early summer, flame azalea (Rhododendron calendulaceum). For fragrance, most daphnes, sweet azalea (Rhododendron arborescens), Korean spice viburnum (V. carlesii), or (West Coast and South) osmanthus and gardenias. For architectural form, doublefile viburnum (V. plicatum f. tomentosum ‘Mariesii’), witch hazels (Hamamelis spp.), pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia), or (West Coast) manzanitas (Arctostaphylos spp.). For superb foliage, clumping bamboos (Fargesia spp.), dwarf fothergilla (F. gardenii), or oakleaf hydrangea (H. quercifolia). A garden full of these beauties would be, oh, about a thousand times more interesting than a garden full of roses.

So I urge you to follow Christopher Lloyd’s excellent example: get rid of ’em.

Tom’s new book, The Gardener’s Color Palette, will be released by Timber Press on February 16. He has also launched a website,, for the hopelessly plant-addicted.

Top photo by Tom Fischer. In collage, Paeonia rockii by AnnaKika. Oakleaf hydrangea, Flame azalea and Doublefile viburnum by Susan Harris.


  1. Outstanding rant! Visitors to our 6-acre campus garden often ask “Where is your rose garden?”. Not on my watch, lady (or gent).

    p.s. “Phooey” is one of my favorite words to see in print.

  2. I don’tsay “phooey” to any flower that can be blooming in November in zone 5!

    You don’t have to make a “rose garden” to enjoy roses. Weave them through the perennials. They are always a welcome surprise in my garden!

  3. I love my roses. I’m in zone 3b and I have 5 hardy shrub roses (rugosa and explorer). They bloom profusely all season, have no disease and aren’t stuffy (formal). They are the lowest maintenance plants I own.

    I love them so much that I’m getting more this spring.

    The bare stick thing is irrelevant here because all winter they are piled high with snow.

  4. Other than wild roses growing in a native prairie setting, I just don’t “get” the attraction. Cramming evermore petals onto a thorny stick is both a bizarre goal and a bizarre interpretation of beauty.

    When looking downward at most rose blooms, the petal density resembles a bucket of dew worms.

  5. If it takes chemical warfare to look good, it just isn’t worth it! My first move on buying my house was to rip out every mildew coated rose and green bin them. But since I rather like the look of spines and thorns I replaced them with cacti and aggressive looking succulents. I get blooms year round, amazing structure and sunlit spines (at least when it isn’t raining all winter long).

  6. Yay. I am so with you. (Though I am deeply shocked that an editor at Timber Press would be so bold as to utter such heresy in Portland, Land O Roses by name.)

    I’ve always wondered about the allure of growing a huge bed of thorny sticks. I admit that the first time I visited the much-lauded Portland Rose Test Garden I was initially excited at the sight of all the purty flowers. But geeze — not a fragrant one in the bunch. Wot’s the point!?!

    I have ripped out plenty of roses, but mostly they get the dwindles, here east of the mountains, and save me the trouble. The few that survive my lackadaisical watering and fertilizing and my pretty much lack of proper pruning are enjoyed for their fragrance. But the rest are either et by the *&^^%$% bambis, unlamented, or ripped out by the roots and sent off the city composting facility. So satisfying.

  7. With roses like those in the photo (in soggy, compacted, unmulched soil), it’s not surprising that so many people need so many chemicals to keep the plants healthy. I have 3 roses in large containers, all mulched with arborist wood chips. No weeds, no black spot, no chemicals. A blast of water keeps the aphids off the new buds.
    I wish more people would use a coarse organic mulch on their rose beds. While it doesn’t look as “manicured,” it does keep the soil – and the roses – a lot healthier.

  8. LOL! I understand, and yet, I love pruning them. It’s ‘cut’hartic. I live in PDX too and find it interesting that it is the ‘Rose City’ when there are other cities where roses have a much longer blooming time. Moss City, Fern City.. those would be more appropriate. Either way, it is a beautiful city. 😀

  9. Thanks, Tom. I know the feeling. I’m easing-up on a long term aversion to roses. It’s about time. Years ago I spent 2 hateful months, hand digging a large rose garden on a pointless landscape renovation. Later, in the same year, I spent time as a propagator sticking cuttings (bare handed!) on a hideous little dwarf Rose called ‘Pom Pom de Paris’. I’ve been 30 years in recovery, but I fell off the wagon last year and planted Rosa ‘Sombreuil’, tempted in part by the luscious description of a New Orleans gardener, who wrote and swore it was, “…very lovely white (palest pink to white) fragrant, disease resistant and easy to train.” My wife Rose (Cooper) Bush has been impossible to train, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed on ‘Sombreuil’.

  10. I inherited 5 sickly roses with the house I’m in now. Two of them remain.

    It is sort of live and let live right now, because I do appreciate having a thorny bush fanning out in front of the living room window. As long as I snip off the dead flowerheads it blooms, minds its own business and isn’t terribly demanding.

    If that was space I was considering planting food in, forget it. The roses would be out. Or I could put in a Rosa rugosa for its hippy goodness.

  11. I share the same general sentiments, though with much less certitude (just recently planted ‘Crepuscule’ waay in the back). I resolve never again, only to relapse every few years. No rhythm, pattern or grace to their shape as shrubs, don’t want KOs or Iceberg for “color.” But the climbers, esp. the tea-noisettes for zone 10 — hard to say no. But now they’re tucked away so as you hardly know they’re there, definitely not center stage.

  12. I love my roses, but I plant them with many other perennials and even vegetables. Where we ran into trouble was with the Hybrid Teas, those languishing maidens who need to be on respirators in order to stay healthy and bloom. I saw the rose garden in Portland. It was very pretty, but impractical much like our rose garden in Oklahoma City. I say plant a few roses which thrive in one’s climate. Then, don’t spray. Live with a bit of blackspot. I do love ‘Mutabilis’, along with ‘Cliffs of Dover’, ‘Sophy’s Rose’, ‘Carefree Beauty’ and ‘The Fairy.’ All do well in my garden. The Knockout family does too.

  13. I live in Vancouver, WA. just south of Portland about 15 minutes and with the same climate. I am a voracious fan of roses and think they are well worth all of the work they involve. Isn’t gardening a labor of love, rather than taking the easy way out? I do not care for the formal rose garden but I have some excellent examples of old garden roses as well as vintage hybrid teas, chinas and moss roses. You mentioned the Mutabilis, truly my favorite rose. It is very wild looking and needs very little attention. It’s flowers are a magnificent mix of colors that changes overnight from pales pinks to magentas to yellows and peaches. I am a confirmed cottage gardener and roses are an essential addition to my perennials and self sowing annuals. I have lilies and daylilies but that is as tropical as I get. I will be adding (as finances allow) approximately 40 roses to my cutting garden this year, which will increase my total to over 60. My favorite resource is Vintage Gardens, you should check out his blog “nakedintheroses” as he does what it seems a good portion of you dislike, pruning and tending to his 4,000 roses. If a rose is put in the proper location there is, in my humble opinion, no greater beauty. I have moved roses 3 times in order to find the best home for them and I will continue to devote as much time to them as I do all 50 of my perennial beds. Feel free to visit my new blog as I begin my way through another year of 30+ hours of work a week in my beloved gardens. tangledgardens.blogspot

  14. The weaving of roses thru perennial beds sounds terribly painful. I am always standing on my head, balancing on one foot on all fours pulling weeds, deadheading, mulching, etc and the one rose bush I have that suckers is always inflicting nasty scratches. Was in Portland once. Dragged my traveling companion to the Japanese garden, (absolutely wonderful, inspired me to try cloud pruning), and the rose garden. Yawn.

  15. Love your rant Tom! I am a fellow Portlander who wishes that we could have a different “name” for our city (I hail from the “Lilac City” – Spokane, WA…such a classier shrub!). My husband and I tore out the roses the day we moved into our house. Hate them! I’m glad to know I am in good company! I plan to attend the bash at Garden Fever this Sunday celebrating the new releases, see you there!

  16. I’m going to be re-thinking my appreciation of Timber Press after this. Yes, roses are messy. They get annoying diseases. They are susceptible to bugs. And they occasionally make you bleed. They’re a lot like children that way, only they are often more dependable and god knows, they smell way better. I almost got in an accident the other day as I drove past a house with a gorgeous yellow rose in full bloom. In January! I can guarantee you I’ve never braked for a daphne. Another house down the street from me has their front yard stuffed with roses and it looks stunning ten months out of the year. The other two months I consider months of anticipation, not deprivation. Maybe I’m nuts but my plan is for more roses this year, not less.

  17. I’ve always felt obliged to have roses for many reasons – it’s part of my name, my home is in a town named for the thorny shrub, it’s tradition, my first gardening mentor in this climate was crazy for them, they smell good & look pretty…

    Now your post has me thinking – do I really enjoy them ? Or are they a burden, something no one who sees my yard would miss if they disappeared ? I’ve long thought they don’t really “go” in my landscape plans, but kept them out of obligation.

    The ‘Don Juan’ & ‘Joseph’s Coat’ climbers are certainly thorns in my side. Disease-prone. Unsuited to soil I’m unwilling to further amend. Difficult to train ( for me, at least ). The rugosas are much nicer, fairly trouble-free & a good home for birds once they’ve leafed out. Plus they remind me of the wild ‘dog roses’ that hugged the fence lines of my childhood home. Mutabilis might suit, too, though I doubt I have space for it.

    Think I’ll pull out those climbers, find a better owner for them hopefully. I’ve been coveting those spaces for friendlier perennials anyway …

  18. Huzzah! Death to roses! People always ask me why I don’t have any, then tell me I should get some. Really? Maybe YOU should get some and leave me the heck alone. Ugly. Boring. Painful. Waste of space. How many insects like tham anyway? Three? And I’m talking three total, like three bumblebees or something. Anything but roses. Even daylilies (my god, did I just say that?).

  19. I sit here looking down at my wounded left hand that I may have to see the doctor about.
    It is all because of a rose thorn.
    Every year I do the major rose pruning for a large formal rose garden.
    I appreciate the financial compensation but that is all that I appreciate about a rose garden.

    Personally, I can’t stand gardening with these viciously thorny plants that have to be pampered to ward off black spot, rust and aphids.

    The only good thing about them is that they provide job $ecurity to the garden horticulturist.

  20. I definitely don’t disagree- with one exception: Therese Bugnet, a hardy as heck rugosa. The only reason I grow this rose is for its red sticks in the cold winter. It looks great now next to the yellow twig dogwood in a shrub border. Double duty is a necessity in my small garden.

  21. Here here! I once allowed myself to be convinced to plant roses in a small garden we have off of a patio. What a mistake. The roses never looked good. Before we had the roses, we never had japanese beetles in our yard. Now, the rose bushes are long gone, but the beetles remain.

  22. I hear you…. But…. come on sunny knock out and I like the other Therese Bugnet comment – red sticks in winter are eye candy when it is cold out. I suggest rose bushes as #giftsforgardeners on twitter… as shower gifts, wedding gifts and rememberances. No other plant would fit the bill.

  23. While I frequently lick my wounds from rose pruning (Gertrude J,I’m looking at you!), it’s one of the ways in which I make my living. I’ve got several roses:Austins, Hybrid P’s, Romanticas, even 1 H-T in my personal garden. Nothing beats the scent of a good rose & here in coastal Los Angeles, I have few problems. I wouldn’t ever give them up. That said, roses are not for everyone & I don’t always plant them in clients’ gardens.

  24. I agree that rose gardens are ugly, as are hybrid teas, but climbers are awesome, and I really like the “root stock rose” (whatever it is that comes up when you kill the top of a grafted rose, which I have done often), because it has a nice, velvety dark red color that I’ve had a hard time matching with other flowers. It’s also really hardy, which is probably why it’s the root stock.

  25. Heather, the rootstock is called ‘Dr. Huey.’

    Check out also ‘Tuscany’ and ‘Souvenir du Docteur Jamain.’

  26. I agree in principle, but gosh do I love the ratty shrub rose I inherited with my house in zone 4. The white blooms flop listlessly, I swear it has the ability to shoot thorns, and it looks spiny and ugly and downright mean in the little island I’ve put around it so I don’t have to venture too close to work on anything else. But it is by far the hardiest, most maintenance-free plant I’ve ever encountered, and when it’s in bloom the scent will stop you in your tracks the moment you step outside. I don’t even like floral scents, usually (I know, heresy!), but this one … man. I just park myself in a comfy chair safely out of shooting-thorn range and breathe. Wouldn’t give it up for the world.

  27. Wow! What a rant! I can understand your distress in the Pacific Norhtwest, but some of us live where there is more sun – and some of us have found wonderful disease resistant roses. As for bloom times – would you banish strawberries because they only fruit for a short time? I think not.

  28. Sorry–late to the party. Oh, by all means, rip ’em up! And I need to cut down that towering White Oak, too. It’s soooo un-ornimental what with the dead leaves hanging on so tenaciously and so bare for months at a time! And those messy, unsightly honeysuckle vines! Who cares that they’re a mass of vibrant bloom with a scent that could break your heart! They’re not always in bloom, so what’s the point in having it hanging around?

    Over-hybridized to the point of frailty, having to be sprayed for something every month of the year roses? I can see your point about those. But one day, my tiny twig of a Rosa Alba will be a mighty bush, covered with single, fragrant white blossoms. A show like that is worth waiting for.

  29. So, Christopher Lloyd did not like roses, and everybody takes roses out of their gardens?. But Lloyd indeed had roses-old garden roses-growing at Great Dixter. So???.

    The best gardeners have always been great rosarians: Miss Jekyll, Vita Sackville-West, Elizabeth Lawrence, Graham Thomas, Penelope Hobhouse……and so on.

    Growing roses needs special skill and knowlegde. I guess it is easier not to bother about studying the matter.

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