Roses have to earn their keep in my urban garden, just like every other plant I have. Space is at a premium, so I need there to be at least two months of floral and foliar interest from any given plant and prefer more if possible.
But my requirements for roses are not quite the same as what I read in industry and home gardening publications. An article in Fine Gardening from 2012 cites these criteria: easy to care for, disease resistant and suitable for different regions of the country. While there’s no question that such factors make sense for national trials, they are meaningless as far as I’m concerned. I’ve developed my own criteria.
The Licata rose standards:
Must be fragrant: This is a dealbreaker. Ideally I’d like every one of my roses to emit a full blast of that intoxicating sweet fruity slightly musky scent that I associate with this flower. But I’ll take a mild version of it—as long as there’s something. The most beautifully fragrant rose I have is David Austin’s Abraham Darby (at top).
Repeat blooms: I’m not looking for nonstop, but I’d like to see flowers on the plant from June through frost, accepting that the fullest flush will occur in mid June to early July. The most floriferous rose bush I have is again a David Austin: Darcey Bussell—but the blooms don’t last as long as other types. They’re gorgeous though.
Full, elegant form: Single types are interesting and in many cases quite beautiful, but I prefer full doubles, with the densely packed, cupped blooms typical of old roses.
Must be tall: That’s due to the type of garden I have, where plants have to compete in small spaces and most of the surrounding architecture is tall and narrow. An unknown red climber—maybe Don Juan—fulfills this criteria beautifully at twenty feet or better, depending on the season. (It died back to the ground one year but bounced right back.)
As for the hardiness and disease resistance, I don’t find these to be big worries. If a rose doesn’t make it through the winter, well, that happens. Disease has not been much of a factor. I spray nothing, but aside for a touch of black spot on the Darby, they seem to stay pretty healthy. They’re surrounded by other perennials, so I don’t need their foliage to be perfect.
It should be clear by this time that I have no interest in Knock Outs, Drifts, Look-a-likes or any of the other shrubs developed for landscapers and en masse plantings. They may be fine for commercial uses, but I can’t imagine giving them space in a small private garden.