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Me, Grow Roses?!

By Marty Nemko

Me, Grow Roses?

by Marty Nemko

What comes to mind when you see the words: “taking care of a rose bush”? Dowagers pruning thorny, leggy plant skeletons? Codgers shooting shrubs with an arsenal of chemicals that would do Saddam Hussein proud?

Those used to be my images, but I’ve grown to see roses in a new light. With a little Mensan smarts, growing roses can be easy and rewarding: providing a long-lived blooming machine, requiring almost no care. Here’s the world’s shortest course in rose growing roses for maximum pleasure--with minimum sweat..

Choosing Your Baby

When buying a dog, you don’t say, I’ll just pick one at random. You pick a breed, because you know a pit bull will likely behave differently from a golden retriever. Same with roses. Some roses produce a few show-stopping flowers a year, but most of the time, the plant is a fungus-defoliated, thorny thicket. Other cultivars are healthy plants but their flowers are no more attractive than a marigold.

No rose bush is perfect: breathtaking, fragrant flowers in massive quantity, blooming nonstop through the season on an iron-clad, compact, glossy-foliaged plant. As in life, even with spouses, we must make compromises.

The varieties below have these crucial attributes:

§ They look good without spraying. Today, ever fewer people want their playtime to include breathing chemicals and releasing them into the environment.

§ In most areas of the country, they look attractive throughout the growing season: They’re frequently in bloom, and when not, are well-clothed with glossy foliage on a compact, not-leggy plant.

In exchange for those attributes, I had to trade two others:

§ Fragrance. People say they want fragrance in a rose bush, but in fact, they rarely smell the roses.

§ Flower form. The most beautiful roses have that classic form you see in cut roses you buy for Valentines Day. The following roses won’t win any blue ribbons at rose shows, but still are attractive.

This list is drawn both from my experience and my interviews of three of the world’s leading rose breeders: Keith Zary of Jackson & Perkins, Tom Carruth of Weeks Roses, and Ping Lim of Bailey’s Nurseries, plus Jacques Ferare, Director of Research for Star Roses.

If you can’t find these roses at your local nursery, you can find online and mail order sources at


Ivory Drift. 1 1/2’ x 1 1/2’.

Snowcone Unlike many white flowers that eventually blemish, these stay white. 2 ft. x 2 ft.

Pretty Lady Pinkish white. Beautiful in bud, but opens quickly. 4’-foot upright shrub.


Queen Mother Luminescent, well-formed 10-15-petaled pink 2” flowers cover the glossy-leafed,vigorous yet rounded 3’ shrub. Always in bloom. My personal favorite.

Wild Thing. Bright deep pink. Flowers on a sprawling 4’ x 5’ shrub, lending itself to informal gardens and mass plantings.

Flower Carpet A groundcover with terrific foliage: dark, green, glossy, dense. Its production of small neon pink flowers shuts down in hot weather.

Bonica. Free-flowering pink 3’ shrub.

Electric Blanket. Coral pink groundcover.

Carefree Delight. Tiny flowers cover a 4-foot shrub.

Little Mischief. Good for front border, low hedge, container.


Yellow Submarine. A bit of that classic rose form. 2-3-foot shrub.

Smooth Buttercup. Thornless. Prolific bloomer on a 3’ x 3’ shrub. It fades less than most yellows.


Home Run. True red, heavy bloomer, compact shrub.

Knock Out. Rose red. 3' x 4' shrub.

Red Flower Carpet. 1’ x 3’groundcover. Brilliant red. Glossy foliage.


You can plant roses virtually any time, although it’s best in spring, after the last frost. In frost-free areas, January is the best month for planting.

Give your rose a good home: In a spot that will get at least a half-day’s sun, enrich an 18” cube of soil with 1/3 redwood or other long-lasting compost. Plant your rose in that, and it will be happy for years.

Roses like water, but they’re not piggy. If your roses are on a drip system—a lazyperson’s delight--each rose plant just needs one emitter. Use a “Dial-a-Flo” type: it has an adjustable-flow circle-pattern sprinkler head on a built-in 5” stake. Open it to it’s maximum spray diameter (about 8-12”) These emitters are widely available for about a buck.

Feed ‘em. If you’re lazy like me, use time-release fertilizer. Select a formulation (3 month, six-month or 9-month) that will last the length of your growing season. Feed just once at the beginning of your growing season and that’s it. If your rose is on a drip watering system, be sure to put the fertilizer where it will get watered.


A rose bush can be an antidote to life’s ever faster and more intellectualized existence, and a reminder of the cycle of life. From winter’s lifeless sticks spring spring’s reminders of renewal followed by summer’s vibrant blooms, slowly fading in fall, and yielding to winter’s enforced coma, after which it is born again the next spring. The cycle repeats for many years, offering great joy to all who slow down to watch and play with it.

Dr. Nemko has hybridized 60,000 roses, evaluated thousands of additional varieties across the nation, and in the last two years, six of his cultivars have been commercially introduced by Bailey Nurseries, one of the world’s leading developers of easy-care roses. His articles on rose growing and breeding have appeared in such publication as the American Rose Magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle. Roses are merely one of his sidelines. 500 of his published articles--mostly on career matters--are free at

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