Wednesday, September 15, 2010

2005 article from my old Rocky Mountain News column (relevant to cold climate regions)

by John Starnes

Roses are a real pain to grow……….everybody knows THAT! Be they purchased as cheap bare-root roses, or as expensive gorgeous potted specimens in full bloom, they promise colorful fragrance but usually deliver disappointment and guilt. We’re told they demand systemic insecticides and fungal sprays and powders (more guilt as we poison the environment) so we comply only to once again end up with sickly twigs whose only color is the perky plastic label hanging on long after all the leaves fall off. Each and every summer, roses prove you are a plant murderer with a "brown thumb". Roses are "expensive annuals"………..everybody knows THAT!
And I agree with all this….about GRAFTED roses, which until recently was all the public could buy.

For the ease and profit margin of big growers in frost free regions of southern Texas and southern California, "grafted roses" are mass-produced by surgically attaching (grafting) pieces of a desirable rose variety ( say ‘Peace’ or ‘Baronne Prevost’ or ‘Graham Thomas’) onto the root system of an easily grown primitive rose, usually ‘Dr. Huey’, which is the lanky red rose that comes up where you KNOW you planted a rose of a different color! Shipped as dormant bare root plants to Colorado in early spring then quickly grown to enticing perfection in cozy greenhouses in time for the "Spring Fever Shopping Frenzy" we all plunge into like salmon in a stream, grafted roses are like all those shiny new 1972 Vegas that broke down a few miles from the dealership….pretty enough to buy but hardly designed to be a lasting value.

But "Own Root Roses", like our grandmothers grew from cuttings they rooted under jars, while small and unimpressive initially, are the Toyotas of the rose world. We’ve all seen them thriving every summer in quaint neighborhoods, old cemeteries and private gardens. Due to their reliability and longevity, "Own Root Roses" are being planted in great numbers at the Denver Zoo by Director of Horticulture Merle Moore, who also has been director of the Denver Botanic Gardens…he knows his stuff!

Choose a full sun location, and plant your own root rose deeply in a big hole improved with a lot of compost and a couple handfuls of superphosphate or bone meal. Cover it all with a couple inches of the heavy clay soil you removed when digging the hole, apply a few inches of mulch, water deeply, then get on with your busy life. So planted, an own-root rose will barely protrude above the soil line and hence look a little silly, but it will spend that first season developing an admirable root system. Like all woody perennials, own root roses are slow at first but mature in their third year in the garden, hence the charming turn-of-the-century truism about them…"First year they sleep, second year they creep, third year they leap!"

All they need is a lot of sunshine, a pruning late each April to remove winter damage, a late April feeding of organics (I like 1 cup each of kelp meal, Ringer Lawn Restore, epsom salts, alfalfa pellets, fresh horse poop plus one cup of ‘Calf Manna’ from a feedstore) and 3-4 deep waterings per month. My favorite mulch for them is the chipped branches from a tree trimming service A simple soap spray made from a bar of ‘Kirk’s Castile’ or "Octagon Soap’ is the only pesticide I use to control aphids and blackspot and mildew in my clients’ rose gardens, or my own collection of approximately 130 varieties of own root roses, so the petals and hips are safe to use in the kitchen. Not weakened by being grafted onto a foreign root system, they will settle in for decades of life in your landscape, blessing you with the fragrant charm and grace only roses can offer the eye, nose and heart.

Until recently, "own root roses" were very hard to acquire unless one, like me, was an obsessed rosarian who’d scoured the U.S. for obscure little catalogs. But widespread disdain for grafted roses, and the growing, glowing reputation of easy-to-grow "Own Root Roses", has happily resulted in several Colorado nurseries offering over 200 varieties of Old-Fashioned and Modern Roses on their own roots this spring! So ignore the big flashy "Elvis" roses grafted onto their platform shoes for extra height, and treat yourself to the reliable, smaller-at-first "Own Root Roses" that will be a joy to grow, organically, year after year. As you improve with age, so will they!

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