Saturday, October 29, 2011

An article from my weekly column years ago in the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News


David Austin’s ‘English Roses’ are a stroke of creative and botanical genius, combining the petal-packed form and soul-penetrating fragrances of once-blooming Old Roses, with the rich colors of repeat-blooming Modern Roses. One could easily dive headfirst into the sweet sumptuous blossom of the apricot-toned ‘Abraham Darby’, or linger nosefirst over the soft yellow, honey-scented ‘Mary Webb’. The deep garnet red and magenta blooms of ‘Othello’ are like porcelain bowls filled with a decadent Old Rose potpourri, while the snowy blossoms of ‘Fair Bianca’ mimic all summer long the classic white Damask rose ‘Mme. Hardy’ but offer a startling perfume of anise and gardenia! And the rich yellow ‘Graham Thomas’ draws us near with great golden clusters of tea-scented blooms atop tall sturdy canes. The English Roses offer a tempting and sensuous feast for the eye, nose and heart of gardeners who often think of roses as fussy, frail and short-lived.

And with good reason! Who among us has not purchased a rose that looked so stunning in its pot that its beauty made us grab our wallet or purse, almost against our will? And how many of us then watched it sadly decline, once out of a greenhouse and in our “real world” garden? Hey, we watched the perky gardening dude on PBS and tried his almost edible sounding elixirs, or donned a gas mask and radiation suit and (after shooing the kids out of the yard) sprayed every toxic pesticide the experts told us we HAD to use to grow roses in Colorado. Riddled with gardener’s guilt we avoided top watering, applied expensive systemic fertilizers, begged Rocky Flats for nuclear waste to control bugs and fungi with, and we STILL ended up with a funky looking bundle of twigs gracing a garden now toxic enough to be an EPA Superfund site! What gives?

Once again, “grafted” roses are to blame. As with most of the roses we’ve all struggled and failed with, the vast majority of David Austin’s ‘English Roses’ are sold to the public as grafted plants, that is, the pretty part bedecked with blooms sits atop a foreign rootstock, usually “Dr. Huey’ or sometimes ‘Manetti’, both grown in MILD climates in south Texas or southern California then shipped dormant in February to greenhouses with ideal conditions, in which they are grown to enticing perfection JUST in time to hook us gardeners salivating with spring fever. Once in the garden this surgically united chimera is expected to then thrive, which is pretty much like transplanting (grafting) a gorilla’s arm into John Elway’s shoulder socket in hopes he’ll throw better! For the last 50 years or so the public has had little choice but to buy grafted roses, their short lives compelling people to buy them over and over before at last giving up because “roses are hard to grow”. And many a Colorado gardener has been similarly burned by grafted ‘English Roses’, dreaming of beautiful blooms but seeing canes too thin to hold them up, the bush dying after a winter or two. Sadly, David Austin’s gorgeous creations soon had a nightmare reputation for being a new race of wimpy roses.

But as with so many other kinds of roses, ‘English Roses’ become healthy vibrant SHRUBS in Colorado gardens if grown on their “own roots” in healthy soil. Our grandmothers and great grandmothers grew “own root” roses they rooted from cuttings, often under a jar in the garden. If you’ve ever rooted a cutting of a coleus, you made your own “own root” coleus, and chances are it grew just fine. Similarly, “own root” roses, no longer shackled by a foreign root system stuck beneath the main stem, are free to express their innate vigor and hence become low care bushes in the landscape that just HAPPEN to bear gorgeous, deeply fragrant roses. As it should be!

Luckily, several Colorado nurseries now offer ‘English Roses’ on their “own roots” as word of mouth creates more and more demand for them. Just choose a spot with full sun (though ‘Graham Thomas’ can take a bit more shade than many roses due to the ‘Iceberg’ in its parentage), dig a deep hole about 20” across and 20” deep, fill it halfway with compost, then toss in 1 cup each of Epsom salts, Ironite and superphosphate , plus 2 cups of dry dog food nuggets (rich in bone meal, their decay releases nitrogen and other nutrients while feeding the earthworms).

Stir this mixture well, then lower the root ball of your “own root” English Rose so that it will be planted 4” to 6” deeper than it was in the pot. Fill the space around the root ball about halfway with woody waste, like bush trimmings or chipped branches from a tree trimming service. Then just fill the hole back up with most of the soil you took out when digging the hole till you have a low dome of soil that has “buried alive” the lower half of the rose. Then mulch the mound of soil, with that poor little rose barely protruding, with 4” of either alfalfa hay or the chipped tree branches to help keep the soil moist and cool between waterings. Water the whole shebang a good long while to settle the ‘English Rose’ into its new home, where it will likely grow for many years. And be patientown root roses use their first year to make a fine root system, then burst into life the next two summers as they mature. Just remember that turn-of-the-century saying about own root roses”First year they sleep, second year they creep, third year they leap!”

Why plant so deeply? Hey, we all plant tomato seedlings extra deep to encourage extra roots to form.own root roses do the same thing. Plus planting a rose way down protects the original root system from winter’s cruel cold and summer’s dry heat. What’s also cool about deep planting is that the bush can send up vigorous new growth in spring if the canes (branches) are nuked by an especially bad winter or by a crazed teenager expressing his or her youthful angst with a lawn mower.

Late each April give your ‘English Roses’ a good organic feeding some folks swear by horse manure “tea” (steep 1 part FRESH horse manure in 5 parts water for 2 weeks ) , about 1 gallon per rose, or 6 tablespoons of fish emulsion per gallon of water. Or you can just lightly sprinkle some poultry manure or sheep dooky all around each rose as a potent source of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, plus beneficial bacteria. An excellent but hard-to-find organic fertilizer teeming with disease-controlling beneficial bacteria is ‘Ringer Lawn Restore’one cup per small bush, or two cups per big established plants would be great. Give the entire garden a good long soak once a week, and keep it mulched with say 4” of those chipped tree branches. One cup of superphosphate sprinkled around each rose in July will help harden off the canes for the upcoming winter.

It’s easy to care for well-fed, own root ‘English Roses’, as their vigor will minimize bug and disease problems. A sharp blast of water from the garden hose nozzle will easily rid new growth of aphids each spring, and an old-fashioned, homemade lye soap spray will nuke powdery mildew and blackspot. Buy a bar of “Kirk’s Castile” soap, or better, (if you know someone in a southern state who will send you a few bars) is “Octagon” bar soap, that nasty brown soap grandma used on shirt collars or if she caught you cussing. For a small batch of soap spray, just rub the bar against a cheese grater, then dissolve 1 heaping tablespoon in 1 gallon of HOT tap water. Shake it a couple times per day, and in a day or two, pour it into a pump sprayer and just spray away till the rose plant is dripping. Repeat in 7-10 days. (Lye soap spray also works wonders for powdery mildew on monarda, phlox and lilacs.) Growing your roses organically like this lets you use the petals mixed with fresh or dried mint to brew some utterly delicious herb teas. (NEVER use rose petals or hips in the kitchen if you poison your roses with systemics or sprays! ).

Indulge yourself this spring with a few of the English Roses listed here known to grow well in metro Denver, Boulder and Colorado Springs. And let’s give thanks to David Austin for his vision and 40 years of dedicated and insightful rose breeding, for he has given us all a perfect blend of the very best of the old and new to grace our gardens, and to fill our homes with color and delicious fragrances.


Graham Thomas 1983

Tamora 1983

Mary Webb 1984

Abraham Darby 1985

Charles Austin 1973

Constance Spry 1961

St. Cecelia 1987

Proud Titania 1982

Ellen 1984

Leander 1982

Fisherman’s Friend 1988

The Pilgrim 1991

Gertrude Jekyll 1986

Belle Story 1984

Charles Rennie MacKintosh 1988

Evelyn 1991

Fair Bianca 1982

Heritage 1984

Jacquenetta 1983

Mary Rose 1983

Othello 1986

Queen Nefertiti 1988

Red Coat 1973

Sweet Juliet 1989

The Squire 1977

Wife of Bath 1969

William Shakespeare 1987

Windrush 1984

Moonbeam 1983

Symphony 1986

Yellow Charles Austin 1981




Harlequin Market

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The October Cool Down Is Here!

Not only are my winter veggies thriving, roses that sulked in the record-breaking heat this summer are sighing with relief and budding and blooming. What a joy to see and smell blossoms on 'Baronne Prevost', Fairmount Cemetery treasures "Jo An's Pink Perpetual" and "Fairmount Proserpine", my own hybrids 'Sarasota Spice' and 'Gold Blush' (both sold by The Antique Rose Emporium in Texas), 'Teasing Georgia', 'Mme. Antoine Marie', "Maggie", 'Cramoisi Superieur', 'Archduke Charles', R. bracteata, 'Marechal Neil', 'Belinda's Dream', 'Duchesse de Brabant', and 'Graham Thomas'. John

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Hey "Grouchy"

I tried to contact you via Google, did not work. The autumn cool down is here.....ready for those cuttings of "Barfield White Climber"?  Those cuttings you sent me to try again?  John

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Answer to a blog reader about my pink Rambler derived from Blush Noisette

Thanks Alice!  I like my for-Florida hybrids to have a direct Florida reference in the name, like my 'Sarasota Spice' sold by The Antique Rose Emporium and 'Gainesville Garnet', both of which you can see at my Breeder page at   For months now Google will not let me respond directly to comments but I will try again, though I will likely have to cut and paste it as a new posting. John

Spider Mites

Hi John,

I read your article about organic roses in Florida Gardening. I live in South Tampa and I have about 9 Knockout roses. I have continually had a problem with spider mites -- one year, they killed most of my bushes. How can I treat this organically?

Thank you,
Hi Carroll,
I don't grow that rose but I've never had a problem with spider mites on my roses or those of my landscape clients since 1989, I believe due to the all-organic soil feeding regimen I use, and the presence of many beneficial predatory organisms. A short term solution is to simply blast them off the plants with a sharp stream of water from your garden hose, being sure to hit the undersides of the leaves. Plus you can spray the plants until they are dripping with the Kirk's castile soap solution (recipe in older postings here), again being sure to spray the undersides of the leaves where the mites reside.

I am curious...what do you feed the soil around your roses?