Low-maintenance care for high-impact roses

Mentionrosesand visions come to mind of skinny, demanding, chemically dependent divas.

That stereotype is so last century.

Fromground covers to wall covers, flower pots to flower beds, easy-going roses serve as colorful, indefatigable workhorses in ever-increasing numbers of Central Ohio landscapes.

"If you had told me that I was going to sell you roses five years ago, I would have called you a liar," says Roger Seely Sr., owner of Seely's Landscape Nursery in Hilliard. "They are so hard to take care of."

That was before he tried Knock Out shrub roses.

Knock Out, Easy Elegance and other modern roses are bred for cold hardiness, disease resistance, prolific blooms and little care-if properly planted.

"What you have coming on the market are more environmentally friendly [roses]," says Paul Reiner, Oakland Nursery president. "That's what people want."

Seely is hooked. He uses several varieties of Knock Out roses in designs, pairing them with perennial flowers such as May Night salvia, Zagreb coreopsis and colorful conifers for year-round visual appeal.

Many of these low-care roseslack fragrance and have fewer petals and flatter flowers than traditional florist-type roses, known as hybrid teas. These don't pass what Reiner calls the "nightstand test"-a bloom you'd want on your lover's nightstand. (For that, he suggests Twilight Zone, Dark Night or Love Song varieties.)

Despite a few shortcomings, the popularity of low-care roses is due in part to a growing global demand for pest- and drought-resistant plants with minimal need for fertilizer or other inputs.

Actually, these "green" roses aren't so new. Considered garden royalty for millennia, roses generally were tough-as-nails bloomers with fabulous fragrance. One major drawback-many bloomed only once in spring or early summer.

Then came the mid-20th-century obsession with hybrid tea roses, bred for season-long, repeat flowering in a range of colors. Breeders focused almost exclusively on the flowers and ignored traits for plant vigor. To perform, these roses require a regime of pruning, spraying, fertilizing, watering and winter protection. It's no wonder that roses lost favor in a time-squeezed world.

Some low-maintenance rose varieties are growing in two public demonstration gardens in Central Ohio.

One is the collection of Easy Elegance roses at Chadwick Arboretum & Learning Gardens at Ohio State University, near Howlett Hall.

The largest selection, planted in 2006, is at the Columbus Park of Roses Earth-Kind demonstration garden, north of the shelter house in Whetstone Park. It was initiated and underwritten in large part by the late George Meiling,former treasurer of Bank One and passionate rose enthusiast.

The Earth-Kind garden is part of an ongoing Texas A&M University study aimed at finding roses with outstanding pest, heat and drought tolerance, plus great performance in various types of soil. Such roses are designated Earth-Kind for being easy on the environment-and gardeners.

After learning of the Texas project, Meiling persuaded the extension to add a northern test garden to prove hardiness, says Tina Bozzuto, Friends of Columbus Park of Roses volunteer coordinator. Among theEarth-Kind candidates are Sunny Knock Out, Buff Beauty and Dorcus, which were thriving with minimal care in Meiling's own garden before the project began.

While the review process continues, many of the Earth-Kind garden roses are succeeding so well that they are increasingly being used to replace old plants in memorial beds in the main rose garden. This reduces labor, pesticides and maintenance costs.

Despite their ability to thrive in Central Ohio's worrisome weather extremes, the flowers and sometimes the foliage oftough roses aresusceptible to Japanese beetle damage. Seely has also noticed that a small worm nibbles Knock Out rose leaves.

To cope, gardeners can turn to various sprays, whether organic or chemical-based.

Meiling tried several approaches to ward off insects, says his wife, Susy, but the best was a long vacation near the end of July when the critters are usually at their worst.Simply not seeing the damage was easiest for him.


Follow these suggestions from rose growers for the best chances of success.

• Plant roses in an area that is well-drained and receives at least six hours of full sun daily.

• Dig the planting hole 16 to 18 inches deep and a few inches wider than the container. Set soil aside and blend in compost. Place a 2- to 3-inch layer of gravel in the bottom of the hole to ensure good drainage. Remove the plant from its container, and make sure the top of the potting mix is even with the surrounding soil. Backfill the hole. Water well, and cover the area with a 2-inch layer of mulch.

• Water when the soil is dry1 inch below the surface.After the first year, a low-care rose needs little irrigation.

• Reduce Japanese beetle problems by killing the first to appear. These are scouts who draw others to your roses. One low-tox approach is to hold a can of soapy water under a branch while gently shaking it. Beetles drop into the water and drown.

• Give your Knock Out roses a little TLC for even better performance, suggests Roger Seely Sr. Prune out twiggy growth in early spring. Apply a slow-release (90-day), 14-14-14 sulfur-coated fertilizer with micronutrients. Monitor and treat for Japanese beetles, small leaf worms and other pests.

• No plant lives forever. Some early types of low-fuss roses have declined after many years of solid performance at the Columbus Park of Roses and some Central Ohio home gardens.