Fine Fall Roses
Expert advice from the director of Fuller Gardens
If you want to see 2,000 roses in spectacular bloom, Fuller Gardens in North Hampton, New Hampshire, is the place to go. All summer long, visitors stop to smell the roses, marvel over their myriad colors and forms, and learn about old favorites and new cultivars. After Labor Day, the number of sightseers tends to decrease, but that is not because there are fewer roses to see. As garden director Jamie Colen points out, most of those 2,000 roses continue blooming right up to the first frost.
What makes them flourish well into the fall is not some potent flower-inducing concoction. Colen’s rose care regimen does not include many stimulants, and fertilizer applications (always organic) stop at the end of July. Instead, he works with the innate characteristics of roses, especially those bred for hardiness, disease resistance, and multiple periods of bloom during the growing season.
Like all roses, these produce seed-bearing rosehips after flowering, but with repeat bloomers, deadheading after each bloom cycle interrupts the reproductive process and encourages the roses to flower again. As a result, most varieties in Fuller’s rose gardens have three or four periods of flowering, starting in June. By the end of August, however, deadheading stops, and from September into October, the roses are left to flower and finally go to seed. Removing petals from spent flowers helps rosehips develop. As the hips ripen, plant growth slows down naturally until the roses go dormant for the winter.
Since Fuller Gardens is on the coast—the Atlantic is a stone’s throw away—coastal gardeners who cultivate roses can take some further cues from Colen, whose methods are so obviously successful. Of these, plant siting, or finding the right plant for the right place, is absolutely critical, he says. A garden where oaks have been growing for 100 years will not be hospitable to roses. A coastal garden, on the other hand, can be just as good a site as an inland garden if it is in full sun with at least six hours a day of sunlight and if the soil is just so.
That means that its pH level must be between 5.9 and 6.8, which Colen achieves by sweetening the soil with dehydrated cow manure. “Feed the soil so the soil feeds the plants” is an oft-quoted mantra of his. “No bark mulch” is another basic rule: it is acidic and ultimately lethal for roses. And what about weeds? Tending the soil regularly with a four-pronged cultivator, which also aerates the soil, keeps them out. That and a pair of good clippers are the main must-have tools for the rose gardener, he adds.
Colen also points out that roses grow best in a plot dedicated exclusively to them. True, they can be grown with companion plantings—who does not love the “cottage garden” look? But while many plants may thrive among roses, roses are high-energy plants with specific nutritional needs that must be met for them to perform at their peak. A rose in a perennial garden may bloom nicely—once; repeat-blooming roses in their own garden will flower abundantly again and again.
Keeping roses disease- and bug-free is another challenge for gardeners. When it comes to pesticides, Colen is clear: “Don’t use them.” They kill the good bugs and the bad ones indiscriminately, and since bad bugs, such as aphids, are much more numerous than good bugs, such as lady bugs, which prey on them, pesticides can have the opposite effect from the intended one. As for preventing disease—applying potassium bicarbonate does the trick, adding micronutrients while keeping fungus at bay.
Of course, some things are out of a gardener’s control. In New England, that means the weather. Last winter was as harsh at Fuller Gardens as it was elsewhere in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine. By Colen’s count, 325 roses died. The culprit was not all the snow we had, though the epic dumps did cause many branches to break. Rather, it was the deep freeze that set in before the snow fell that did in the plants. Without the additional insulation snow provides, the roses, Colen says, “didn’t have a chance.”
To improve their chances for winter survival, Colen offers the following tips for fall rose care:
1. Stop deadheading at the end of August: this allows the roses’ energy to go into producing rosehips, which in turn signal the plant that it is time to slow down.
2. Stop pruning at that time as well: new pruning wounds would not have time to heal.
3. After the first frost, tie up rose canes loosely: doing so prevents them from flopping, splitting, and snapping.
4. After the ground freezes, mound about half a wheelbarrow of soil around each rose bush: this helps protect them until the snow falls.
5. Hope for snow, though maybe not as much as last winter. A thick blanket all season will suffice.
And then, when the snow does fly and you are studying plant catalogs and dreaming about planting roses next spring, Colen has suggestions for some that thrive on the coast.
For hardiness, Rosa rugosa hybrids can hardly be beat. “Just pick a color and go for it,” he says. But he also reminds growers that these varieties tend to have only one flowering period and so will not be showstoppers all summer.
For repeat-blooming roses, Colen prefers those that have the rounded form, numerous soft petals, and fragrance of old garden roses and have been bred for hardiness and disease resistance as well. Of these, David Austin roses, which are grown on their own roots rather than being grafted, are his top choice, though there are many other modern old-style roses that he considers “fantastic.”
Here are some of Colen’s favorites, by color: yellow: Julia Child and Gold Medal; white: ‘Iceberg’ and Home and Family; cream: ‘Diamond Jubilee’ and ‘Cressida’; pink: ‘Queen Elizabeth’, Gertrude Jekyll, and Carefree Wonder; red: Love’s Magic and ‘Dortmund’. The last is a climbing rose, as is ‘New Dawn’, with flowers that are pale shell pink.
As temperatures drop, you can still enjoy fragrant, old-garden-style roses throughout the holiday season by ordering David Austin cut roses from your florist. Twelve gorgeous varieties are available in yellow, white, cream, pink, and red. For information, visit davidaustinrosesusa.com.