Foolproof Roses | Winter-Hardy Varieties

Rose envy may be a thing of the past with these winter-hardy varieties. Not far from Mark Twain’s home in Hartford, Connecticut, is a garden that defies all weather. Planted in 1904, just six years before the humorist died, Elizabeth Park is the oldest public rose garden in the country, a spectacle of color and […]

By Annie Graves

Apr 04 2014


Archways of ramblers, including pink ‘Dorothy Perkins’ and ‘Excelsa’ roses, as well as ‘White Dorothy’, lead to and from the vine-covered gazebo.

Photo Credit : Michael Piazza

Rose envy may be a thing of the past with these winter-hardy varieties.

Not far from Mark Twain’s home in Hartford, Connecticut, is a garden that defies all weather. Planted in 1904, just six years before the humorist died, Elizabeth Park is the oldest public rose garden in the country, a spectacle of color and fragrance hidden away in an elegant old city neighborhood. Tunnels of roses converge, like spokes on a wheel, pointing deep into the heart of the garden. There, at the center, a vintage gazebo supports viney climbers, and pink and red blossoms tumble over one another in a race to the sky.

Who wouldn’t want even a tiny patch of this heaven in one’s own backyard? It’s the apotheosis of our rose-loving fantasies—bowers brimming with flowers, benches buried in blossoms, the sweet, heady scent of billions of petals warming in the sun.

“In the spring I have counted 136 different kinds of weather inside of 24 hours,” Twain once remarked. He lived and wrote in Hartford for 17 years, and he nailed it when he satirized our Great New England Gardening Challenge: weather as fickle as a teenager and just as headstrong. When it comes to growing roses, the effects can be devastating. Past experience has shown them to be notoriously finicky, demanding celebrity-level pampering, and yet still they drop leaves or keel over.

But plant breeders have been hard at work for decades coming up with cold- and disease-resistant roses that really do survive winters with little or no help: roses that can outlast harsh winter climates, like the popular shrub roses marketed under the Knock Out brand created by Milwaukee breeder William Radler; more than 80 million plants have been sold since they were introduced in 2000. Then there are roses designated Earth-Kind because no fertilizers or pesticides are required. These are roses that give you everything they’ve got, and in the end leave you with the impression of an English country garden with much less fuss.

I headed south and then north, to learn more about the friendly new face of this remarkable flower. My guides on this quest: two gardening experts as different as red and yellow roses (which is to say very, and not at all). In the south (Connecticut), I spoke with master rosarian Mike Fuss, who’s deeply connected to Elizabeth Park, a traditional rose garden that’s gradually bringing in more easy-care roses; in the north (New Hampshire), I talked to Roger Swain of PBS’s The Victory Garden. Both love roses. And each convinced me that even the most novice gardener can enjoy abundant blooms that were once available only to the masters.

The Southern Rosarian

“Some of our roses are Knock Out roses,” Mike Fuss says, as we roam the artful tangle of Elizabeth Park’s archways. “They don’t need a lot of care, and here you can find singles or doubles in pink, although the best is the original red, in my opinion.” His eyes appraise the arches expertly, and here and there he quietly points out favorites among the park’s 800 varieties, including climbers and bushes.

A master rosarian and longtime Elizabeth Park board member, Fuss is also co-founder of the Connecticut Rose Society. His late wife, Donna, was a driving force behind restoring the park. The rose that Fuss is praising is a tough shrub that produces flowers continuously, and even resists deadly “black spot,” a fungus that causes leaves to yellow and drop—the rose world’s equivalent of the Black Death.

City budget cuts have affected maintenance at the 2.1-acre rose garden, so “the push is on for more sustainable, winter-hardy, shrub-like roses that give a lot of bloom, rather than the traditional hybrid tea roses, which are harder to keep alive over the winter,” Fuss explains. Fortunately, volunteers pitch in regularly at the 102-acre property, especially when the park gears up for its Rose Sunday extravaganza in June.

As for the park’s magnificent rose-covered archways, echoing the look of Monet’s gardens at Giverny? “Our best rambler is ‘Excelsa’. It’s winter-hardy, but not disease-resistant,” Fuss says. His own park favorites include ‘Yellow Submarine’ from Easy Elegance, another line of hardy, disease-resistant roses, and ‘Home Run’. Fuss grows them at home in his own garden.

Despite Connecticut’s relatively mild temperatures, there are still weather challenges, Fuss concedes. “Freeze-and-thaw does more damage in Connecticut than anything else,” he says. “But roses aren’t difficult to grow; they just take a little work.” He smiles softly: “If you don’t want to work, plant a marigold. But if you’re a gardener, you want to work with plants.”

Northward Bound

Difficulty is relative, of course, and climate zones are definitely on my mind as I head north to New Hampshire, where we’re at least one planting zone colder.

“Everybody has this idea that roses are impossible to grow around here, and that’s just not true,” sputters Roger Swain, former host of the long-running PBS series The Victory Garden. He’s wearing his signature red suspenders today, and his keen eyes, encircled by wire-rimmed glasses, cut through all doubt. Swain, 63, lives in southern New Hampshire in a town he refers to, vaguely, as “Monadnock.”

“Look at the Canadian Explorer series,” he shouts. “They were bred in the North by people who said, ‘Screw it! Unless it grows without care, without protection from cold, I’m not going to grow it!’” These rugged Explorer roses—shrubs and climbers—were bred to withstand brutal Canadian winters and temperatures as low as –35°C (–31°F), with minimal care and nothing but snow for protection. ‘William Baffin’, for example, a popular Explorer climber named for a seeker of the Northwest Passage, sends out arching canes loaded with fragrant pink blooms; it’s hardy to Zone 3. Best of all, it’s the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, of roses bred to withstand real cold.

“Here in New England, where the ground freezes down several feet, it’s very difficult to protect a non-hardy rose,” Swain emphasizes. “It’s just a battle. Anything that you have to work that hard to keep alive, you might as well be growing figs—they taste better!”

He becomes even more animated as he ticks off other favorites growing in his backyard. “‘Thérèse Bugnet’ is a Rosa rugosa, a beach rose. It’s pronounced ‘boon-yay,’ but see how it’s spelled? ‘Bug net!’” he laughs gleefully. This four- to five-foot shrub rose is hardy to Zone 3, produces masses of pink blossoms in June, and is one of the easiest roses to grow. Oh, and it smells good, too.

“Put your nose in it and suck it up. It’s not subtle, it’s just wow! You can smell it feet away,” Swain says. “I don’t fuss over it; it doesn’t get sprayed or fertilized or pruned or protected. It doesn’t get squat! It just is. And it has a great name.”

It’s also a very different type of plant from those Canadian Explorer roses that he loves, in that it’s a product of nature herself, not the work of a plant breeder. Wild roses like rugosa are “species” roses—named because each represent its own species, not just a variety within a species—and they’ve evolved over time to be naturally resistant to cold weather and disease.

In a wetter corner of his backyard, Swain points to another species rose, the swamp rose (Rosa palustris). “Roses don’t like wet feet, but Rosa palustris is happy growing in a swamp—the opposite of well-drained soil. It’s eight feet high; has small, single pink flowers; it’s fabulously fragrant; and the bees love it!” Plus, it grows on its own roots. Which, strange as it sounds, is a big deal with roses.

“When you buy a rose from [a traditional rose company], you may actually be getting two roses,” Swain explains. “There’s the root, which is one kind of rose, and then a piece of another rose that’s grafted onto it. When the top of the rose freezes and dies back, what sprouts up is not the rose you wanted but the rose it was grafted onto—the understock.”

To preserve your original rose—and to keep that unknown rose from rearing its head like some weird mythical hydra—you must protect the part of the plant growing above the graft union at all cost. Burying, mulching, or putting a cone over it are all standard measures. But Swain knows there’s a better way: “There’s a whole bunch of roses that don’t require that treatment at all!” For us cold-climate gardeners, these roses growing on their own roots—called “own root” or “single rootstock”—make winter survival possible.

Swain points to another modern hybrid, the French Meidiland series, which are own-root hedge hybrids that bloom repeatedly and are “tougher than nails,” he says. “No banking the soil around the base, no pruning—you just leave them be! Big mass of flowers!

“Every time I go to the garden center, there’s a whole new series of tough roses, like Knock Out. So why would you grow something that diseases attack every year? Or, for that matter, that need to be sprayed? No one needs to spray roses. Knock it off!”

For a few seconds Swain considers the argument of historic, high-maintenance roses versus the newer, easy-care ones, before tossing it aside like compost: “People say to me, ‘Oh, I’ve got to have “Mr. Lincoln” because my grandmother had it,’ or ‘Oh, this is a historic garden—this is what Thomas Jefferson had.’” Swain’s shouting again, but this time he’s grinning: “And I say, ‘It may be what he had, but if he were alive today, he’d say, “Give me the best, give me the newest, give me the hottest one!”’”

This year’s Rose Sunday at Connecticut’s Elizabeth Park, on the Hartford/West Hartford line, is set for June 15. More information at: