The Case for Shrub Roses

By Mike Chute

What does ‘Graham Thomas,’ with his long arching canes and buttery yellow blooms have in common with ‘Prairie Princess,’ a coral pink Griffith Buck rose noted for vigor and blooms until frost? What does ‘Baby Love,’ a compact and obedient plant with countless golden daisy-like blooms have in common with ‘William Baffin,’ the Canadian giant with medium red flowers arranged in great clusters on short stems?   They are all shrubs.

What is a Shrub?  Shrubs are a catch-all category of roses that fit neither as old garden roses nor as modern roses.  Even veteran rose gardeners stumble when asked to define shrubs but, generally speaking, shrubs maintain an informal, relaxed habit, are free blooming with a variety of forms and come in all sizes to fit any garden.  The key factors are that most of these roses are hardy in our New England climate and, while not disease immune, are disease resistant. Even when infected with fungal diseases, many shrubs are able to tolerate the attack and maintain their strength and vigor rather than weaken, and be unable to survive the following winter.  This important characteristic is shared with many old garden roses.

Big Shrubs . . . The tough Explorer shrubs, like ‘William Baffin,’ hardy to zone two, hybridized specifically for the rigors of the Canadian climate, grow to massive proportions here in more moderate US zone six and need space to grow.  If you have the space then also consider such large plants as ‘Sally Holmes’ with her showy white blooms; ‘Westerland’ with large sprays of apricot and orange (‘Westerland’ can be classified as a climber, too); ‘Blanc Double De Coubert’ and ‘Robusta,’ fragrant hybrid rugosas easily identified by their wrinkled foliage. 

Medium Shrubs . . . There is no lack of medium sized shrubs such as ‘Bonica,’ the first shrub to be designated as a prestigious All American Rose Selection (AARS).  This hardy rose had loads of pink ruffled sprays and disease resistant foliage on a low maintenance bush.  One of the best shrubs ever is ‘Carefree Beauty,’ developed by Dr. Griffith Buck in 1977, and is very winter hardy with semi-double coral pink flowers and bright orange hips in the fall. ‘Gartendirector Otto Linne,’ (what a name) has ruffled pink blooms and makes a great hedge. 

Compact Shrubs

If space is limited, then try out ‘Raven,’ a dark red little charmer; ‘What a Peach,’ a peachy little eyeful, or one of my favorites, ‘Baby Love.’   Don’t let the name fool you; this little lovely is highly resistant to black spot, hard-as-nails, and displays her bright yellow blooms all summer.  Don’t forget ‘English Garden,’ a fragrant buff beauty from David Austin.

If you’re looking to brighten up your garden, check out ‘Rockin’ Robin’ with red, white and pink stripes or ‘Oranges and Lemons,’ a tall showoff with orange and yellow smashed together.

The Victorian Rose Garden in Roger Williams Park contains many varieties of shrubs including most of those mentioned in this article. (Go to our web site, www.rirs.org, for a detailed map of this garden.)  Visit the garden and see for yourself how well these roses are performing and see which ones will fit into your garden.

Why Shrubs? 

One of the raps against shrubs is that, as a type, they don’t make good cutting flowers, that the stems are too short or the blooms are non-descript, that they are boring.  There is some truth to this because rose breeding is a game of compromise and hybrid tea-like qualities have been sacrificed for winter hardiness and disease resistance. This is not always the case.  Twenty years ago, the David Austin roses were introduced into the United States.  These are known as English Roses in the United Kingdom but are classified as shrubs here in the US.  Austin’s genius was to cross old garden roses with their charm and fragrance with modern, repeat-blooming varieties.  The results were fragrant, remondant shrubs with old-fashioned flower form.  Many Austin shrubs, like ‘Graham Thomas,’ feature long stems with clusters of quartered blooms which are superb flowers for cutting and arranging.  Are they hardy? The spectacular “Roseraie” in the Montreal Botanical Garden maintains a bed of Austin roses and they are treated like any other shrub in the garden.  This means that they receive no winter protection and they tolerate the Canadian equivalent of US zone four winters quite well on their own. 

Each year novice rose gardeners come to our spring programs looking to learn how to grow roses just like Martha Stewart does.  This is not a good thing.  Suggesting a few easier-to-grow shrubs with fragrant blooms growing on long stems to new rose gardeners eases their way into our hobby and limits the their frustration.  It takes some experience to grow good hybrid teas and a willingness to be patient and learn.  Starting with a few shrubs makes sense. 

Shrubs in My Garden 

I have decided to make a major change in my rose garden.  I plan to gradually replace one of my hybrid tea beds with shrubs. My goal is to rebuild the garden with sturdy varieties that will not require the same insect and disease controls that my present garden needs.  I began two years ago by investing in spray products that were relatively expensive but less toxic than the products I had been using.  These new products, like Bannermax and Compass, are mixed in very small dosages per gallon and applied less often. I was thus able to reduce my sprayings from twenty-five per season three years ago to twelve last year. The only problem I encountered was in early July with a small bout of blackspot and an invasion of spider mites.  Re-adjusting the frequency of spraying eliminated the blackspot and the mites were blasted off with water.

I plan to carefully select shrubs, one by one, based on hardiness, vigor, quality of bloom (for cutting), disciplined habit, and cool names. I have started with “First Light’ and ‘Mary Rose’ and will place them in five gallon pots for the rest of the summer and plant them in the ground at Thanksgiving.  I chose ‘First Light’ because of the sharp, clear blooms of saturated pink on a medium sized bush with dark green, immaculate foliage.  The six plants of ‘First Light’ in the Victorian Rose Garden have performed superbly for three seasons.  ‘Mary Rose’ is a well-regarded pink Austin rose with a habit that will fit into my new shrub bed. 

Knock Out

‘Knock Out’ deserves special mention as it is being touted as truly disease immune. This 2000 AARS winner sports cherry red sprays of single blooms turning to orange-red hips in the fall. This may be the breakthrough rose leading to fungal-free rose gardening. Manny Mendes has been raving about this rose for a year and I have been observing it in other gardens including the Victorian Rose Garden.  Just to be sure, I am conducting an informal experiment this summer with two plants of ‘Knock Out’ in pots in my garden; one I spray with all my other roses and the second one is not sprayed at all.  I’m anxious to see what happens.

My interest in shrubs is due, in part, to the research I did last year in developing a slide/lecture program for the Rhode Island Spring Flower and Garden Show in February called “Twenty Five Great Roses for the New England Garden.”  Given the hundreds of splendid roses to choose from, how did I pick twenty-five?  I began by establishing a set of standards – winter hardy to zone five, better-than-average disease resistance, recurrent bloom, and readily available at local garden centers and popular mail order. I created a basic list of 100 varieties and culled it down to twenty-five…the process was agonizing. There are some floribundas and climbers included in this list, but virtually no hybrid teas.  This surprised me somewhat; surely there were some tough, burly hybrid teas.  Nope, I couldn’t find any.  (If anyone disagrees, let me know.) What did come into sharp focus was the fact that shrubs were the dominant type, by far.

I am in the process of amending the list of twenty-five (‘Sally Holmes’ is in, ‘Linda Campbell’ is out). Rose gardens are works in progress and mine is no exception.  My principle gardening objective is to grow clean, beautiful roses with a minimum of insect and disease controls and planting shrubs is a giant step in the right direction. Indeed, shrubs are the future of rose gardening.

 Reprinted from RI Rose Review, August 2002

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