By Marty Ross
There is nothing in a garden quite like roses, and the Midwest is a great place to grow them. Spring is the perfect time to plant.
Roses planted in spring have all summer to establish roots and settle into your garden. You can rely on container-grown roses, available right now, to bloom this summer and in early fall. The plants will simply be bigger and better next year.
Tom Soulsby, senior horticulturist at the Chicago Botanic Garden, is in charge of 5,000 roses in the facility’s Krasberg Rose Garden. The 3-acre garden displays more than 150 different varieties of roses—all chosen for their ability to thrive in Chicago’s challenging climate. Many other roses are planted all around the botanic garden, and when other garden horticulturists have rose questions, they turn to Soulsby. He has been growing roses all his life.
To succeed in growing roses, Soulsby says, first choose the right one for you and your garden.
“I am the first one to pick up classic hybrid teas and floribundas because I love that look,” he says, “but a lot of care and maintenance comes with those roses.” His favorite rose is the deep-red ‘Mr. Lincoln’, but he also recommends ‘Tropicana’, Tahitian Treasure, ‘Queen Elizabeth’, and ‘Ingrid Bergman’, among others.
Shrub roses are a natural for gardeners who want roses that do not need pampering, Soulsby says. He likes all the roses in the Knock Out family—the original bright-magenta ‘Knock Out’; and pink, blush, yellow, and double Knock Out roses. These cold-hardy, disease-resistant, long-blooming roses were hybridized by Wisconsin rose breeder William Radler.
This year Soulsby is adding two new roses to the Chicago collection: Thrive Good ’n Plenty, also hybridized by Radler; and Oso Happy Candy Oh!, hybridized by David Zlesak, a professor of horticulture at the University of Wisconsin in River Falls. “Our goal is to put something out that is good in the Midwest, and that people can find and put in their own gardens,” Soulsby says.
No matter what variety of rose you choose, buy healthy-looking plants with sturdy, green stems, Soulsby says. If you buy a bare-root rose, don’t settle for less than #1 grade plants (the number should be on the label). Plant in well-drained soil in full sun. Roses need plenty of light and air—don’t try to grow them in shade—and they need regular watering during dry spells.
Healthy rosebushes resist bugs and blights, but no garden plant is completely care-free. Black spot is a common and unsightly disease that affects roses’ leaves. Japanese beetles, spider mites, and aphids all cause problems. Roses also are susceptible to a disease called Rose Rosette, which causes the stems to become disfigured. Removing affected rosebushes is probably the only solution, Soulsby says.
The gardeners at the Chicago Botanic Garden prune rosebushes in spring, when the forsythia blooms, Soulsby says, or “as soon as we get a persistent warm spell.” They fertilize “as soon as you start seeing a little bit of new growth on the stem—no more than an inch or so of growth,” using a balanced or high-nitrogen fertilizer. (Follow the label directions.) Soulsby notes that some growers use Milorganite or a high-nitrogen lawn fertilizer to get roses off to a good start. Fertilize again after the first flush of blooms, and then monthly until around Labor Day.
Roses require a bit of attention, “but they are absolutely worth it,” Soulsby says.