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Northeast Gardening: Sustainable Roses

Brought to you by Lowe's Creative Ideas

Lowe’s Northeast gardening expert Irene Virag visits Long Island’s only Earth-Kind rose trial garden and finds it a blooming success.

pink martini rose
Earth-Kind sign

By Irene Virag

“Rose is a rose is a rose,” Gertrude Stein wrote, but for centuries it was never that simple for legions of gardeners – including me – who feared the Queen of Flowers as a prima donna in need of constant primping and pampering.
That may be why roses were, to a large degree, royal flowers. King Midas was said to have counted his roses as well as his riches, and once nurtured blooms that had 50 petals each. And the Empress Josephine grew every known variety in her garden at Malmaison and, as the story goes, always carried a rose so she could raise it to hide her bad teeth when she laughed.
Both roses and I have come a long way since. I can testify from experience that you don’t need an inexhaustible supply of chemicals to grow them. Sustainable roses are part of the whole green movement that’s become a horticultural catchword. Disease-resistant Knock Out roses were a smash hit, and now the Earth-Kind label, based on a rigorous testing program Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service created, is setting a new standard.

Cathy Guzzardo in Earth-Kind trial garden

To get the Earth-Kind designation, roses undergo field trials in 28 states, including New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maine, as well as in Bermuda, Canada, India, and New Zealand. Basically the idea is to see how they do under local conditions.

Cathy Guzzardo, a rosarian who runs the Earth-Kind rose trials at the Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Nassau County farm, explains you should know what you grow. After all, a rose that flourishes in Atlanta may flop in Boston.

“If you’re planting roses on Long Island,” Cathy says, “you should make sure you’re planting roses that grow well. That’s what this trial and our display gardens are all about.”

carefree beauty rose

The 80x30-ft plot in East Meadow is in the second year of a four-year trial. It contains 11 varieties, three of each, repeated in different order in three rows. Carefree Beauty (shown), a pink shrub rose that was named Earth-Kind Rose of the Year in 2006, is the study control. It lives up to its name with fragrant cup-shape blooms, and orange hips for winter interest.

lupo vigorosa rose

When the garden began, the master gardener volunteers who tend it enriched the soil with compost, planted the bushes 5 feet apart, added 3 inches of mulch, and put down soaker hoses for the first year. Now, in their second year, the sophomores are on their own. No feeding, no fertilizing, no pruning, no deadheading, and—except for twice during this summer’s two-week heat wave—no watering. Of course weeding never stops, and the volunteers could use more mulch.

All the plants are Kordes roses, which German breeder Wilhelm Kordes III developed. Grown without pesticides, Kordes roses are renowned for their sumptuous flowers and velvety petals. The test plants are all own-root roses, meaning they aren’t grafted onto the roots of another variety. So a lovely yellow rose won’t suddenly develop red blossoms.

You can find floribundas, shrub roses, and two minis, Roxy and Lupo Vigorosa (shown), as well as an easel full of colors: reds, whites, pinks, and yellows. Since June they’re all evaluated once a month. The criteria include foliage health, growth habit, and bloom abundance. Roses being roses, they win extra points for fragrance.

black forest rose

So far the class leaders with evaluators and visitors are two red beauties, Black Forest Rose (shown) and Milano Kolorscape.

yellow rose, solero

Two yellow roses, Solero (shown) and Lemon Fizz, are attention-getters.


Cathy also gives high marks to Flamingo, a floriferous landscape shrub rose; and Purple Rain, whose shiny leaves set off blooms. The same is true of Red Milano, with dark, glistening leaves framing the flower clusters. And you may not be able to pass up Mandarin Ice, whose orange petals are enhanced by their white undersides.

Cathy is partial to the minis such as Roxy (shown). “It’s hard to get disease resistance in minis,” she explains, “because they’re close to the ground. And they’re susceptible to spider mites. But I’m so happy with Roxy—it’s just so clean, not a hint of disease. I put eight of them in front of our display garden as a groundcover. I think that says a lot.”

I second that. And something else Cathy told me. “When people ask, ‘Why bother with roses—they’re so finicky, they look horrible in the summer, they might not make it through winter’—well now you can say, ‘No, it’s not that way anymore.’ I mean just look around, we’re testing for leaf-yellowing and leaf-drop. There is none—and it’s August.”

Here are the 11 varieties tested on Long Island, one of three Earth-Kind trial gardens in New York state:

Solero: A lemon-yellow slightly fragrant floribunda, with full flowers that boast as many as 40 petals.  

Black Forest Rose: A bushy floribunda that blooms all season, with bright-red ruffled flowers. 

Inocencia: Dark, glossy foliage highlights lightly fragrant pure-white double-flower clusters.

Mandarin Ice: Lovely coral-orange flowers, with white undersides that give it an “icy” look. 

Milano Kolorscape: A compact and mounded shrub, with scarlet flowers that bloom from spring to frost.

Flamingo Kolorscape: Showy and pink, like its namesake.

Lemon Fizz: Large, single blooms with five to seven petals.

Lupo Vigorosa: Crimson-pink semidouble flowers make a big statement.

Pink Martini: Slightly fragrant deep-pink blooms resembling peonies.

Purple Rain: A low-growing shrub rose, with a deluge of mildly scented mauve blooms.

Roxy: A mini that makes a big statement with fragrant, full, red-violet blooms.

Learn more about roses.

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