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Earth-friendly roses for tough climates

Fragrant EarthKind roses survive without much chemical maintenance.

By April Austin / February 20, 2008

Sturdy and sweet: Certified EarthKind Roses, like the Perle D'Or, shown above, have been developed to thrive in Texas soil with a minimum of maintenance or chemical pesticides.

Courtesy of P.A. Haring/American Rose Society

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Roses acquired a bad reputation in recent years, as gardeners found they had less time to deal with the plant's queenly temperament. The pampering – notably of hybrid tea varieties, which are the most popular sellers – includes frequent spraying for bugs and diseases. These requirements did not endear roses to environmentally conscious gardeners.

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"In the last five to 10 years, breeders realized that people didn't want to turn their garages into chemical labs," says Gaye Hammond, past president of the Houston Rose Society and national coordinator for the EarthKind Rose Research Program.

Home gardeners' changing habits have created a market for low-maintenance roses – those that require significantly less watering, pruning, fertilizing, and spraying for pests and fungal diseases. No rose is completely "care free," no matter what the nursery promises, but breeders are reintroducing traits that enabled previous generations of roses to survive adverse conditions.

These hardier varieties mean that, with a bit of preparation and knowledge, gardeners have a much better shot at growing roses. The real task is to cut through the growers' marketing hype and glossy catalogs to find varieties that have been independently tested.

Big market for low maintenance

Among the first to recognize the market for low-maintenance roses was Bill Radler, a former director of the Boerner Botanic Garden in Milwaukee. He hybridized a tough little shrub rose named Knock Out with cherry-red blossoms that won a prestigious commercial growers' award in 2000. Mr. Radler continues to add to the original Knock Out with a series of shrub roses that bloom in a variety of colors. His Knock Out line has become a huge financial success.

"Knock Out revolutionized rose growing," says Ted Mills, who for 30 years has been tending hundreds of rosebushes on his property in Chattanooga, Tenn. "That little rose brought more people into growing roses." Mr. Mills, known as the "Rose Doc," is a consulting rosarian for the American Rose Society (ARS).

The ARS is a nonprofit organization that supports 350 local societies concerned with rose growing. Its consulting rosarians are experienced gardeners who share their knowledge, at no cost, with the public. ARS members also test new rose varieties in their own gardens and reward the best-performing plants each year with the Members' Choice Award.

But scientific testing of roses did not start until 1996, when Steve George, a Texas A&M University professor, launched the EarthKind rose project. Using similar research and testing approaches used on other agricultural crops, Dr. George identified 11 roses in 2002 that would flourish in Texas despite poor growing conditions and practically no maintenance.

The news caused such a stir internationally that the Houston Rose Society raised money to expand the program to identify other varieties that would grow in other regions. Today, six universities in the United States, along with organizations and individuals in 23 states and four foreign countries, are looking to add to the 17 roses already certified as EarthKind, according to Ms. Hammond. (Radler's Knock Out "Cherry Red" is among the roses that earned the EarthKind certification.)

Roses never out of favor

Roses are known in practically every culture and have played a role in every major civilization and aspect of human life, according to Hammond. "The rose has been around for 34 million years, and along with the lotus and papyrus, it's among the oldest cultivated plants in the world," she says.

Although roses were grown by European peasants for medicinal use, "it wasn't until Empress Josephine began to monkey around with Mother Nature that growing roses was seen as an elitist pursuit," says Hammond. "It became a competition." (Josephine was Napoleon Bonaparte's first wife.)