Growing Roses in Iowa

By Bill Buckles

Bill Buckles and his family visited us during their vacation to the Oregon Coast. As he was telling us of his experiences as a gardener in Iowa we asked him to write it down so that we might share it with all of you. He willingly obliged. Buckles writes tests for college exams.

I live in a harsh climate; the USDA map says that my garden is in Zone 5A, which means minimum temperatures around -15°F to -20°F. But its even worse than that. When I was our daughter's age, we had "reliable" snow cover here which was great for a sled-crazy kid like me and great for dormant plants, too, because the long lasting blanket of snow helped insulate them from temperature swings, especially on sunny days. but now we often get the cold without the snow and that can be very hard on plants (not to mention the kids.) A decade ago I was primarily a vegetable gardener and wasn't terribly affected by all this.

But in 1987, my gardening style changed completely; the house we chose for a growing family came with a minuscule yard that precluded growing the "cornucopiacal" food garden bordered by the predictable mix of annuals that is so common here in the breadbasket of America. A flower-only garden seemed a reasonable alternative, and, by trial and error, I found that native prairie plants and a fair number of other perennials could prosper in Zone 5A and I was pretty pleased with my horticultural prowess. But our daughter Breeze KNEW something was missing: "Where are the roses?" she asked again and again. "Flower gardens have to have roses."

Breeze was right, of course. But I was afraid of roses. The mere mention evoked memories of a sickly row of harshly-colored, spindly-legged hybrid teas that my father entombed each fall in styrofoam sarcophagi and then coaxed back from the dead each spring with a chemical cocktail that may well have been the same one that Boris Karloff used on his mummies in the movies. I swear that half of the survivors were actually rootstock suckers, but after a few Iowa winters, keeping anything alive was some sort of success.

" But can't we have just one rose?" Breeze knew what she wanted. I told her I would look into it, but I was pretty skeptical. Knowing nothing really about roses, I read. And read. And read. We are blessed with one of the best public libraries anywhere and it was there that I discovered Austin, Beales, Gibson, Griffiths, Harkness, and Thomas and , later, Osborne, Phillips and Rix, Verrier, Warner and others. The most precious knowledge I gained from my research was the existence of roses on their own roots. The best rationale I read for own-root roses was in a plain, but straightforward catalog I got from a classified ad in the back pages of Fine Gardening. It was written by John and Louise Clements and is probably reprinted somewhere in this much expanded color-illustrated Heirloom catalog of today.

Own-root roses enabled me to be a rose gardener. Needless to say, Breeze got her "one rose" and a whole lot more. In 1995, I started planting our second hundred varieties on our 50-foot by 90-foot town lot! I now foresee the day there will be no space for that just one more rose. What a wonderful day that will be.

With so many roses now in my care, I have to have a very simple winterizing scheme. In the summer, when the discount stores and home improvement centers decide that they are no longer in the gardening business, I buy up large quantities of heavily-discounted bagged topsoil, composted manure and organic peat. In the late fall I move them to the basement, so the bags won't freeze hard. when winter has settles in, I mound the dirt quite liberally over the bases of the roses. I have learned, finally, I hope, to just leave the dirt in place until spring has really and truly returned to Iowa. When I get anxious and clear the dirt from the stems prematurely, we inevitable get a cold spell that puts the plants back; buds do quite well under the insulating soil if it is left there until the time is right.

Pruning can be a real job because the amount of winter die-back can be astounding. Some roses in some winters die all the way back to the ground, others to just the height that the dirt acted as insulation. But when a rose is on its own roots, it comes roaring back to life when spring finally comes. I have lost only one rose in spring.

Every spring, one rose in my garden looks like a goner - every year that I have had it! `Compassion' does not wear winter well; in spring it is a blackened desiccated clump of hollow six-foot stems which I prune back to nothing - no life to be seen, until, finally, first one, then two, then three bright red buds break the surface of the top of the root and, once again, `Compassion' is off and running. Although likely too tender for my area, `Compassion' again and again fights its way back true to variety form its own roots.

Most of the roses do not attain the stature of `Compassion'. In fact, because most of them are set back almost every winter (to varying degrees depending on cold hardiness of the variety, position in the garden and the severity of that year's weather), my roses in general are smaller than their peers in warmer climes. They also seem to take longer to settle in and attain full-blooming maturity. When we visited Heirloom's display gardens last summer, some specimens were twice the size I am used to seeing at home; although, in at least one case, `Dart's Dash', my specimen back in Iowa was much larger than Heirloom's.

When I initially "read" roses, I focused primarily on Old Garden rose varieties, thinking that all modern roses were too tender. I now know better, but I am glad I got my "classical education," because it has meant some marvelous specimens in the garden: `Königin Von Dänemark', with her wonderful Alba perfume, the statuesque `Reine Victoria' and her opposite `Mme Isaac Pereire', who "pegs" herself along the east side of the house sending blooming shoots in profusion from her stout lateral stems, `Mme Hardy', a wonderful shrub, even when not in bloom, `Tuscany Superb' with such regally colored and sumptuously textured flowers, and my current favorite, `Stanwell Perpetual', such a simple, almost wild bush with blooms so much the opposite - refined, jewel-like, intricate and elegant, in the best sense of the word. all of these and more can and do thrive in Zone 5A.

Early on, David Austin's English Roses fascinated me, and the big question, of course, regarded their hardiness. I initially planted `Constance Spry', `Dapple Dawn', the `Mary Rose', `Othello', and `Wenlock'. `Constance Spry' took three years to settle in before blooming, but was certainly worth the wait when she finally did. `Dapple Dawn' is very reliable in bloom; often the flowers have a unique sheen to them like no other. The `Mary Rose' is my stalwart and led to the later planting of `Winchester Cathedral', next to my front yard `Mary Rose'. `Othello' took more time to settle and mature than `Mary Rose', but both of my `Othello' shrubs are now quite prolific in bloom. With early success with the English Roses, I have since planted many others, including the `Ambridge Roses', `Bredon', `Country Living', `Fair Bianca', `Graham Thomas', `Heritage', `Kathryn Morley', `L.D. Braithwaite', `The Pilgrim', `Queen Nefertiti', `St. Cecilia', `Sharifa Asma' and `Sweet Juliet'. Every one has exceeded my expectations, although `Bredon' has never grown over a foot tall, so you really have to bend down to admire the wonderful little rosettes; when I saw the specimen in Heirloom's display garden, I did not even recognize it as `Bredon'!
I do not have the room to plant English Roses in threes, as Austin recommends, but I have started grouping similar varieties in threes: last year I planted `Country Living', `Kathryn Morley', and `Sharifa Asma' together and then planted Salvia viridis between them; as one rose "rests", the others provide continuity of bloom, and the result is quite pleasing; the silver-gray cast of the annual sages and their blue, purple and white bracts add nicely to the effect. I look forward to picking many more English Roses to add in the years to come; personal favorites L.D. Braithwaite', `St. Cecilia', and the `Ambridge Rose' whet my appetite to try more - my wish list will take many years to fill.

Climbers fascinate me and, besides `Compassion', I have planted `Awakening', `Goldener Olymp', `Alchymist', `Jeanne Lajoie', `New Dawn', `Paul's Scarlet', and `Veilchenblau'. I have another once-blooming rambler that blooms every year. It is the only rose that I have ever bought just on its name alone: `Breeze Hill'. Also, last year, the once-blooming `Veilchenblau' completely covered its 6-foot by 8-foot support with huge trusses of blooms as "blue" as I have ever seen, but without the fruity scent that many authors mention.

In really rough winters, these climbers can suffer a lot of die-back, so I have specifically planted Explorer roses developed in Canada to insure at least some bloom up on the fences every year. I have had success with `Captain Samuel Holland', `Henry Kelsey', `John Davis', and `William Baffin'; these roses are reputed to be much hardier than my needs and I find them very easy to maintain. I have planted shorter Canadians as well, including `Fronatenac', `J.P. Connell', `John Franklin', `Louis Jolliet', `Mordens Blush', `Morden Centennial', `Henry Hudson', and `Jens Munk'.

These last two bring to the fore the other great hardy group of roses that I am absolutely enthralled by: the Rugosas. I am convinced that when I was a boy it was a Rugosa whose scent was permanently imprinted in my memory at the garden of a friend of my mother's. I feel that Rugosas are made better still by the fact that the blooms must be enjoyed in situ, because the flowers when cut do not last. I have had great success with, among others, `Belle Poitevine', `Corylus', `Dart's Dash', `Hansa', `Hunter', `Robusta', the `Pink Robusta', and `Thérèse Bugnet'. `Dart's Dash' probably comes closest to the evocative scent-memory of my youth, but they are all wonderful shrubs, in or out of bloom and in any season. I particularly enjoy watching buds break through the wizened gray skin of a Rugosa stem in early spring; up until then, the bushes appear dead. My favorite Rugosa hybrid these days is the `Pink Robusta'; if I had the room, I would plant a hedge of this and `Robusta'. I am now thinking that I might have the space for `Goldbusch' somewhere.

At quite the opposite end to scale, Polyanthas winter very well here and are truly carefree. `China Doll' and `The Fairy' are perhaps more traditional, but I have come to truly admire `Margo Koster''s unique little blooms. When in Oregon, we saw `Baby Faurax', another uniquely colored Polyantha that I plan to add to my own garden. `Turlock High' is a wonderful scented yellow miniature which is always in bloom. It is planted in front of `Laura Ford', another fragrant wonder, that is growing up a six-foot pole in the front yard. I was so impressed with this `climbing miniature', that I also planted `Warm Welcome' from the same breeder. Another smaller rose that thrives here is `Nearly Wild'; it is almost always in bloom, which makes it seem like a perpetual version of the wild rose that is the state flower of Iowa.

On the opposite side of the front entry, the corner is dominated by `Darlow's Enigma' which may be the `bloomingest' rose I have. It always has hundreds of flowers and is always sending up yet another spray of hundreds of buds.`Darlow's Enigma' is a rose that I was "sold on" by John and Louise Clements' persuasive description and photo in an earlier catalog. Others that I have "discovered" in this way include a number mentioned above and also `Oranges 'n' Lemons', `Sally Holmes', `Royal Blush', and the `Lyda Rose'.
Last summer during our visit to Heirloom, John suggested that this last rose, `Lyda', might not be hardy enough for my garden. That may well be true (we are going through our first Iowa winter together) - but I will bet you that even if she dies to the ground, `Lyda' will be back in fine form by the middle of next season.

Over time I have become much more adventurous with own-root roses, because I think they are perhaps even tougher than I already know they are. (And last summer's heat proved that they can take that end of the temperate spectrum with aplomb, too.) I now toy with ideas like a collection of hybrid musks, maybe in that somewhat protected area that would be freed, if I took out the old apple tree....

My favorite Rugosa hybrid these days is the `Pink Robusta'; if I had the room, I would plant a hedge of this and `Robusta'. I am now thinking that I might have the space for `Goldbusch' somewhere.