Roses are Easy…Really!

Potomac Rose Society field trip to the US Botanic Garden's Rose Garden. Photo: Joe Covey

Years ago, as I looked out at my new Capitol Hill front yard, over 30 hybrid tea roses planted by my predecessor stared back at me. I froze. I wish I’d known then about Capitol Hill’s Potomac Rose Society (not named for Potomac, Maryland). I could have called one of their Consulting Rosarians for free advice. For $15 a year I could have joined. If you like roses, it’s the best deal in town. And who doesn’t like roses?

Roses on the Hill

Right now we’re enjoying what rosarians call the first flush of roses in bloom. On the Hill this occurs from late May through mid-June. Front yards all over the neighborhood are full of their showy, fragrant displays. My husband has always said that Capitol Hill has a climate better suited to roses than any other Washington, DC neighborhood. In a recent conversation with Carol Edwards, Potomac Rose Society Secretary, and President of the Capitol Hill Garden Club, I asked if this was true. “I can’t prove that but I think it is true,” she said.

Ms. Edwards went on to explain that we tend not to get Japanese beetles on the Hill, an insect known for their voracious appetite for rose flowers, buds, and leaves. (I will add here that once I got chickens my own Japanese beetle problem vanished.) But on the Hill, says Carol, the federal government, to address this problem, regularly sprays organic milky spore, a naturally occurring bacterium harmful to grubs, or larval beetles, and there could be some beneficial drift to nearby areas. Also, our proximity to the Anacostia River moderates the climate, encouraging roses to bloom earlier than other DC areas. Carol Edwards’ final theory is that people are always digging up Capitol Hill for utilities, roads, buildings, or green spaces, and this makes it hard for grubs to get established in the soil. This all makes sense.

One other reason people may think Capitol Hill is great for roses is that you see so many of them. But then, people tend to plant their showy roses in their front gardens where they can be enjoyed. So there may simply be a causal inference operating here, which we don’t mind.

Roses and the Environment

People equate roses with heavy chemical use, and while this is too often the case, it is not necessarily so. But just as there are blood diamonds and inhumanely mass-produced poultry, mass-produced, commercial cut roses have an undeniably heavy environmental footprint.  About 80% of the roses you’ll see at major chain stores are grown in Latin America, South America, and Africa where intensive water use, herbicide and pesticide use abound. These chemicals adversely affect the environment and the health of workers, who are also pressed into extreme overtime hours leading up to our Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day holidays, clipping stems in super-chilled factories. Amy Stewart’s 2007 book, ‘Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful in the Business of Flowers’ looks into this.

Fair Trade rose options are now available, from vendors like Fair Trade USA (http://fairtradeusa.org/products-partners/flowers-plants) and One World Flowers (http://www.oneworldflowers.org) which claim low or no pesticide use, living wages, etc. This is a good step, though with all Fair Trade certifications, do your own research.

In your own garden, where you can work as much or as little as you wish, you may grow chemical-free roses to enjoy whenever they happen to bloom. The Potomac Rose Society supports people who are passionate about growing roses rather than seeking the perfect cut rose. This approach offers the ultimate guilt-free rose experience.

Grow Your Own Roses

If roses were really that hard to grow, do you think there would be fossil evidence of them going back 35 million years? The University of Illinois cites this and other fun facts in their informative web site, Our Rose Garden (http://urbanext.illinois.edu/roses/history.cfm). But are roses more prone to disease than other garden plants? “Yes,” says our expert Carol Edwards. She quickly points out that Texas A&M’s AgriLife Extension Service has undertaken extensive field trials to determine which rose cultivars require the least amount of care, exhibit the most heat and drought tolerance, and thrive in the widest range of soil types. They have given these their own trademarked designation, calling them Earth-Kind Roses® You can learn more about them on their web site, http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/earthkindroses/about/.

If you have a sunny, well-drained spot and can dig a deep hole in which to add compost, you can plant a rose. Plant some herbs around it, like chives, and some other summer blooming perennials a few feet away to take over when your rose’s first flush fades later in June. If your rose defoliates in the heat of summer, it’s not dead, it’s resting. Don’t hold that against it. It’ll revive in September and October with a second round of blooms, more beautiful when combined with fall blooming perennials like Japanese anemone (try Anemone x hybrida ‘Honorine Jobert’), ‘Fireworks’ goldenrod (Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks’), ‘Chocolate’ Eupatorium (Eupatorium rugosum ‘Chocolate’), or the orchid look alike toad lily (Tricurtis hirta).

Yes, you can forego the learning curve and pop a Knock Out® Rose in the ground (http://www.starrosesandplants.com/plants/series/knock-out-family-roses). These ubiquitous roses, which have broken all advertising records, threaten to overtake the rose world as a monoculture. But where’s the fun in that? You can be part of history by growing a heritage rose, much like the heirloom tomatoes we have so recently learned to prize. See the Heritage Rose Foundation for more (http://www.heritagerosefoundation.org/). Why not research and find a heritage rose that would have been commercially available in the year your house was built, and grow it?

The Potomac Rose Society

Climbers, ramblers, floribundas, hybrid teas, shrub roses – if you join the Potomac Rose Society these categories will become meaningful to you. You don’t have to be a member to attend their meetings at the Franciscan Monastery in nearby Northeast DC, which has a lovely 80 year old rose garden (http://www.myfranciscan.org/monastery/the-gardens/garden-guild/). But if you join, you can be part of an invigorated 21st century group that adds value to the streets of Capitol Hill.

In the 1950s, the Potomac Rose Society had thousands of members, says Carol Edwards. Now there are about 100. Things go in cycles, and this could be the time for a rose revival. It happened with knitting; it’s happening with heirloom tomatoes, so why not roses?

To help things along, the Society recently convened a one day symposium called, “Roses are Easy.” They will meet again in June, August and September. For program details, contact Society President Joe Covey (http://www.potomacrose.org/). You can read a sample newsletter, The Capital Rose, at http://ncagardenclubs.org/nca_pdf_files/caprose_news_jan_feb_2014.pdf. This is the only club in which you can, and must literally stop and smell the roses.

Eventually, my husband and I stopped being intimidated by the dozens of hybrid tea roses we’d inherited, and before long our front yard was a happy blended family including these most royal flowers plus herbs and even collard greens and okra. Like diamonds, roses look good with everything. 

Red roses are especially ravishing. Photo: Cheryl Corson
On Elliot Street, NE, a curbside rose garden. Photo: Cheryl Corson
Did the owner plan this bold complementary color combination? Photo: Cheryl Corson

Cheryl Corson, RLA, is a local landscape architect who practices on Capitol Hill (www.cherylcorson.com). Although devoted to native plants, she agrees with the poem, “give us bread, but give us roses!”


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