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Selecting Roses: The First Step to Successful Rose Gardening
by Mike Chute

There are millions of roses sold in the United States every year. Thousands of varieties of hybrid teas, grandifloras, floribundas, climbers, shrub and old garden roses are grown row-after-row in great fields in California and Texas, and Arizona. They are harvested in November, then graded and packed by variety in bundles of five or ten, and later stored in mammoth climate controlled facilities for shipment to retailers across the nation the following winter and spring. How, then, with this enormity of choice, do you select the right varieties for your garden?

Before purchasing any roses, first decide what you expect from them. Do you want cut flowers? Landscape roses? Fragrance? Color? Modern or old fashioned blooms? Is above-average insect and disease resistance important? Next, determine where the roses will be planted and choose plants whose habits will fill the space nicely. Finally, make sure that your selections are zone-appropriate. New England is primarily Zones 4 to 7 – avoid varieties that lack the necessary winter hardiness for this area.

After the New Year, rose catalogs arrive full of glossy photography and lush descriptions of each rose with an emphasis on the always incredible new introductions. While these, of course, are superb examples of creative writing, they contain useful facts that can be gleaned from careful reading. The descriptions identify color, often in great detail; plant size or growth habit; flower size including petal count; fragrance, if any; and they may even include the hybridizer and parentage. What we like about mail-order roses is the additional choices they provide beyond local sources, especially with hard-to-find varieties.

Make the selection of healthy plants your first priority. Look for fresh, green, unwrinkled canes on a symmetrical plant with a fully developed root system. Shop at local nurseries and garden centers that have a reputation for selling quality plants. These plant merchants often have experienced horticulturists available to answer questions and guide you into making the best choices.

While deciding which varieties to select, learn to recognize and understand the various methods used to produce and grade roses. There are two primary methods of commercial asexual rose propagation – the multiplying of new plants of the same variety.

Bud grafting. A bud eye from the variety to be reproduced is joined, or grafted, onto the main cane of another rose bush called an understock or rootstock. The site of this grafting becomes swollen and is called the bud union. Rootstock increases the vigor and hardiness of a variety plus it provides a root system that is already fully developed. Grafted roses are field grown for two seasons before harvesting and most hybrid teas, grandifloras, and floribundas are propagated this way.
Grafted roses are graded based on a set of standards established by the American Association of Nurserymen and refers to size and quality. Look for the grade on the label, in the catalog, or ask at the garden center or when placing an order.

Number 1 is the highest grade in the industry.  It has three or more canes growing from the bud union, each having a diameter at least as thick as a pencil…thicker is better.  The length of the canes should be fifteen to eighteen inches but that’s not critical.  The canes are pruned by the grower at the time of harvest and may be re-pruned again by the retailer to stimulate growth. 

Number 1½ is the same as number 1, but with only two canes, and represents good value when sold at a discount.

Number 2 is a cull and not recommended.


Number 1 Bare Root Rose

Stem cuttings. This simple method of rose propagation is done by inserting sections of young rose stems, softwood cuttings, into a growing medium where they will take root. These are referred to as “own root” roses and having their own roots often adds extra hardiness to a variety. They are quicker and less expensive to produce but start off smaller than grafted roses and may take a season or two to catch up. Miniature roses and many old garden roses are multiplied this way.

Which method is better? It depends on the type and variety. Hybrid teas and grandifloras almost always perform much better as grafted plants while miniature roses will thrive as rooted cuttings. What about floribundas? I've seen ‘Iceberg’ successfully propagated both ways. The great Canadian Explorer roses, all shrubs, are started as rooted cuttings and growing on their own roots adds to their already considerable hardiness. Through trial and error, commercial growers find the most efficient method to produce the best plants and you will find excellent roses propagated both ways available in local and mail-order sources.

You will also notice that roses are marketed as either “bare root” or “container” roses.

Bare root roses are dormant roses without soil on their roots. Mail order roses are almost always shipped as bare root plants packed in some lightweight, non-soil, moisture-holding material or in plastic bags. Bare root roses offer greater choices, special varieties, and allow you to plant early. Be prepared to plant then soon after delivery.

Container roses are bare root roses that have been potted up prior to sale. Containerized plants permit you to observe roses as growing plants after they have left dormancy. You are able to evaluate the new stems, foliage, buds, and even blooms as well as their overall general health and this makes rose selection easier. As potted plants, they offer the option of planting at your convenience.