Toward a Rosy Future

“The rose and herb garden outside our kitchen door” sounds poetic, but it’s really just a small sloping rectangle with a row of old roses at the bottom and a middle full of thyme and sage, cilantro, chives, tarragon, basil, parsley, oregano, lovage, fennel – and quite a few more roses. It was planted (in the Hudson Valley) in 1994, has always been managed organically, and has turned out to be quite a teacher.

Big lesson number 1: herbs do not repel pests as well as organic gardening advisors would have you believe. This includes garlic, unfortunately.

2: Some roses really are tougher than others and there are many to choose from besides the squatty, bland, scentless “foolproof” types (Knockout, I’m talking about you) that offer so little of roses’ splendor you might as well grow something else and be done with it. See below for sources that offer hundreds of handsome, hardy roses that can thrive without noxious chemicals.

3. There will always be at least one “must have” that’s a challenge to earth-friendly ideals. Mine is Reine des Violettes, an antique beauty (introduced in 1860) that cannot endure both crowded conditions and the Hudson Valley’s hot summers.


Here she is in Maine, where the cool summers we used to enjoy made it easy to grow even fussbudgets with relative ease. The fragrant flowers open dusky pink, then fade to the pale purple of the name, and the foliage has a distinct smell of pepper. The hosta in the background is Sum and Substance, unfazed by our current plague of imported snails, which brings us to

4. Japanese beetles, perhaps the greatest test of will in the organic rose department. Not counting milky spore, there are basically two ways to deal: with products derived from the tropical neem tree, or with calm acceptance and screening.

A) Neem: Attacks on mulitple fronts, discouraging beetles from feeding, interfering with their growth chemistry, and with !hooray! their mating behaviour. It only works when applied biweekly, but then it works very well indeed , as proved not only by us but also by a study done at Perdue and reported in the invaluable Hortideas newsletter. Insects must eat it to be affected; it seldom kills beneficials; and it’s relatively harmless to other creatures – except fish. But too much neem coated pollen can hurt bees, so we try not to spray open flowers.


B) That would be open flowers of potatoes. The roses we enjoy in spring before the beetles emerge, and in fall after they’re gone. In between, we let the garden go wild. Not so good for low-growing herbs, but excellent for drawing the eye away from devastated roses.


In person, columbines are not blurry. And because they cross so freely, new colors are always opening up, the gift of surprise every year.

Shopping for low-input roses:

Most of them are modern developments like hybrid rugosas, the Canadian Explorer and Parkland series, and recent introductions from Kordes. But there are also antiques, including beauties like Mutabilis, as changeable (from pale yellow through orange-pink to red) as its name suggests, and thornless, super-perfumed Zepherine Drouhin, a deep pink with no candy in it. Roses are highly climate sensitive – I’ve been tripped up more than once by the optimistic words “hardy to zone 5.” But that’s because I didn’t talk to the rose grower before placing my order; all the good ones are glad to help you fall in love with something you can actually live with.

North Creek Farm- run by Suzy Verrier, an expert in all things Rugosa

Antique Rose Emporium – exactly what its name promises

High Country Roses – for a large assortment of tough roses both elderly and brand new

Roses Unlimited – a good selection of modern Kordes roses, which until recently have been difficult to find in the US. Growers in the know have been ordering from Palatine, up in Ontario.

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