Common sense prevents most gardeners from planting hybrid tea roses in large numbers on slopes, banks, and hillsides. For starters, how would one maneuver from bush to bush to pick off all those Japanese beetles? And where would anyone find enough time to prune each bush? Moreover, the cost (both environmental and financial) of chemicals often used to fight black spot and rust on masses of high-maintenance cultivars could well prove prohibitive.
Yet there is a way to use roses to create broad, romantic sweeps of color. Today’s so-called ground-cover roses attract few pests, need little or no pruning, and seldom suffer from black spot or other blights common to the genus Rosa. Produced by hybridizers determined to eliminate the need for chemical pesticides in the garden, ground-cover roses are characterized by low, spreading growth, extreme cold hardiness (USDA zones usually range from 3 or 4 to 9), and repeat (sometimes recurrent, even perpetual) bloom. More rightly, these easy-care beauties should be dubbed procumbent roses, notes English rosarian Peter Beales in his encyclopedic Classic Roses (Henry Holt; $55), now in its second edition. Unlike ivy, vinca, or other true ground covers that hug the earth with countless rootlets, ground-cover roses employ long, flowery canes to create the illusion of a blanket of blossoms.
To create drift without sacrificing tidiness, consider massing roses whose habit is more wide than tall. Choose a single hue or, to lighten the look, interplant with a white variant of the same species. For instance, two-foot-tall ‘Red Meidiland’, with single crimson blooms highlighted by white eyes, always draws admiring glances when paired with its cousin ‘White Meidiland’. Both roses spread to about five feet and bloom continuously from spring until frost.
In rock gardens, roses such as ‘The Fairy’, a repeat performer bearing miniature pink rosettes favored by craftspeople for dried-flower compositions, and ‘Modern Blush’, with pale-pink to ivory hybrid tea-like blooms, may be planted in groups of three; here, the roses’ short stature (about three feet) makes them happy companions for cheddar pinks (Dianthus gratianopolitanus), cranesbill (Geranium cultivars and hybrids), and lavender. Because pruning need be performed but once, in earliest spring, gardeners won’t have to worry about the too-frequent trampling of nearby perennials.
Shade-tolerant ground-cover roses such as ‘Rosy Cushion’ and ‘Pearl Meidiland’ (whose soft-pink double blossoms age to an iridescent ivory) also serve handsomely as camouflage for manhole covers and other eyesores. Concrete and asphalt driveways, too, gain welcome softness when banked in low-maintenance roses, such as those in the Pavement series from Germany (“Pavement” came about as a mistranslation from the German for “Bedding”). These three-foot by three-foot Rugosa hybrids boast recurrent bloom, extreme hardiness (withstanding temperatures as low as -30 [degrees] F), and excellent disease resistance. Colors include crimson-purple (‘Rotes Meer’, with single blossoms) and salmon (‘Pink Pavement’, a semi-double). As with all the Rugosas, bushes bear colorful hips in autumn.
New cultivars worth investigating include those in the Flower Carpet series, dubbed “the environmental rose” by the plants’ German breeder, Werner Noack. Naturally resistant to mildew and black spot, these hardy roses (recommended for USDA Zones 4 through 10) require no spraying or dusting with chemicals. In American gardens, pink Flower Carpet (‘Noatraum’), introduced in 1995, has held its own against winters in Minnesota and Maine, where, without mercy, snowplows drop great white mountains on the small roses. Come October, though, these same hardy bushes are among the last plants in glorious flower. (White Flower Carpet, ‘Noaschnee’, was introduced in 1997, and a bicolored pink, called Appleblossom, is scheduled for release this spring.)
Consider the smaller heirloom shrub roses for an informal look where temperatures do not drop much below 10 [feet] F. “Scale is important,” notes rosarian G. Michael Shoup, proprietor of the Antique Rose Emporium, in Brenham, Tex., and coauthor, with Liz Druitt, of Landscaping with Antique Roses. “The hybrid musks will carry a line very well without becoming disorderly.” Created early in the 20th century by Joseph Pemberton, a retired English cleric, hybrid musks combine the virtues of Hybrid Multi-floras, Teas, Hybrid Teas, Chinas, and Hybrid PerpetuaIs. Clusters of musk-scented flowers bloom in spring and fall, and sporadically in summer. Mike Shoup adds that these rugged plants tolerate more shade than most varieties of roses and can suffice with four hours of direct sun daily. Best bets for hedging include the five- by six-foot ‘Ballerina’ (hardy in Zones 6-9), whose single pink blooms flaunt white interiors, and the five- by seven-foot ‘Belinda’, a hot-pink semidouble.
Ground-cover roses can’t eliminate weeds, as their name might mistakenly imply. Although they can do much to enrich the landscape while reducing maintenance, enough light filters through the roses’ long, arching canes to encourage chickweed, dandelions, and other gate-crashers. Gardeners who would rather stay off their knees know that mulch is the answer. A layer of homemade or nursery-bought compost applied in early spring and freshened throughout the growing season will do much to suppress weeds.
Although Hybrid Musks and Flower Carpet roses will tolerate light shade, most cultivars prefer a sunny site. When planting, allow for growth: Polyanthas like ‘The Fairy’ should be spaced two to three feet apart, while Hybrid Musks need more elbow room (six feet is recommended).
* Roses – all of them – are thirsty plants. Bushes should never be allowed to dry out completely, especially during their first year.
* For best bloom, sprinkle a handful of store-bought organic rose food around the base of each bush in early spring and again in early summer (in the North) or early autumn (in the South).
* Develop your own organic fertilizer based on your soil’s specific requirements. Nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and trace elements should all be part of the mix, in quantities dictated by soil pH. (For help in developing an organic rose-feeding program look for Maggie Oster’s The Rose Book at your local library.)
* To encourage new growth, low-growing bushes may be clipped back in early spring to within six inches of the crown; taller shrub roses benefit from shaping once a year and from the removal of dead canes.