NEW YORK (MONEY Magazine) -
Garden fashions come and go -- right now, pale English borders are out, and hot-colored tropicals are in -- but through it all, roses remain.
No other flower is as widely loved, as widely planted -- or as likely to cause you some sort of grief. And now that rose bushes are sold by supermarkets and big-box stores, the grief quotient appears to be rising.
It doesn't have to be that way. With several dozen classes of roses and somewhere around 11,000 varieties in commerce in the United States, at least a few will be right for you, no matter where you live or how verdant your thumb. The trick is knowing how to pick them without getting stuck.
To that end, MONEY consulted expert rosarians, as rose specialists are called, from around the country. The result: five tips for success with roses.
1. Know what you want.
Our experts all said that impulse shopping is responsible for the majority of gardeners' disappointments.
"Try not to fall in love at first sight," says Jeff Wyckoff, national chairman of horticultural judging for the American Rose Society. "You will have much greater success if you start with a list of priorities."
Do you want a small, tidy plant or something the size of a house? Are you set on a hybrid tea, like the roses at the florist, or do you crave an old garden rose, as round and ruffled as an antebellum crinoline? What color will fill the bill? And just how do you feel about thorns? Most roses marketed as "easy" are very prickly characters.
2. Know your growing conditions.
Roses love sun and must have at least five or six hours of it a day in order to bloom. They also need well-drained, fertile soil. And location matters.
"Folks in Southern California can easily grow beautiful hybrid teas, while simply getting the plants to survive is a struggle in the upper Midwest," says Peter Schneider, co-editor of the Combined Rose List, which contains detailed descriptions of over 14,000 varieties (combinedroselist.com; 330-296-2618).
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And there's more to it than just stayin' alive. Carl Wagner, a longtime rosarian and judge for the American Rose Society who gardens in Leakey, Texas, advises choosing hybrid teas with a high petal count because they last longer in the heat. The deep red 'Uncle Joe' is "foolproof," he says.
But Wyckoff, who gardens in Seattle, volunteers that 'Uncle Joe' often fails to open in the Northwest. Hybrid teas with fewer petals usually do better there, he says, "and so do those old garden roses, like gallicas, that bloom only once a year."
"If you live where there is a lot of hot weather," he adds, "rebloomers like Chinas, teas and noisettes are better old roses to choose."
3. Read up.
China? Gallica? Noisette? And that's just the start of it. Get ready for damask, Bourbon and many others.
You're more likely to get what you want if you have a general sense of rose classes. The excellent short overview in "Roses," by Roger Phillips and Martyn Rix (Random House, 1988), is one of my favorites; the book is currently out of print but is widely available used.
Once you see the range of choices, you may want types of roses -- like those gallicas and damasks -- that don't show up at the corner nursery.
The Combined Rose List and the rose branch of helpmefind.com can lead you to thousands of varieties and hundreds of specialty nurseries. For users' reviews of rose nurseries, check out the Web site Gardenwatchdog.com.
4. Be skeptical.
Catalogues from specialty nurseries offer hundreds of roses, each of which sounds more glorious than the last.
Many truly are terrific, but it is wise to take the descriptions with a grain of salt, says Suzanne Verrier, author of "Rosa Rugosa" (Firefly Books, 1999), who runs North Creek Farm rose nursery in Phippsburg, Maine.
A spoonful of salt might be a better measure. Catalogues are ads. "Somewhat prone to black spot" means the plant is sure to get this disfiguring disease.
"Light," "delicate" or "subtle" fragrance means you won't detect any scent unless your uncle was a bloodhound. "Tolerates heat" means the plant won't do diddly unless you can use the pool for at least eight months a year.
5. Buy the best.
You can find plenty of gorgeous roses at your neighborhood nursery, but it pays to be a picky customer.
Most of the potted roses you'll find there are field grown by wholesale nurseries and will carry a grade label: No. 1 for two-year-old plants with at least three strong main stems; No. 1 1/2 for two-year-old plants that have two main stems; and No. 2 for plants that are only one year old. (Some specialty nurseries, primarily mail-order sellers, grow their own and may not use the grading system.)
"Buying grade No. 1 roses is always worth the investment," says Kitty Belendez, president emeritus of the Los Angeles Rose Society.
When you think of the labor it takes to plant and care for the rose, and the time it takes to reach its potential, there's no sense in starting out with anything less than the best.
In spring you may see plants being sold "bare root" instead of planted in soil. Because the naked roots must be packed in moist material, kept cool and planted as soon as possible, this works best with mail orders. A bare-root rose that's been sitting around in a store is never a bargain, no matter what it costs.
Look past the flowers on blooming plants and avoid those with crossing main branches, which will cause problems later. Check for aphids, yellowing leaves or other signs of distress.
And don't automatically assume that a big, bushy plant is robust. Most wholesale growers and retail nurseries routinely use lots of pesticides and fungicides, so if the variety is disease-prone, you'll probably need to keep spraying.
How can you know if the rose you like is disease-prone? Go home and research it online, or check with the information mavens mentioned in Getting Help, above.
If you're faithful to the first principle -- don't buy on impulse -- your garden's future will be rosy indeed.
Leslie Land's latest book is "1,000 Gardening Questions and Answers from the New York Times" (Workman, $19.95).