An Expert's Thoughts on Growing Roses Today

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Bob Osborne is the author of Hardy Roses: The Essential Guide for High Latitudes and Altitudes (Firefly Books). For the third edition, released in spring 2020, Bob edited and updated the text and added more recommended cultivars, all based on his on-going experience as a nurseryman in New Brunswick, Canada. 

One of Bob Osborne's favorite roses is 'Maiden's Blush', which dates back 600 years.

One of Bob Osborne's favorite roses is 'Maiden's Blush', which dates back 600 years.

Bob started Corn Hill Nursery in the 1980s, with an interest in grafting. He began with apples, but later shifted to roses. (The nursery also offers a full range of trees and shrubs, fruiting plants, perennials and vines.) 

Remembering his start as a nurseryman, he says he was “too stubborn to quit, though it’s no way to get rich.” The first rose to pique his interest was a rugosa hybrid, and he soon found himself drawn to "old roses," or those with antique or historic heritage. 

“They were much hardier than I thought, and easier,” he recalls. “I got hooked!” He started collecting cultivars, of which he now has more than 200.

'Oscar Peterson' is a Canadian introduction hardy to USDA Zone 3b.

'Oscar Peterson' is a Canadian introduction hardy to USDA Zone 3b.

Corn Hill Nursery sits in USDA Zone 4b, with winter lows of –25 degrees (F). Bob remembers winters being regularly colder in the 1980s, but he says despite being warmer today, the season is “still fairly trying for many roses.” 

The nursery has been a test site for cultivars from ‘Campfire’, ‘Oscar Peterson’ and the Explorer series developed by Agriculture Canada to newer options that offer clean foliage, continuous bloom and novel colors, like salmon-to-coral ‘Chinook Sunrise’ and bright-red, non-fading ‘Canadian Shield’. ("Continuous bloom" is not the same as “repeat bloom,” Bob points out; with continuous bloom, the plant just keeps on flowering, while a repeat-blooming rose will take a break before pushing out a new flush of flowers.)

“You really don’t know a rose’s characteristics and hardiness for 15 years,” he says. Based on his observations, we’re now in an excellent age for hardy roses. Roses have had their ups and downs over the decades, but the last 10 years have seen a rise in demand for heritage roses, old garden roses, single roses and hardy cultivars. And there are many choices for gardeners who don’t want to spray their roses. There are no pesticides, herbicides or fungicides in use at Corn Hill.

“We’re working hard to convince people to feed the soil and choose disease-resistant cultivars,” Bob says. He advocates for changing the perception of a rose garden—or any garden. “We need to change the dialog about what gardens are,” he says. “Plants are important, but so is everything else.”

Bob loves 'Queen of Denmark' for its fragrance and color.

Bob loves 'Queen of Denmark' for its fragrance and color.

To that end, Bob often recommends that gardeners not be quick to interfere, but instead see how the natural process plays out, especially if they’ve made any effort to encourage birds and beneficial insects into the garden. 

“If you see some aphids, wait!” he notes, because when we intervene, it “upsets the balance, and often the pests will come back faster than their predators.”

Four standout roses

Here are a few that have made a deep impression on Bob:

Hardy to Zone 2, 'Prairie Peace' offers lovely opalescent color.

Hardy to Zone 2, 'Prairie Peace' offers lovely opalescent color.

‘Oscar Peterson’—Bob notes this as a most disease-resistant cultivar, with interesting upright, shiny leaves and clusters of pink buds that open to semi-double white flowers. It remained in full bloom well into fall at the nursery. Introduced in 2016 as a member of the Canadian Artists series and named for the Canadian jazz pianist and composer, it is hardy to USDA Zone 3b.

‘Maiden’s Blush’—This very old cultivar blooms for a month, with excellent fragrance. Introduced around 1400, it has light pink flowers with a unique overlapping pattern to the petals. It’s hardy to Zone 4a. 

‘Queen of Denmark’—Another favorite for its excellent fragrance is ‘Queen of Denmark’, which has deeper pink flowers. It is hardy to Zone 4a.

‘Prairie Peace’—Bred by Robert Erksine, a rancher and rose hobbyist in northern Canada, and introduced around 1975, ‘Prairie Peace’ boasts a hardiness to Zone 2. This rose is soft pink with yellow shading; in Hardy Roses, Bob writes, “Even those whose skies are often filled with northern light will find the colors of this rose irresistible.”

Image credits:

‘Oscar Peterson’ image by Mile Araujo/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

‘Maiden’s Blush’ image by 掬茶 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

‘Queen of Denmark’ image by Kleuske - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

‘Prairie Peace’ image by Nadiatalent - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0