The Dry Garden: Scout for the best roses, then let beauties prove just how tough they can be


This article was originally on a blog post platform and may be missing photos, graphics or links. See About archive blog posts.

This may not be the time to plant a rose, but as a long rose season concludes its spring flush, it is an ideal moment to study the varieties around town, then consider which ones you like and what they might do for your garden.

How such hardy plants spawned the modern rose care industry will one day make a fabulous subject for a business writer. A 2004 Home cover story titled “Rethinking the Rose” challenged the idea that roses need pampering, if stumping their branches in winter, drenching their roots in summer, dusting the foliage with fungicides and filling their arteries with systemic pesticides can be called pampering.


What is worth picking up on here and now is that few notionally water-loving plants transition quite so seamlessly into the Mediterranean-climate garden.

Success is not limited to the heavily armored and small flowered native Rosa californica but applies to almost any rose. Tea roses. Old roses. Single blossoms. Doubles. French roses. English roses. Texas roses.

This is important because, as we all do what we can to conserve natural resources, no one should feel guilty about growing roses. We need only to water them less, mulch them more and surround them with less thirsty lawn and more resilient herbs and shrubs.

There are few cheaper pleasures. Bought bare root from January through March, even the best roses might cost only $20. Anyone could plant one. The requirements are a spot with at least four hours of sun, a pair of garden gloves to protect against the thorns, some composted horse manure or good fertilizer (Dr. Earth works), a small shovel and a hose or watering can. Once a well-sited rose reaches its third year, it should require no irrigation in winter; watering weekly or monthly will suffice in the warm season depending on your microclimate, how much sun it gets and the soil. Roses enjoy the same water regimen preferred by a herb garden full of the tough Mediterranean classics of lavender, oregano, thyme, sage and rosemary. Not by accident, roses look perfect in this company.

If you’ve had a rose do poorly, that’s a shame, but it’s no reason to quit. Some roses fail to thrive. It could be the plant, it could be site, it could be disease or pestilence, or it could be all of those factors. If a rose doesn’t perform, follow one of the funniest rose world aphorisms: “Prune it with a shovel.” You will be out little more than the price of a bouquet of cut flowers. Next bare-root season, try again with a different variety in a different spot.

But the success rate of roses is phenomenal. A saying common among rose spotters who hunt down old varieties in cemeteries goes, “Even dead people can grow them.” I’ve seen David Austin roses partnered with paddle cactus in dry gardens, and they flowering fabulously, if only once a year, after winter rain. Constant dead-heading and summer water can force successive flushes of flowers. Unlike many gardeners, I don’t do this, or recommend it. To my eye, summer roses are as wrong as summer cherry blossoms. I prefer to watch the plant slip into something close to summer dormancy as its fruit, called hips, slowly ripen. A wan set of fall blossoms, which often set as days shorten and cool, is another thing, deeply touching.

So if you’ve never considered roses because you thought they took too much water, they don’t. Have at it.

Admire them now. Then look at your home. Think where a spring burst of color, scent and frank romance might belong in your garden. As planting season approaches in the fall, leave a place for a rose. Then tuck it in just after winter solstice. It will let you know when spring is here.

-- Emily Green

Green’s column on low-water gardening appears here every Friday. For an easy way to follow future installments, join our Facebook page for gardening in the West.

A David Austin rose is displayed during the Chelsea Flower Show last month in London.

Photo credits, from top: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times; Los Angeles Times; Ben Stansall / AFP / Getty Images