English Roses: Three Secrets for Growing These Luscious Landscape Plants in the West

By Brenzel, Kathleen Norris | Sunset, January 2004 | Go to article overview

English Roses: Three Secrets for Growing These Luscious Landscape Plants in the West


Brenzel, Kathleen Norris, Sunset


Sometimes, all it takes to make a garden look loved is a great rose. Or, more precisely, an English rose with gracefully arching canes and sumptuous, softly colored blooms that open like teacups filled with fluffy petals. These modern hybrids, developed in England by David Austin during the late 1960s, combine the flower form of old roses like Bourbons, Damasks, and Gallicas with the repeat-blooming habit of modern hybrid teas and floribundas. English roses come in shades of apricot and amber-gold as well as reds, pinks, and white. Many are richly perfumed.

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If there's a downside to these beauties, it's that they don't always perform in the West as described in catalogs. Where growing seasons are long and warm, a variety that stays a docile 4 feet tall in England's soft northern light and drizzle can gallop to 14 feet or taller with just a few flower clusters on the cane tips. Imagine a summer hat perched high atop a bunch of willowy canes, and you get the picture.

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But by paying attention to the three guidelines that follow, gardeners throughout the West can succeed with English roses. In mild-winter areas, now is the best time to add a little romance to your garden.

Match variety with region

Ask any rose expert to name a favorite English rose, and the response is most often based on how well that particular variety grows in the expert's region. "'Tamora' is really wonderful--well behaved in our climate," says Syl Arena of Arena Roses. Clair Martin, rose curator at Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California, adds, "'William Shakespeare 2000' is one of the best ever--very fragrant, and tolerates heat." Kimberli Wadsworth of High Country Roses likes 'Graham Thomas' because "it stays 4 feet tall here, and blooms all summer for us."

The 10 varieties listed at left are favored by rose experts we interviewed; all are gorgeous and easy to grow. Most are well behaved, except where noted.

Consider the plant's use

English roses vary from shrubs to gangly sprawlers and climbers; choose a variety suited to the effect you want as well as to your site and climate.

Informal hedge. Bushy shrubs make the best hedges. "'Mary Rose' is spectacular," says John Clements of Heirloom Roses, whose plants form a 100-foot-long hedge. He spaces his plants about 2 1/2 feet apart.

Beds and borders. Varieties with short, upright growth are good in beds. For mixed borders, pair English roses with perennials. Pink-flowered 'Eglantyne', for example, is pretty with lower-growing, blue-flowered Salvia nemorosa 'East Friesland'.

Climbers. Many English roses can be trained as 6- to 8-foot climbers, ideal for walls, small arches, or pillars. These include 'Abraham Darby', 'Gertrude Jekyll', and 'Graham Thomas'.

Focal point. For visual punch in a large area, plant three bush-type roses of the same variety 18 inches apart in a triangle formation; allow 2 1/2 feet between this grouping and any neighboring plants. As they grow, the roses will weave together to resemble a single more dramatic shrub.

Prune or train them

Allow English roses to develop for two to three years before pruning them. Then, toward the end of winter before growth starts, prune as needed according to their growth habits.

Bushy kinds need only a light annual pruning. Remove dead, crossing, or diseased canes, then cut out a few old stems at the base. Finally, cut back the remaining canes, removing just the tips. In warm climates, some shrub types produce long, flexible canes. You can grow these kinds as climbers (encourage bloom by fanning out the canes, or by pruning a few of the main stems lower than the others). …

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