"You don't want to be the slave of some plant, do you?" Allen Paterson was director of the Royal Botanical Gardens in Hamilton when he asked me that years ago.
I'd inquired if, for the winter, I needed to tip over and bury my new rosebushes, as some books advised. His instant response was: "Heavens, no. Do what's convenient for you. If they die, they die. Next year you plant something else."
That's good advice for gardeners who want to grow a few nice rosebushes in their yards but don't want to be slaves to them. And happily, the top rose breeders now want these gardeners' business. Canada's Explorer and Parkland roses have become international successes because they're winter-hardy and easy to grow. And Europe's biggest rose nursery, W. Kordes & Sons, in Germany, whose hybrids sell across Canada, won't put a new rose in its catalogue until it has survived several years in open fields near the North Sea, unprotected from cold, diseases and wildlife.
Still, choosing 10 roses can be tough. Here's how I made my selections.
• Hardiness. All but one are cold-hardy to at least Zone 5.
• Resistance to mildew, common pests and diseases.
• Availability. Most are available through several mail-order suppliers and should also be readily available in large garden centres.
• Variety, in both shrub form and colour. Obtaining colour variety is trickier than you'd think. Very hardy roses are almost always pink. Hardy reds are tough to find, and yellows are next to impossible (there's a weakness gene that comes with the yellowness), so the yellow 'Sunsprite' is more exceptional than its modest looks suggest.
My list includes no hybrid tea roses. Why not? Hybrid teas, the darlings of rose society competitions, look great in vases and photographs but less great in gardens – they're all legs and very finicky. As well, many hybrid teas lack fragrance. Most of the selections here come up smelling like a rose.
1. John Cabot Climbing Rose
(Shrub/climber, 2 m high x 2 m wide)
Introduced to the market 20 years ago, this was the first of the great Explorer roses hybridized by Felicitas Svejda for Agriculture Canada. A sprawly shrub easily trained as a climber, 'John Cabot' produces fragrant multipetalled, 7.5-centimetre-wide flowers, first and most prolifically in June, then sporadically until freeze-up. Field-tested in Ottawa since 1970, it's resistant to mildew and black spot and hardy to Zone 3. It also tolerates the Prairies' high summer temperatures well.
(Hybrid Musk, 120 cm high x 120 cm wide)
As enchanting as its name suggests, 'Ballerina' begins the season dense with mop-headed clusters of small (three centimetres across) blossoms, then keeps them coming, a bit less densely, all season. It prefers full sun but will tolerate light shade as well as such other hardships as polluted city air and heavy or stony soil. As its category suggests, 'Ballerina' has a seductive musky fragrance. Close cousin 'Mozart' is more vibrantly red. 'Ballerina' is hardy to Zone 5 if planted in a sheltered spot rather than an exposed one where winter winds are bad.
3. The Fairy
(Polyantha, 60 cm high x 120 cm wide)
'The Fairy' is a vigorous, low-growing landscape rose known for its dense, cushion-forming habit and impressive spread, which can be more than double its height. Not quite a ground cover, but close, it's ideal for small gardens. It's also the world's favourite polyantha (dwarf) rose thanks to its season-long production of small (2.5 centimetres across) blossoms. It rarely gets sick and is reliably hardy, unprotected, to -15ºC, or to Zone 5. Gardeners who live in areas colder than Zone 5 should mulch well and preferably plant it near a south-facing stone or brick wall for the reflected heat and shelter from north winds.
4. Morden Blush
(Shrub, 90 cm high x 90 cm wide)
Of the winter-hardy roses bred at Agriculture Canada's Morden (Man.) Research Station, 'Morden Blush' is best for those places that not only have severe winters but hot summers. It is, therefore, the Morden hybrid that's most widely sold in southern Canadian garden centres but its lightly fragrant blossoms can also be found in places as cold as Zone 2. After a big early show, the flowers repeat throughout the season.
(Floribunda, 120 cm high x 120 cm wide)
In 1983 the World Federation of Rose Societies voted this the world's favourite rose - for good reason. Given diligent deadheading, a bush will produce wave after wave of bloom in clusters of three to seven flowers, each one about 7.5 centimetres across. Nearly thornless, somewhat shade-tolerant and only mildly susceptible to black spot, its main drawback is a relatively weak fragrance. Cold-hardy to Zone 4, 'Iceberg' keeps flowering until frosts get serious.
(Floribunda, 120 cm high x 120 cm wide)
Remarkably heat- and cold-tolerant for a red rose, 'Lavaglut' has been known to survive winters to -35ºC in Estonia but has also been recorded blooming at 42ºC in California and Texas. The American Rose Society gives it a very high rating for its pest and disease resistance as well as for the fact that its large, velvety flowers last well, even in high heat. 'Lavaglut' is also marketed under the names 'Lavaglow' and 'Intrigue'. It's generally hardy to Zone 4 with protection.
(Floribunda, 60 cm high x 60 cm wide)
'Sunsprite' is outstanding among modern hybrids for both its fragrance and, for a yellow rose, its hardiness and disease resistance. The Kordes family, who bred it, call it 'Friesia', a name that sometimes appears in catalogues, too. It blooms in profusion throughout the season, though its cousin 'Sun Flare' is often used in places where summers get hot since 'Sunsprite' prefers cooler climes. It's hardy to Zone 5 with protection.
8. Grusse an Aachen
(Floribunda, 75 cm high x 45 cm wide)
Long unclassified, 'Grusse an Aachen', which means "Greetings to Aachen," is a precursor to David Austin's popular English roses. It's also regarded as the first floribunda (large clusters of ever-blooming flowers) and one of the world's current favourite garden roses. The blossoms, up to 10 centimetres across, open creamy white, then shift to salmon. Spring and fall produce big flushes against dark green foliage, but flowers appear throughout the season, sweetly but subtly fragrant. Fungus-resistant and hardy to -15ºC (Zone 5), it blooms with as little as four to five hours of direct sun daily.
9. Stanwell Perpetual
(Old garden rose, 150 cm high x 180 cm wide)*
The oldest rose listed here, 'Stanwell Perpetual' has enchanted garden visitors for more than 160 years, especially in spring, when its blossoms all but smother the bush. A great hedging rose with lots of thorns, it has a rich scent in flower; even its leaves are scented, smelling of dill when wet. Flushes of bloom repeat through October. Hardy to Zone 3, it withstands frosts to -25ºC. It may attract beetles and black spot but is generally trouble-free.
10. Zéphirine Drouhin
(Bourbon, climber, up to 2 m in height)
With its almost thornless canes and climbing habit, this is the best rose for growing on pergolas and trellis gates, where skin or fabrics might brush against a plant. These structures are also ideal for showcasing its fine fragrance. ‘Zéphirine Drouhin' has major flushes of bloom in spring and fall, with smaller ones between. It's slightly susceptible to mildew and black spot. Though it's hardy in Canada to Zone 6, wrap climbing canes in burlap for winter unless they're very well sheltered.
Shopping tips: Buy Canadian; Canadian growers use hardier rootstock. If possible shop in person and choose the healthiest plants. Plant so the graft to the rootstock is at least five centimetres below soil level – not above it, as English and American gardening books recommend. After hard winters, prune away deadwood.