"The March of Death" in the Rose Garden
(or How to Cull Non-productive Roses)

by Ed Bradley

(Photo by Jamie Elliott)

Most Rosarians have more roses than we need. We also get caught up in the hysteria of getting every new rose that hits the market, thinking it will surely be the one that gets the big trophy. But, the truth is – all roses don’t do well in all locales. I couldn’t possibly count all of the roses I’ve discarded in the past 25 years.  (I have replaced 4 hybrid teas and 6 miniatures this summer.) I am reluctant to buy all of the hype about new roses; however, I sometimes still take the bait – hook, line and sinker – and thereby end up with non-productive roses in my garden.

What is a non-productive rose? We all have some criterion by which we evaluate roses in our gardens. Maybe it is show quality; maybe it is fragrance; maybe it is home-bouquet quality, or just good, long lasting color in the garden. Sometimes, we keep roses for purely sentimental reasons. And, that is OK, if you don’t expect much from them in terms of performance. Whatever it is – you expect your rose to meet your expectations. (If you don’t have criterion, you should have!  Otherwise, you’ll be growing anything.) When your roses do not live up to your standards, they deserve to be “shovel-pruned” and passed to the landfill or compost pile.

So, what’s the problem? The problem is that we are too reluctant to cast out non-productive roses. Culling roses means some hard decisions. We let them linger, thinking they will get better – after all, the catalog or even a friend said this was a “must have” rose. Roses are getting very expensive, so throwing one away, or replacing it, can be a costly decision. Being Rosarians, we really like to grow things, so to discard one goes against our nature.  Nonetheless, it needs to be done.

Culling roses can be a simple process, followed by a discipline to stick with your decisions. I call it the March of Death in the Rose Garden. Take some strips of red ribbon, put on your heartless attitude, and walk through your garden. Tie a red ribbon on all of the roses which have not lived up to your expectations. Do this after you’ve had a full growing season to evaluate their performance. Now comes the tough part – Stick to your decisions. That is the reason for the red ribbon. It is easy to mentally say, “I think I’ll dig that Chicago Peace next Winter and plant a new Gemini there.” Well – you know what – when September brings cool nights, and October brings some cool rain and cooler days, that old C.P. is going to give you some of the biggest and most spectacular blooms you have ever seen. Then, you’re going to say, “I can’t get rid of anything that beautiful!” We’ve all been there, right? So, tie your ribbon on her. After you’ve harvested all of those gorgeous blooms, dig her up!  Order your Gemini, and prepare that spot for a new productive rose. You’ll be glad you did.

After you get over the initial pain, go ahead and dig all of those you have tied red ribbons on. If you find that you are discarding too many roses, you may want to re-evaluate your criterion for good roses. I don’t suggest removing a rose until you have grown it for at least two full seasons. Also, examine your desire to be the “first on the block” with all the newest roses. Let someone else grow them in your area; you can evaluate them in their garden, and perhaps save lots of money.