Bread and Roses

On the entrance arbor at the bottom of the steps that lead to our house I thought it would be nice to plant some climbing roses to add to the general fuddy-duddyness that is our 1920s bungalow. Our two climbing roses have survived neglect for many years now and put on a nice show for most of the year.

While I’m sure there are many more worthy and interesting heirloom climbing roses one can hunt down we went with two boring varieties. One is an Iceberg climbing rose that Kelly calls the “gas station rose” for its ubiquity. The other is a lot more interesting, a Don Juan climbing rose.

The Don Juan has a strong scent, a rare quality in a climbing rose. Plus the people like our Don Juan. This week I’ve seen folks Instagraming it and de-masking to smell the blossoms (hope we’re not a horticultural super-spreader event here). While our Don Juan is conventionally attractive in a red rose sorta way, the scent is the winning trait. I’d describe it as what you might imagine a perfect rose to smell like in a pleasant dream.

The Don Juan rose was introduced in 1958 by Italian rose breeder Michele Malandrone. It requires 6 to 8 hours of sunlight and grows to the manageable size of 10 to 12 feet. We’ve been more diligent in pruning in the past year to keep it tidy on the arbor.

The main problem with roses, in my opinion, is that at some times of the year the leaves are just frankly, uninteresting. As I noted I’m no rose expert, so I’d appreciate your opinions about ways to make our roses more healthy and vigorous. The soil they are planted in leaves a lot to be desired and I’m very confused about watering needs. I’m also open to suggestions from readers about interesting rose varieties either climbing or bush.

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  1. So, roses… Disclaimer — I’ve been an Old Garden Rose grower for many years, but live in a completely different climate than you (zone 5a mid Michigan), and am VERY LAZY, so these are somewhat general guidelines.

    The best roses to grow, are the ones you enjoy and are as easy care as you prefer. Iceberg is a fantastic choice (I laughed at Kelly’s description — we aren’t so lucky in our climate to have roses bursting out of gas stations); It’s fairly indestructible — you have it in poor soil and it’s growing well, yes? Then you’re doing great! Re: Don Juan — reds are a bit more difficult in our climate due to the humidity — blackspot can be an issue, but it is also known as a well loved, long lived variety, and I can see by the picture it likes your warm dry climate.

    Roses always like food and water, just like us. They can be considered heavy feeders (some are better/worse than others) so, Compost! Compost again! MOAR Compost! You don’t need to bury them, but if you have poor soil of gravely sand, or solid clay, organic matter makes it better, just like for fruit trees and the veg garden. Most perennials and shrubs have a ‘lull’ in their growth before they send out more fresh leaves, new shoots, and blooms; they can look ratty at this time — so it’s good to tidy, prune, and make sure they have food and water, so they can grow beautifully.

    I treat them like growing tomatoes — top dress with compost in spring when the leaves are newly growing/just before bud set, and again after the first flush of bloom is done to feed the next batch of flowers. If you have a continually blooming plant, you can add compost and water it in when it needs a boost of food or moisture retention — typically spring and fall is fine if you don’t want to do more.

    Of course I’m talking about actual compost (manure, guano, chicken doo, etc) but NO chemicals — that’ll be too much at once and could burn your plants. Give them good nutritious soil and water to eat and drink and feed the bees with. They aren’t giving *you* food, but they ARE giving you beauty, and can be a top-notch pollination station. Plus you don’t spray (I vote don’t spray) then you can eat the petals of the tasty varieties (they vary) or use the hips in jam or tea.

    AFA water — I’m doing a bit of learning right now about that — I used to live in a cool, partly shady, protected, clay-based soil yard, and have moved to an open hilltop full of sun, wind, gravel, and sand. I mulch like mad with grass clippings and leaves, adding compost as I go, but am still watering more than I did before, so it a work in progress. It’s better to deeply water at the base of the rose plant vs overhead sprinkles to prevent leaf disease issues, and always best to prevent moisture loss in every way possible. Many roses like their feet cool and faces in the sun, so plant around the base with low care perennials good for your climate (lavender, or other shrubby thing to keep the base of the rose and it’s root zone shaded and ‘mulched’).

    It’s better to water deeply to mimic rain, vs lightly every day. You want plant roots to go in search of a drink and grown strong, but not be parched. It’s very dry there, so you’ll have to try a few different watering schedules to see what works and hopefully a local Rosarian will chime it with some advice for your climate.

    As far as leaf health goes, it depends on if it is just a bit manky looking because it’s gotten hot/droughty, and the plant needs food or drink, or is a bit dormant for the season and will refresh itself in a few weeks, or if there is bug or disease damage etc. So, the ‘treatments’ might change depending on the issue.

    I am 99.99% organic, so I tend to be okay with a few leaves having been snipped by leaf-cutter bees, it’s the price I pay to provide for the creatures that also live with me on earth. I also ‘groom’ my roses after a bloom cycle, snapping off leaf clusters that look yellow or ratty, and deadheading as needed (some need that to rebloom well). I also grow more shrub type roses vs climbers (and ours tend to be much smaller that yours in our colder climate, so it’s easier) and also roses that drop their petals cleanly, so I can tidy less (I did say I was LAZY.) :^D

    I tend to prioritize hardiness, fragrance, and rebloom in my garden, and almost always grow roses that are species or are considered Old Garden Roses — Albas, Damasks, Centifolias, Portlands, Hybrid Perpetuals, Bourbons (I’ll bet those grow great in your zone), Ramblers, Species, Polyanthas (also likely good for you) and Hybrid Musks (good too), etc. etc. A great site for gardener photos and reviews is Also, OGR sites have good info as well, plus plenty of photos and descriptions. Be careful! It’s a complete rabbit-hole… I’m happy to answer any questions or help as I am able. Have Fun!

    • wow! so much great information! i don’t grow roses but after this information i might try – i’m in the chicago area so your climate is mine as well.


    • Wow, I have never seen such concise information! I am in Oklahoma and I constantly battle black spot. Your information was wonderful. Thank you!

  2. I grow roses on the central coast of CA. I like the heirlooms and also hybrid musks. These come in many forms– climbers, shrub, etc. I like roses that re-bloom as opposed to once-bloomers. I feed them when I remember to with a combo of fishmeal, kelp meal and alfalfa meal. My go-to easy choice is Dr. Earth rose & flower food. I’m stingy with water except for where my laundry hose drains into my main rose growing area.I prune for shape once a year (December-ish).

    The rewards far exceed the minimal work I put into maintenance! Looks like you have 2 lovely roses that you and your neighbors really like. If you want another easy, foolproof really, totally gorgeous show stopper, please get yourself a Sally Holmes. Sally is pretty ubiquitous in my town but since she’s so amazing, it’s all good. Grows very large but you can prune smaller, but why would you want to? Large single blooms that start out the palest apricot and open to a creamy pink in huge trusses that some neighbors mistook as a rhododendron. And did I mention that Sally blooms almost nonstop from about April through December… probably year round in your climate. Can be trained as a climber. Disease free for me and I don’t even try! I’ve had more inquiries and positive comments about this rose than all the other plants in my garden combined, no lie!

    Anyway… yes, grow more roses!

  3. I’m a fan of growing clematis with roses, they are a climber and to me, have interesting leaves. Also the seed head on some varieties are very architectural. I usually pick a variety that flowers the opposite as the rose does. Have a beautiful day

  4. I’m so lucky to have such knowledgeable and kind readers! I don’t know how to thank you all for the detailed advice. Thank you!

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