Knock Out Rose: A Knock Out Introduction

David Austin’s ‘James Galway’ rose, Photo by Kit Flynn.


By Kit Flynn

In 2000, a landmark rose appeared suddenly in nurseries, beginning its rise to become the best-selling rose of all time.

While this was a nice rose, outwardly, it didn’t appear to have anything spectacular about it. However, Knock Out introduced two concepts into the public gardening conscience: (1) “disease resistance” became an important catch phrase pertaining to roses; and (2) it helped to wean the public from the concept of hybrid tea roses.

This introduction, accompanied by an acceleration of the women’s liberation movement, contributed to the decline of the hybrid tea in the gardening consciousness. According to my totally unscientific reasoning, the 20th century had been devoted to the hybrid teas, whose blooms clearly discerned the need of a vase.

Flower arrangement was extremely important at a time when women were basically at home tending to the kitchen and the children. Rules for these arrangements were often so stringent that I had friends quaking with anxiety when submitting their floral bouquets for final judgment at their garden clubs.

By 2000, things had changed. Women had galloped into the work force and no one had time to design floral arrangements, much less follow the arcane instructions demanded by the experts. Hitting the market at the right time, Knock Out was a shrub rose demanding very little time and attention. Because it required no spraying, Knock Outs could be scattered throughout the garden, thereby escaping the rigid two row rose gardens.

Gardeners, who equated roses with hybrid teas, suddenly discovered a whole array of roses shapes that were great additions to the garden. The shrub rose, a form that has been with us for a long time, was ripe for making its return. Insisting upon sustainable roses for a decade before the arrival of Knock Out, Europeans, led by the Germans, had turned to shrub roses for inspiration and hybridization. David Austin was busy creating his English roses, “roses that combine the best characteristics of hybrid teas…with the best traits of the old shrub roses,” according to Allen Lacy.

At the same time some hybridizers in the US were also searching for sustainable roses. Texas A&M started their successful Earth-Kind trials while collectors were turning to the Buck roses, roses hybridized by the Iowan Griffith Buck that were particularly hardy.

Now admittedly I tend to be a bit nutty when it comes to roses. I now spread shrub roses throughout the garden, making it easier to feast my eyes on individual blooms. My approach to growing roses is a bit unorthodox—but I am savoring the results. And while I have nary a Knock Out in my garden, I remain grateful to the new thinking of roses that this rose offered.

I have several requirements when it comes to growing roses. In the first place, I will only grow roses that are “disease resistant.” If those two words are not contained in the description, I know it is not the rose for me because I refuse to subject myself to the rigors of a spraying regime.

In the second place, I will only purchase roses that are grown on their own roots that will also give the rose durability down the road.

The shrub rose ‘Gabrielle Privat.’ Photo by Kit Flynn.

Now, there are some downsides to growing roses on their own roots. Some roses are not strong enough to exist on their own roots—do you really want such a rose in your garden? The other downside is that a rose on its own roots may concentrate two growing seasons on developing its own root system before tending to its top growth. Grafted roses take off quicker but will not last as long.

Coming in different sizes and shapes, shrub roses work well scattered throughout the garden, provided you take into account their eventual size. For years I heavily pruned my roses, telling them that they couldn’t exceed certain height limits. And, over the years, I learned this is the equivalent of telling your son whose body wants to be 6’4” that he has to stop growing at 6’. Like sons (and daughters), roses continue to grow if it’s part of their genetic makeup. That old adage, “You can’t fight Mother Nature,” suddenly takes on a deeper meaning.

The thing about roses is this: They are all different. The shrub roses, because their blooms aren’t perfect for floral arrangements, haven’t been hybridized to the point that their survival is threatened. Some shrub roses are tall whereas others barely are three feet high.

Hybrid teas need a yearly aggressive pruning and there are plenty of pruning demonstrations available on various websites. What I slowly learned from having shrub roses is that these roses need a simple pruning—no more than one-third off—in February when there is a sign of new growth as they bloom on new wood (unlike the Lady Banks rose). They do require fertilizing so I use either Mill’s Magic Rose Mix or David Austin’s Rose Food as these have been formulated to match the needs of the roses. I fertilize three times during the growing season: once in March, again after the first flush of blooms are gone, and once more in July.

Where should you purchase shrub roses? Unfortunately, I cannot recommend the big box stores for the simple reason the growers are only paid for those specimens that sell. Consequently, their roses are heavily fertilized and juiced up. This is not a wise purchase because the rose has no place but to go down from these splendid over-fertilized heights.

Instead, there are a number of nurseries that raise their own stock on their own roots. My favorite is right across the state line in South Carolina, Roses Unlimited. Heirloom Roses has a lovely, navigable website with a lot of great information. David Austin has some wonderful shrub roses while the old classic, The Antique Rose Emporium has some lovely choices. Unfortunately, Heirloom Roses no longer hands out the “disease resistant” designation so you’ll have to do your research (but haven’t I nagged about this before?).

When you plant a shrub rose, remember that this is part of the revolution started by one rather insignificant rose, Knock Out. That’s quite a legacy.

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1 Comment on "Knock Out Rose: A Knock Out Introduction"

  1. Hello…..great article.
    Just planted two of these roses….lots of blooms and seemed happy. This a.m. ALL the blooms were
    gone!! 🤯. Deer?? Or what else?
    Anything to not let this happen again…if we get more blooms?
    Thank you.

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