Rethinking the Rose Garden

Excellent vo Schubert roses thrive in Sarah P. Duke Garden. Photo credit: Rick Fisher.


By Kit Flynn and Lise Jenkins

The horticulturalists at Sarah P. Duke Gardens are busy redesigning the rose garden, one they had completely overhauled just five years ago. Ten years ago, the garden consisted of finicky hybrid tea roses that needed to be sprayed within an inch of their lives. The designers then made the switch to more sustainable roses five years ago, interspersing their shrub and hybrid tea roses with perennials. When some of the roses succumbed to Rose Rosette Disease (RRD), they decided they had to make some additional changes.
Planting sustainable roses, ones that require no spraying for survival, gives you the freedom to place those roses anywhere in the garden where there is sun and good, well-draining soil. Once the need to spray no longer exists, those two parallel rows of roses seem both rigid and unnecessary.
The truth is that roses mixed in with different plants look great, far better than they did when planted in stiff rows. In reality, many roses, especially the hybrid teas (and yes, there are now many sustainable hybrid teas to choose from) are not particularly attractive shrubs. Instead of having them stand in a dull line of roses, it makes sense to include them with other plantings that soften their silhouettes.

Jane Bullock roses bloom at Duke Gardens. Photo credit: Rick Fisher.

Because visitors see the Gardens 12 months of the year, the Duke horticulturalists decided to extend the season of relevance in their new rose garden. As roses are at their best in May and June, they deliberately chose plants that would add interest at other times of the year.
How did they do this? The backbone of their garden consists of smallish evergreen plants that add architectural features to the area. In an effort to control blackspot, a fungus that is found in our soils, they avoided plants requiring overhead watering. Consequently, many of their companion plants don’t require a lot of irrigation. Drip irrigation can easily supply the roses’ demand for regular watering, water that the yuccas and agaves don’t need.
They then decided to incorporate some of the principles involved in matrix gardening. Matrix gardening follows the principles of the New Perennial Garden movement as practiced by the Dutch designer, Piet Oudolf. This movement proclaims the value of wide swathes of textures, shapes, and color over a large area. Examples of this gardening movement can be observed in Chicago’s Lurie Gardens and New York City’s High Line Park.
To hide the mulch, the Duke horticulturalists planted ornamental grasses, thereby giving movement, texture, and winter interest to the new rose garden. Matrix gardening also contributes to the continuing sustainability of the garden, another added benefit.

Ellen Poulsen roses claim a spot in Duke’s revamped rose garden. Photo credit: Rick Fisher.

This new design will not necessarily protect the roses from RRD but it will help. Microscopic wingless mites are responsible for this disease. By traveling on wind currents, they can easily go from rose to rose if the bushes are planted close to one another. Life gets more complicated for them when the roses are spread further apart.
When gardening, it sometimes helps to think outside the box. 25 years ago, everyone had roses planted in two neat rows – and we never thought of the reason behind it. Simply put, it was to make spraying easier. Instead of going throughout the garden to spray each individual rose, it made sense to place the roses all together in one spot.
In the past quarter century, gardeners have begun to question the use of chemical spraying. Gardens like Sarah P. Duke Gardens have launched programs to reevaluate how and where they plant roses. These developments have contributed to a new look at a very old concept: the rose garden.
The good news is that Sarah P. Duke Gardens is going to reopen June 1 so be sure to visit the new rose garden the next time you’re in Durham. You’ll be in for a treat.

Absent from their gardens, Kit and Lise enjoy roaming our region exploring the intersection of horticulture and suburban living. More on Instagram @AbsenteeGardener or email:

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