Grow Roses Like A Redneck

Steve Bender
Creating a rose garden doesn't have to be hard.

As I was editing the voluminous rose section of The New Southern Living Garden Book, I knew it needed to be reviewed by an expert. And not just any expert—a redneck expert. Fortunately, one person living nearby met that qualification. His name is Chris VanCleave.

Chris grows, shows, writes about, and talks about roses at his home in Helena, Alabama. He calls himself the Redneck Rosarian and opens his garden to budding rose lovers every year. Judy and I paid him a visit this spring to show you his garden and get a redneck’s perspective on why he loves growing roses and you should too. Our conversation went like this.

Grumpy: How long have you been interested in roses and what makes them special to you?
Chris: Roses have been a part of my life and my family’s lives for generations. My grandmother used to tell me stories of how her grandmother would cut flowers from their garden and take them to the graves of “our glorious dead” from the Civil War.

Steve Bender

Grumpy: How did you come to be the “Redneck Rosarian?” You don’t have a mullet.
Chris: I grew up in a great big redneck family in Tennessee whose mamas and grandmamas and great-grandmamas all grew roses. Some on the driveway. Some in car tires. And sometimes with cars still attached. But mostly in family gardens and in family graveyards. As an adult, I began to grow roses myself and saw a gap between stuffy rose societies pursuing the “perfect bloom” and what I call “roses for the real world.” I decided to try to bridge that gap as best I could, so the Redneck Rosarian was born.

Grumpy: Can just anyone be a redneck rosarian or is there an exam and certification?
Chris: ANYONE can become a redneck rosarian. In fact, there are millions of us all over the globe. Folks who threw out all the complicated rules on growing the world’s most beloved flower and grow for the beauty and joy that they provide us all. If you really get serious about becoming an expert rosarian, the American Rose Society offers a certification program which will make you a ARS approved Consulting Rosarian. It’s a three-year process that requires continuing education classes to maintain your certification. They are serious about roses!

Steve Bender

Grumpy: What are some popular misconceptions about roses?
Chris: The #1 misconception is that roses are difficult to grow. Like any species of plant, there are varieties that are more difficult than others. Advances in rose breeding have produced a ton of new varieties that are so easy to grow that even the Grumpy Gardener can do it.

Grumpy: Be careful. Be very careful.
Chris: The #2 misconception is that “easy care” means “no care.” Like any plant, roses need basic care. Shrub and landscape varieties only require weekly watering, an occasional haircut to shape them, and some good fertilizer.

Grumpy: Well, if there’s one person who knows how to sling that stuff, it’s you.
Chris: The #3 misconception is “disease-resistant” means “no disease.” We are all susceptible to disease. Roses are no different. Some varieties are more disease-resistant than others. I’ve come to be OK with a little blackspot. Good housekeeping in the garden will help deter disease. For example, remove diseased leaves when you first see them, not when the bush is covered. It’s just common sense.

Grumpy: What common mistakes do you see people making with roses?
Chris: People see a pretty bloom in the garden center and buy it on impulse with no thought to how large the plant will become. When I first started, I purchased “miniature” roses that I installed in the foreground of a border I was planting. What I didn’t know was that the term miniature referred to the size of the bloom and not the shrub. They quickly outgrew my background plants and I had to rethink my plan.

Grumpy: There’s a redneck for you.
Chris: Education is key. Learn which varieties grow well in your climate, as well as the general shape and size of the rose you want. Check out the growing information on tags before you purchase to see if it’s a good fit for the space you want to grow in.

Grumpy: People often fear roses because they think they take a lot of work. Are roses high-maintenance plants?
Chris: It really depends on the variety. For years, the industry focused on perfecting the high-centered hybrid tea rose and didn’t worry so much about disease resistance. After all, isn’t that what they sell sprays for? HA.

Grumpy: This is no laughing matter. I am filled with rage.
Chris: There are, however, some new hybrid tea varieties that I consider to be breakthrough roses. ‘Beverly’ and ‘Grande Amore’ are a couple of examples of no-spray hybrid teas that are now available. Today, the industry is in hot pursuit of roses that have a beautiful garden presence and are highly disease-resistant. Most only need trimming and shaping a few times a year.

Grumpy: Do you have any favorite selections or classes of roses? What sets them apart?
Chris: My heart belongs to Old Garden Roses and the English Roses of David Austin. OGR’s, as they are often called, are tough as nails, bloom like mad, and have a wonderful fragrance.

Grumpy: Did you just call them ogres? That’s rather insulting.
Chris: And David Austin roses are a marvel. Even in the humid Deep South, we grow varieties that require little care, make a pretty show in the garden, and are even better in arrangements.

Steve Bender

Grumpy: Other than purchase a copy of The New Southern Living Garden Book and read “The Grumpy Gardener,” how would you advise a beginner to get started?
Chris: Start with shrub roses. Examples would be the Drift series of roses, as well as the Oso Happy and Oso Easy series from Proven Winners. These roses really live up to their names. Easy to grow and a lot of color power. Once you succeed with these varieties, venture into a floribunda or maybe even a hybrid tea rose. It’s all about how much time you have to spend in your garden.

Grumpy: Give us some tips on basic care.
Chris: Roses are resilient plants, but grow best in a well-draining nutrient rich soil. I use a basic rose soil recipe that has served me well—equal parts of top soil, composted cow manure, and pine bark mini-nuggets. This gives your roses a good home to get started in. Roses love water, but hate wet feet. Water deeply once a week if it doesn’t rain. And roses seem to thrive when you change up their food. In our garden, we switch fertilizers every six weeks, alternating an all-purpose fertilizer like Miracle-Gro with Annie Haven’s Moo Poo Teas (available at manuretea.com). We have used Annie’s teas for over five years now, with award winning results. Over time, organics help enrich the soil and create a great base to grow roses in.

Grumpy: I take my manure tea with a little lemon.
Chris: I’ve heard that.

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Grumpy: What’s the approximate size of your yard and how many roses do you have?
Chris: I think we are on a 1/4 acre lot and we currently have about 180 roses. All classes of roses. I love to experiment and try new varieties. I remember my wife saying, “Honey, we have 20 roses now, we don’t have room for any more.”

Grumpy: Do you ever feel held hostage by your garden?
Chris: Not at all. As the popularity of my blog and podcast have grown, I spend more time on the road, teaching and lecturing, and my garden doesn’t always get the attention it deserves. When I am at home, there is no other place I’d rather be than in the garden.

Grumpy: Tell us a bit about “Rose Chat” podcasts.
Chris: I began the “Rose Chat” podcast to share information on growing roses. We talk to industry experts, rose breeders, authors, poets, and back yard gardeners, all of whom have wonderful stories to tell about how roses affect our daily lives. Check out RoseChatPodcast.com and chrisvancleave.com.

Grumpy: Thanks for your time, Chris. We’re leaving you these old tires and this empty propane tank as tokens of our redneck appreciation.

Steve Bender
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