Grow Roses with Ease

Home to hundreds of roses, this North Carolina mountainside garden shows it all comes down to choosing the right plants.
Article: Susan Stiles Dowell

Whoever says roses are finicky and hard to grow hasn't seen this quarter-acre garden cascading off a North Carolina mountainside. Bushes of blooms mound the driveway in front of a miles-wide view. A rose-covered arch opens on a steep stone staircase that descends to terraces planted like rice paddies with seemingly every color of the genus Rosa imaginable.

It's the masterpiece of a professional gardener, right? The showplace of a rosarian? Think again. It's the work of just one man, Doug Gifford, who started simply: He wanted to give his wife, Shari, a rose garden.

Doug had no intention of growing anything when he bought 4 acres of steep land opposite Whiteside Mountain in Cashiers. He sold his lawn mower with his suburban-Atlanta house and intended never to plant, fertilize, water, or weed again. But Shari loves flowers, and he's a painter who's used to dedication and hard work. "I remember thinking, 'You can't score if you don't shoot,' " he says. "So I read some books and planted six rosebushes."

Doug says some hybrid tea roses "not tough enough for the wind and cold up here at 3,800 feet above sea level" almost derailed him. Then he discovered cold-hardy, nongrafted roses that thrive in his mountain climate. These include Bourbon types and the wondrous array of David Austin hybrid English roses that combine the fragrance, form, and flower shapes of old-fashioned types.

By the fourth year, Doug had expanded from a small plot near the house to terraces he made going down the adjacent slope. "It's a 30-degree drop, so I had to fill in natural crevices with good soil and fine-ground pine bark mulch," he says. "I probably lugged 2,500 bags of aged cow manure and mushroom compost down there. The mulch retains moisture, and walls I built from scavenged stone save the beds from washout."

In 12 years, Doug has planted 300 rosebushes "and moved every one of them at least once for color composition," he says. He doesn't mind the work at all. When visitors ask how he does it, he gives this simple answer: "One foot at a time."

Follow Doug's Advice for gorgeous, easy-to-grow roses:
Feed roses every spring, and improve the soil by spreading cottonseed meal or alfalfa meal around them at the rate specified on the bag. These organic products slowly break down all summer. Twice a season, spray roses with Miracle-Gro Bloom Booster Flower Food, which you can put in a feeder bottle that attaches to a garden hose.
Focus on own-root, nongrafted roses that are labeled for your climate zone. Grafted roses have performed poorly beyond their first year in Doug's garden, so he buys only roses that are grown on their own roots and are labeled for his climate zone or even colder. They are hardier, fuller, more vigorous, and don't sucker. Mail-order sources include chambleeroses.com, heirloomroses.com, and antiqueroseemporium.com.
Plant the root-ball an inch deeper than the surrounding soil to promote new canes and protect against wind and cold. Mulch using ground bark or pine straw.
Order a delivery of night crawlers to fertilize and aerate planting beds (blueridgevermiculture.com). Doug distributed 5,000 in his garden.
Get help to control Japanese beetles by making your neighbors a present of some beetle traps and promising them a bouquet of roses.