Blooms Among the Thorns

For Alaska gardeners, cultivating roses leads to experimentation and innovation

Story By Maia Nolan-Partnow

  • Music Box Shrub Photo courtesy of Dani Haviland Music Box Shrub
  • Burgundy Iceberg Photo courtesy of Dani Haviland Burgundy Iceberg
  • Red Leaf Rose Photo courtesy of Debbie Hinchey Red Leaf Rose
  • Ruffled Cloud Photo courtesy of by Dani Haviland Ruffled Cloud
  • Photo courtesy of Debbie Hinchey
  • Altai Rose Photo courtesy of Debbie Hinchey Altai Rose
  • Parkland Roses Photo courtesy of Dani Haviland Parkland Roses
  • Cecile Brunner Rose Photo courtesy of Dani Haviland Cecile Brunner Rose
  • Henry Kelsey Explorer Rose Photo courtesy of Mel Monsen Henry Kelsey Explorer Rose
  • John Franklin Explorer Rose John Franklin Explorer Rose
  • Music Box Music Box
  • Darts Dash Rugosa Darts Dash Rugosa
  • Topaz Jewel Rugosa Topaz Jewel Rugosa
  • Topaz Jewel Rugosa Topaz Jewel Rugosa
  • Simon Fraser Simon Fraser By Mary Wondzell
  • Scarlet Glow Scarlet Glow
  • Mrs. Doreen Pike Mrs. Doreen Pike By Mary Wondzell
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  • Morden Sunrise Morden Sunrise By Mary Wondzell
  • Morden Snow Beauty Morden Snow Beauty By Mary Wondzell
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  • Metis Rose Metis Rose By Mary Wondzell
  • Lambert Closse Lambert Closse By Mary Wondzell
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  • Henry Hudson Henry Hudson By Mary Wondzell
  • Centennial Rose Garden Centennial Rose Garden
  • Alika Alika
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  • Chuckles Chuckles By Mary Wondzell
  • Centennial Rose Garden Centennial Rose Garden
  • Centennial Rose Garden Centennial Rose Garden
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  • Centennial Rose Garden Centennial Rose Garden By Mary Wondzell
  • Morden Centennial Morden Centennial By Chuck Decker
  • Centennial Rose Garden Centennial Rose Garden
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When Dani Haviland moved to Alaska more than 20 years ago, it didn’t take her long to learn the outlook for growing roses on the Last Frontier was - well, less than rosy.

Tips from the experts

  • Plant in full sun. “They don’t grow in the shade,” Hinchey says. “Roses like all the warmth and sunshine they can get, especially in Alaska.”
  • Mulch. In a perfect world, you’d get a consistent snow cover all winter, but since that’s not something you can rely on, protect your roses with clean brown mulch. Haviland and Hinchey both recommend leaves. (Make sure they’re pest- and disease-free.)
  • When shopping, look for own root roses rather than grafted varieties. “If you get a winter kill and you’ve got a grafted rose, you’re going to kill the top part of the rose plant,” Haviland says.
  • Get plants in the ground early in the season, once the ground is thawed and they’ll be able to get at least six hours of sun a day. Hinchey advises that planting too close to freeze-up can cause roses to heave out of the ground, damaging their roots.
  • Haviland advises against fertilizing before a rose has been growing for six weeks, as the plant is still “timid” during that time. She also recommends you stop cutting, deadheading or picking off hips about six weeks before the last frost to keep from encouraging late-season growth that will just freeze off.
  • Neither Hinchey nor Haviland recommends container planting with hardier varieties. The Alaska Rose Society adds, however, that tender roses tend to grow better in pots possibly due to the warmer soil. 

“Everybody told me you can only plant the Sitka, or rugosa, roses,” Haviland says. But Haviland isn’t one to listen to naysayers. So when she moved into a new house in 2000, she set to work testing that rose theory.

Twelve seasons and more than 1,000 rose plants later, she can say with certainty that it’s absolutely possible to grow roses in Alaska – but it can be a thorny endeavor. Haviland estimates that of the roses she plants every year, only about 20 percent survive to see a second summer.

“Our roses have to be dormant for essentially six months out of the year, and it uses up a lot of reserve,” Haviland says. Still, she’s had a lot of surprises since she planted an odds-beating Cecile Brunner rose, that very first year in her Chugiak garden.“It’s still alive,” Haviland says. Then she discovered some miniature roses that made it to a second season. There were more successes, with floribundas, shrub roses, Albas, and one beautiful Vanguard with a burgundy stalk, lime green foliage, and soft apricot flowers.

That got Haviland rethinking her approach to rose gardening.“I decided that I was going to buy the roses I wanted to, and if they came back, great – and if they didn’t, oh well,” she says. That doesn’t mean she hasn’t learned a thing or two about the best ways to help maximize her chances.

Experimentation and discovery

Haviland has had success planting roses in wide, shallow holes, a recommendation she picked up from Anchorage garden guru Jeff Lowenfels.“All the good stuff in the earth is going to be in the first eight to 10 inches,” she says. Good drainage and air circulation are also important. And a few years ago, Haviland made a surprising discovery: Bare root roses thrive in water. Now, in addition to the 50 roses thriving in her garden, she grows a wide variety in buckets. Goldfish dart among the roots, feeding on mosquito larvae, providing both pest control and natural fertilizer. She set up a business, Chill Out! Roses, to sell to fellow gardeners.

“Five-gallon buckets work great,” Haviland says. “You’ve got the advantage of keeping them inside in the springtime, and when it warms up you take them back outside.”

Defining ‘hardy’

Willingness to experiment is a quality Haviland shares with another Southcentral Alaska rose junkie, Debbie Hinchey. Hinchey is president of the Alaska Rose Society, the volunteer group that maintains the Centennial Rose Garden on Anchorage’s Delaney Park Strip. She and her fellow volunteer gardeners have learned a lot about subarctic rose cultivation, much of it through trial and error. After years of struggling with moving roses to a bunker at Kincaid Park for the winter just to see most of them die, Society members decided it was time to take a more practical approach.

“We said: ‘If we’re going to be involved, we want to work with hardy roses,’ ” says Hinchey. “So we’ve kept records and tried to figure out what is hardy and what isn’t.” The Society documents successes and failures alike, and they’ve used those lessons to improve their results. Raised beds, provided by volunteer labor, donations and an Anchorage Park Foundation grant, have been one of the most significant changes. “It makes the bed a little bit warmer,” Hinchey says.

They’ve found that more fragrant varieties tend to be less hardy, but they’ve had great success with hybrid roses that have rosa rugosa in their parentage. Hinchey particularly recommends varieties of hardy Canadian Explorer and Parkland roses, developed at a research station in Manitoba.

‘Get out there and try it’

Currently, Hinchey estimates there are close to 100 different varieties growing in the downtown garden. Along with Haviland, she recommends “own root” roses rather than grafted plants. And she also shares Haviland’s easy-come, easy-go approach. Hinchey plants hybrid tea roses in her own garden most years even though they’re unlikely to make it through the winter. Her husband loves the fragrant blooms, and Hinchey is fine with making the annual investment. “They’re really not that much more expensive than buying geraniums,” she says. “Just enjoy it, don’t think about it, and you can try another color next year.”

Bottom line: Rose gardening in Alaska requires patience, perseverance and a willingness to accept that some factors are simply beyond your control.

“Just kind of think of it as an experiment,” says Hinchey. “You’ve got to get out there and try it.”