Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Anti-Knockout Cultivarist

Okay, I'm just going to say it.  Somebody's got to say it first, so I will.

I absolutely hate the Knockout series of roses.

Well, okay, I don't absolutely hate them, I just regret their existence on the earth. And I don't really hate Knockout's existence, per se, I simply resent what they've done to the marketplace for roses and to local landscaping in general.  Oh fine, I do hate them. Be honest with me, won't you?  Don't we all?

Too much of a good thing is almost never a good thing.  The American electorate recognizes the fact and rarely gives either political party full control of  Executive and Legislative branches at once.  If they do, they quickly realize the error and correct it, as we saw yesterday on Election Day 2010. 

So it is with Knockout and its cousins Double Red Knockout, Pink Knockout, Double Pink Knockout, Sunny Knockout, Rainbow Knockout, Blushing Knockout and whatever other Knockout deformities there are to come. Bill Radler is a genius as a rose breeder, and he may indeed have, as one website said, "single-handedly brought rose genetics from the 20th Century into the 21st Century," but he also may be partially culpable in the recent bankruptcy of a number of large rose-breeding companies. Don't get me wrong, Knockout is a great rose. It is certainly disease-free, hardy, self-cleaning, and it blooms and blooms and blooms. It's just that in its original form,"red" Knockout is really a kind of a dark, dark pink, not anywhere near crimson red, and so I find the color clashes against my preference for bright, clear colors in my landscaping. It also has no fragrance and thus, to a real rosarian, lacks a soul. Unfortunately, Knockout is becoming so ubiquitous around town that it is about to join my common, oft-derided trio of Stella de Oro, gold-tipped junipers, and purple barberries as the fourth member of an uninspiring contemptuous landscaping quartet planted everywhere we turn our gaze. What is wrong with professional landscapers that leads them back repeatedly to those four plants?  It is so bad around here that I recently noticed that the little traffic dividers and parking lot planters in the newest commercial development were reddish-pink Knockout's as backdrops to the lower-grown dayglow-orange Stella de Oro's as far as the eye could see. Yuck. I turned my Jeep away and hightailed it to more soothing vistas.

I didn't see the tsunami coming until this year, when every local box store had nothing for sale but own-root Knockout's of various types and when the local independent nurseries were reduced to selling Knockout alongside the various normal smattering of Hybrid Teas and Grandifloras. And although all these commercial establishments were just in competition with each other to sell the most Knockout's, and although it seemed like many of them had a lot of Knockout's left over on sale at the end of the season, I've got an uneasy feeling about where the trend is leading for next year.

I'm already on the fringe of the rose gardening world with my preference for shrub and Old Garden roses, so I really detest being shoved farther towards eccentricity as rose fashions change. I can't help it: the graceful ladies that I love have better scent and form and even though they're a little more diseased and older than the newer Knockout harem, and although they don't clean up after themselves but need me to help them get rid of their spent old parts, I loved them first and always will.  Yes, I do grow a couple of the Knockouts; the bright red Double Knockout and the Double Pink Knockout, and I have another Radler rose, Carefree Sunshine that somehow, inexplicably, isn't listed as one of the Knockouts.  But all three of them are just "there" for me, nothing special, needing no care, no spraying, no pruning; just plain boring. I need the variety of bloom form, I need the heavenly scents of myrrh, musk and lemon, I miss the need for my expert care by my Old Rose gals.

In a well-discussed GardenWeb thread entitled "In Defense of Knockout," one contributor wrote "Some of you are just snobs.  Admit it."  Okay, I will.  I'll go even further. I'm declaring a class war against the new vanguard of Knockout's.  Go ahead, feel free to call me a "cultivarist," a term I just coined to describe those who are bigoted against certain bourgeois rose cultivars.  Or better yet, join me.  We can wear the label proudly as we fondle and sniff our 'Madame Hardy' blooms.


  1. Really??? I'm sorry, but I love the Knockouts (she whispers). I suppose we can't agree on everything. Still, I appreciate your knowledge and a great post!:)

  2. Let us agree that a plant that looks like a rose but has no fragrance, cannot be called a rose. Now, we have a series of perennial flowering bushes that pump out color all season, like no other perennial can. That is a gardener's dream.

    The fact that gardeners are abandoning hybrid teas and floribundas in favor of care free plants such as those in the Knock Out series is an indication of what type of people are gravitating towards gardening. Customer preference is a powerful force in a market based economy.

    I, too, hate the ubiquitousness of some plants but I understand why they are used. Welcome to the future.

  3. My not being much of a rose fan period (dare I say?!!), that's what I like about the original single bloom Earth-Kind Knock-Out Rose is that it doesn't look so much like a rose as a large non-stop flowering, disease-resistant, drought-tolerant perennial. I do agree that they are WAY over-used, though. If I have heard it once, I have heard it a hundred times from my clients that what they want in a garden guessed it...LOW MAINTENANCE. Knock-Outs fit the bill in the "rose" department.

  4. Ouch..Toni, no rose fan? Blasphemy. I guess I will take the advice of Toni and allanbecker, however, and not think of Knockout as a rose but, as you both put it, a non-stop flowering, disease-resistant, drought-tolerant a really lousy color hue.

  5. If you talked with any of the big nursery staffers at the Far West trade show 6 or 7 years ago about the burgeoning omnipresence of the 'Knockout' roses, here is what you'd hear:

    'Knockout' is not competing with the rest of the rose industry as we know it; it can't compete with Hybrid Teas/Floribundas/Austins in terms of bloom aesthetics. It isn't meant to. Its place in the hort market is as a flowering shrub; just one of many care-free flowering shrubs that is intended to provide color and form in the landscape throughout the growing season. Nobody is going to plant a 'Knockout' as a substitute for 'Mister Lincoln'. (or whatever cultivar you regard as the pinnacle of rose perfection) Trying to see the 'Knockout's in such terms is pointless. I think most people like them for what they ARE, rather than disliking them for what they are NOT.

  6. Paul, I'm not sure if you're saying you think the "big nursery staffers" were right or not? Time will tell I guess, but for it to be true that they're not competing with the rest of the rose industry, local commercial outlets still need to offer us a choice....and I saw that choice diminished locally this year...suddenly most of Home Depot and Walmart and Lowe's roses were Knockouts where before they were varied more. Yes, I don't think Knockout will hurt the Rogue Valley Roses and Heirloom Roses of the industry, but it's my understanding that Jackson and Perkin's is out of business and that Week's Roses is in Chapter 11. Maybe that's just the economy and people stopped buying roses for awhile?

  7. I don't think the Knockouts had much to do with the Weeks/Iseli or Park/J&P bankruptcies. There are many factors: debt financing, consolidation,economy, overproduction, management decisions, etc. I don't like the ubiquitous nature of the Knockouts but that's not really the fault of the rose. If there were a larger family of "perennial flowering shrubs that start with an R" we wouldn't get so tired of that pinky-red one. I can promise you: around here, if you offered a customer any other kind evergreen flowering shrub that potentially blooms 12 months of the year in full sun and is moderately drought tolerant and very disease resistant, you'd sell lots of it, too. Also, people are starting to wonder whether growing plants (like hybrid teas) that require frequent spraying is the environmentally friendly thing to do. That said, I miss the smell of a rose. To me, a fragrant Knockout would be wonderful. However! I've heard rumors that there are people out there who actually prefer a scentless rose. Go figure!
    PS: Lowe's, Walmart and Home Depot will always be volume dealers. Find an independent garden center to patronize. They are more able to order in the smaller quantities for specialty roses. Yes, you'll pay more.

  8. I'm with you! I hated the single knockouts from the beginning, but fell in love with 'Radtko' and 'Radtkopink' two or three years back. Now I regret the purchases. The hot, humid Florida summers seem to induce a period of bloomless semi-dormancy. Or perhaps it is the sandy soil combined with the heat, as another Florida gardener suggested. Don't know, but right now, in fall, they are picking up again out there and looking pretty brilliant.

    Have you ever seen an old rose at a big-box store? I never have. Here, we only see hybrids, which is moronic, as they flop in our environs. My only great rose I've ever grown is 'Louis Philippe'--well, really, he grows himself. Perhaps someday, I'll pull out the KO's and throw some LP cuttings in the holes.

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  10. Floridagirl, I have seen some OGR's at a big box store, but only because I browse the $3.00-4.00 Grade 2's....and take them home not for the quality but for the genetic material. I'd think you'd be able to grow some old Noisettes and Teas if you can find them, and I'm jealous.

    And Elizabeth, I order every year from several mail-order specialty nurseries and most of my "fill-in" landscape roses and plants are purchased at two of the local of which is where I buy all the "Easy Elegance" series. I just browse the big boxes to see what I might have to get lucky or to purchase roses for a local public garden. But I will admit I'm not above my purchase of a weeping spruce last week at Home Depot :)

  11. I have a Knock Out rose. I've had it for maybe 6 years, and it is not the new doubles. Mine has a mild fragrance. I don't view it as a rose, but as a flowering shrub. As a flowering shrub, it is very enjoyable. As a matter of fact, having it was a 'tease' and it pushed me to get a 'real rose'. [g] I've been growing organically for 30 years, so I've stayed away from roses until the last 5 years. I'm now trying to grow them in a 'no spray' garden. So, I have to agree, that I would be surprised if sales of Knock Out Roses effect the sale of other roses at all. They fill a landscaping need that other roses are not in competition for.

  12. Teehee. Love it. I could not have made a post as well as you. I call them wannaberoses. A garden friend of mine talked me into getting several, and I can't wait to dig them up this year and put in real roses.

  13. Well...I must admit I keep one or two around (a double-red Knockout)...for the sheer color.

  14. I ordered 9 lafter roses to take the place of my knockouts with the idea of giving the knockouts away, when my dh said that he wanted to plant them next door where the highway dept said we could plant anything. if anyone loves knockouts, i would love for them to steal them when my dh is gone. ha. we can plan a day trip.

    i admit, the rainbow one has a pretty rose, but it doesn't grow well, and others complain of that also. hmm, i just realized that there are deer next door. no worry now.

  15. I have a RedRazz Knockout on my porch that gets minimal sun and has done well and it extremely fragrant.

    To be snobby about roses is perfectly fine with me. If one can be snobby about artwork or music or anything else, roses are certainly in play as a true art form.

    Way to take a stand and state your beliefs!

    Thank you-

  16. No plant can be all things to all gardeners, right? If the Carefree Sunshine or the Ramblin Red would've survived, I would have more of them. Knock outs form a solid line of color, (albeit pink!), in front of my foundation plantings, from May till November. They are easy and they give alot back. If I could find another shrub that would do that much for me, I would trade. I'm not all that fond of the color!
    And, hey, it's not easy being a snob. I turn my nose up at overplanted trees and marigolds!

  17. I completely agree with your peeves on this line of roses; they are definitely soulless and the colors are *bleh* to this enamelist who makes a living with color. Their resistance to black spot means you have a really sick shrub blooming away all the while looking like a tubercular auntie who needs serious medical care but refuses to accept it. I do not have roses on my property [yet], but having worked with Knock Outs for a customer who loves them, I have plenty of data to dislike about them. I fully concur with you on the overuse problem, and the trio you dislike is also on my bad list, and also, sadly, a favorite with this customer. Whatever. Her plants are healthier than they've ever been, I just wish she'd let me bring in Something New and Better for her situation.

    I also concur about the loss of diversity among the rose sellers and the offerings at local nurseries. The Knock Outs have done to roses what big agra has done to broccoli [it's all 'Marathon'] apples ['Red Delicious is not a food] and tomatoes [let's have slave labor and no flavor]. I am an artisan jeweler, and must constantly teach potential customers that real silver will tarnish and isn't mirror-bright - the commercial stuff is all rhodium-plated so they aren't seeing the actual silver and the piece cannot ever be repaired without the cost of re-plating or an adjustment in their expectations of the piece. No, that doesn't make me a snob. It makes me a craftsperson. We have as a culture sacrificed too much real beauty in exchange for what is easy, predictable, and cheap. An 'easy' rose is such an odd idea - to a gardener, no plant is 'easy', and it is the tending of them that soothes us, makes us grow as they grow, and is the basis for our spiritual connection to the living world.

    Finally, I miss terribly the old tea roses that my grandmother raised to perfection. Some of the stock can still be found, but not 'Lincoln' or 'Forty-Niner' and she had some peach ones whose names I cannot recall that had fragrance that healed all ills of the mind and heart. I live in an area where tea roses do not flourish [too humid, too hot], but rosa rugosa in all its forms, does. Since I want to make rose petal jelly and rose hip tea, these will be my plants of choice.

    By the way, I found your post while searching for more information on the parentage of the Knock Outs, which is clearly closely held information. Yours was the one voice of dissent among the infatuated masses, so of course I immediately came to read what you had to say.

  18. Did you read my mind or something? I have been thinking these thoughts for so long. It is nice to see that I am not the only one who has this opinion.


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