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Knockout Roses: Overrated or Garden Superstars?

Updated on October 20, 2017
Rosa "Radrazz"
Rosa "Radrazz" | Source

Let me begin by stating right away that while I am not a fan, I can appreciate why people may be drawn to the Knockout rose. Poking around the internet on gardening forums and blogs, the majority of gardeners overwhelmingly give Knockout roses a big thumbs up, so I’m well aware I am in the minority. Please don’t hate me! This is my experience and opinion with three knockout rose bushes that I have been growing for the past six or seven years—okay, now just two bushes because I killed one (on purpose). I will also lay out some reasons why I believe the Knockout rose is over-rated.

Brief History

William Radler, a landscape architect from Milwaukee and lifelong rose enthusiast, looked for ways to develop a rose that was resistant to disease, like the dreaded black spot, and was hardy and easy to grow. Radler worked tirelessly for years through much trial and error. In 2000, the Knockout Rose was introduced to the world with a red shrub rose that was touted as winter-hardy, disease-resistant, long-blooming, and self-cleaning. Despite the fact that the Knockout rose was fragrance free, it quickly took off.

Over the next decade, different colors and varieties, such as climbers, were added to satisfy those with a penchant for an easy peasy rose. The Knockout rose is currently the number one selling rose in the U.S.

Jumping on the Knockout Bandwagon

When a relative suggested I try the Knockout rose, I jumped right on the bandwagon and immediately bought three – two red and a pink double bloomer. A neighbor across the street had two flanking her front stoop, and from a distance they were gorgeous for months. Our summers in south central Pennsylvania can be very hot, and without a lot of shade from mature trees they can get downright scorching. Color in the garden during the heat and drought of summer is always a welcome thing.

Tired by the inevitable black spot decimation of my traditional rose bushes, I plunked the new bushes around my backyard. My garden is zone 6 in full sun, and the bushes quickly took off – in fact they exceeded the size stated on the little sign at the nursery. Compact? Um…not so much. Self-cleaning? I’ll get to that. No pruning necessary? Not even close.

The Low Down

I want to address the attributes one by one from my personal experience. And those of my mother- in- law, and sister- in- law, and neighbor across the street. There are some things you may want to consider if you want a Knockout rose and haven’t taken the plunge yet.

  • Disease Resistant - Absolutely true. You won’t trouble yourself a bit with worrying about black spot or applying nasty powders and potions. However, these bushes are NOT pest resistant, and if Japanese Beetles are the bane of your existence every summer, they will find your Knockout roses and devour them.
  • No Pruning Required – Okay, in what world do other gardener’s live that they don’t have to whack this thing down with hedge clippers every year? Then there is the disposal of gangly thorny branches. Is it because I live a mere 8 miles from a nuclear power plant that my Knockout roses approach near gargantuan size? 3x4 compact my Aunt Milly. Mine have topped out at 5 feet easily and just a wide. Remember the neighbors across the street? The ones with two bushes greeting visitors at the front door? Well the new neighbors who moved in hired someone to dig them up and haul them away. The sheer size forced one to turn sideways to fit in between without getting torn to shreds by thorns. Sure, they can take a hard pruning, but these babies grow fast!
  • Self-Cleaning – True. You do not need to dead-head. What they don’t tell you, though, is that while the Knockout rose starts the summer off with a big bang, the blossoms will then disappear for several months only to bloom again in the fall. In fact, during that “dormancy” period of August and September, I find the shrub rather shabby and well, downright ugly.

Overuse?

Take a look around most shopping centers in the northeast and midatlantic states and you will see Knockout roses sticking up from a sea of mulch in parking lot islands. Landscapers have defaulted to planting Knockout rose/stella d’oro daylily duos in parking lots almost exclusively. Maybe it's just me, but I do enjoy variety and originality. Taking creative risks with grasses, herbs, and natives to attract pollinators can be both low maintenance, drought resistant, and stunning - not even close to ho-hum.

Speaking of ho-hum, are the blossoms themselves really all that beautiful? From a distance, I concede the colors can be striking, but if it isn't knocking my socks off up close and personal, I don't want it in my garden.

I have removed one, and this may be the year that I remove the other two. For all of the reasons above, I have decided that the Knockout rose is not for me or my garden. My mother and sister-in-law have done the same in their gardens. There are other ways I have successfully dealt with color in the garden during the rough periods of high summer.

I don't exactly hate Knockout roses - wait, okay, maybe I kinda hate them. From now on when I get the urge to admire truly magnificent, fragrant roses, I will happily trod over to my local botanical or rose garden where people are paid to get old fashioned roses to look dazzling and amazing.

Poll: Which Side Are You On?

Are You a Knockout Rose Fan?

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Beautiful Roses by DigitalMosaics

Please Don't Throw Your Compost at Me

I'd love to hear your opinion and experience with Knockout roses whether you agree or disagree with anything I've said here.

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      Laura 20 months ago

      I just ripped 4 knockout bushes out of my flowerbed. The previous homeowner planted them and I never liked them. They get out of control too fast. Bought 3 tea rose varieties to put in their place!

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      samantha 3 years ago

      I ended up with one after last mother's day from my 6 year old and a husband who just remembered I like roses. I planted it and it did wonderful all summer long, we had a horribly harsh winter and the thing never came back. My daughter was so upset. Sad thing is the clearance $1.50 rose bush we bought 7 years ago has never had an issue, it wasn't marked and all we knew was that it was red. It's a champ, so lesson learned to skip the $20 rose bush and go straight for the Big Lots cheapie. LOL.

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      Lissa Watson 3 years ago

      Love the knock outs in zone 10. If they are too big, cut them back !!!

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      Amy 4 years ago

      Living in the truly Deep South, zone 9b, I love love love my knock outs. They are the centerpiece of my 6 x 8 foot cottage mostly shade garden. Twice a year, I chop them to the ground, literally. August and again in February. Paired with Plumbago, these things are striking. Other than hacking them down and when I apply the Milorganite to the entire garden, they get NO LOVE and they thrive. I'm getting ready for the big April/ May bloom now. However, they continue to bloom after this major flush pretty much year round. Sometimes they slow up a tad from late December to late January. But that is the longest lag I have had with them. I love these things. I realize they are overused, but they are overused in the Deep South for a reason. Nothing else compares in bloom time or heat tolerance that I have found. What I can tell you is, here in the Deep South regions most of the other roses cannot handle the humidity. My teas and heirlooms look AWFUL right around July and August, when my KO's are still blooming away. I only cut them back twice a year because my yard is small and they will easily get 6 foot and hide my front porch, a security issue in my mind. Anyway, I can understand why they would annoy gardeners in cooler regions where other roses can thrive with minimal care, but in the Deep South, KO's can't be beat.

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      Melanie 4 years ago

      My grocery store had both the ko and the drift. They looked so good I almost left the groceries and came home with cart full of roses!

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      Tracey 4 years ago from Pennsylvania

      You know, I just saw the drift roses online and I really like the size. I think I may be done with roses though! Thanks for the comment, Virtualwmn.

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      Virtualwmn 4 years ago

      I meant "have the drift roses" not "hate".

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      Virtualwmn 4 years ago

      I haven't been tempted to buy any. I do however hate the Drift roses which were developed by the same breeder and I rather like them. If you're looking for disease resistant and easy you can't beat the EarthKind roses from the Antique Rose Emporium.