Welcome to the October 2004 edition of my web site! The roses I write about are the Old Garden Roses and select shrub and miniature roses of the 20th century. For tips on rose culture, pruning, propagation and history, see the "Site Resources Guide" box in the navigation panel at left. To return to this page, click on the "thorn icon" in the margin at left. Articles from the previous months are archived and can be viewed by clicking on the listings in the left margin. Oh, and please don't write to me for a catalog or pricelist.....this is an information site only, not a commercial nursery. If you wish to buy roses, see my sponsor, The Uncommon Rose.
Few Personal Gardening Philosophies
Here are a few ideas I have been mulling over for the past few months, waiting for the ideas to settle in my head. I hope there will be something of meaning here for you.
Panic and roses don't mix!
This is an idea that relates primarily to novices (what we sometimes refer to as “newbies” in the Internet era.) who struggle with the growing pains of becoming a “rosarian”. It is a well known fact that roses have developed a public persona of being sickly, demanding, high-maintenance plants in the modern garden. This can be absolutely true, or entirely false, depending, to a great deal, on how the gardener learns from their plants and how, in turn, they respond to the issues they encounter. Some novices naively plant their first roses (often purchased for a dollar or two during the final clearance days at a large chain store) in poorly drained, unamended soil and expect lush growth and award quality cut flowers within weeks of planting. Disappointment couldn't come more quickly. (Insert the sound of the beating of black wings, for effect) Expectations are always reciprocal, and roses are no exception: you expect lush perfection from your roses, and in return, your roses expect excellent soil conditions, an regular supply of water, sunlight and nutrients. In some cases, they also require protection from fungal diseases. (A topic unto itself, I assure you) The saying “you only get back what you give out” rings true when learning how to grow good roses.
At right: a seedling climber from my 2004 breeding work. Constant repeat and excellent fragrance.
Now, what does that have to do with panic? Its simple; when something isn't going well in the garden, there is a powerful feeling that something must be done! While this is generally true, one must know what the issues are before making a decision to act. For example, a plant that wilts badly on a warm day isn't always wilting because it isn't getting sufficient water. You must ask yourself “Is the soil still sufficiently damp?”, “Have the roots been damaged recently?”, or more broadly “What could possibly be stressing this plant?” If the soil where that roses lives is poorly drained and if the plant has been watered every day since it was planted, it is possible that the roots may have drowned, resulting in wilting of the top growth. If the aspiring-but-nervous gardener decides that wilting means more water, then choosing to water more will certainly result in further trauma.
It is of the utmost importance to identify the problem before acting. Many a time I have heard a budding rosarian say that their new rose was doing poorly/not blooming/not growing/looking sick, and then they tell me that their response was to dig up the plant and relocate it, add every soil amendment known to man and beast, and to water and feed it with abandon. In short, they panicked. The “shotgun” approach to gardening may sometimes produce a desirable result, but just as often it will exacerbate a problem and lead to the demise of the plant. What to do? Identify the problem. Contact a knowledgeable rose grower in your vicinity (The ARS offers such a service known as the Consulting Rosarians program, in which a trained grower will help you ID your problem and help provide a solution) and ask for assistance. Many times a well-seasoned rose grower can take one look at your plant and know immediately what the problem is. Even doing some research with a few good books or on the Internet is preferable to simply dumping a cup each of Lime, Triple Phosphate and Epsom Salts on the plant and praying to the Thorn Gods. While experience is a good teacher, asking questions accelerates learning and decreases your likelihood of making a mistake.
Selecting appropriate varieties
If I were to choose one criteria for forming a healthy, enjoyable relationship with the art of rose growing, I think I would put choose an appropriate variety first on the list. Where I grew up (in zone 5b), if you wanted to grow roses, you grew Hybrid Teas. That was about all we had to choose from in the 1970's. And yet, as we now know, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of roses that are much more suitable to a cold climate than Hybrid Teas are. Even as a teenager, I was frustrated by the fact that half the roses I planted did not survive the first winter, and those that did were often cut to the ground by freeze damage. It was a struggle for the plant to build up infrastructure the next season and recovery was often a fragile one. Hardiness was certainly not something they inherited from their Hybrid Perpetual ancestors! While many gardeners are satisfied with roses that have to be replaced every Spring or given ICU treatment in order to survive their harsh climates and short growing seasons, I chose instead to adopt the older European roses that, for the most part, were bred before the turn of the 20th century. The Gallicas, Centifolias and Damasks sail through a Zone 5 Winter with rarely a damaged cane. Many of the “purebred” Gallicas can handle much colder climates than Zone 5 as well, making them ideal candidates for areas where the typical Hybrid Teas perish over the first Winter.
Now, many of you will no doubt be thinking “But four weeks of bloom in early Summer isn't enough; we want roses that offer color all season!” Since most modern gardens are small, and the amount of time most working folks can spend in their gardens limited, I can appreciate the need for an everblooming rose. Within the scope of both modern hybrids and some of the Old Garden Roses, there are many perfectly suitable varieties to choose from. One of the hardiest classes are the Rugosas. The various species selections are superb landscape plants, and many of the Hybrid Rugosas have much of the same elegance and richness of fragrance. Most of the Rugosas are also very reliable repeat bloomers; there always seems to be at least a bloom or two on these roses, endowed with rich, heavy perfume. No, they don't have the same sculpted bloom form as the Hybrid Tea, but one must realize that some compromise is always necessary. If you want a good plant that is appropriate for your garden environment, then one or more traits must be given up. Perhaps some day there will be Hybrid Tea type roses that will perform flawlessly in Zone 4, but for now, that is a far off dream*. Better that we should choose plants that will reward us with richness of bloom, no matter what their style.
For cold climates, you may want to consider some of the Canadian Explorer series, most of which have excellent Winter hardiness. They all repeat through the Summer, and some have good fragrances. 'William Baffin' has become a standard of excellence for both hardiness and disease resistance, and is reported to do well in Zone 3 even. Among the Antiques, the Damask Perpetuals are often good choices for zone 5 and perhaps even Zone 4. 'Rose de Rescht' is unbeatable for repeat of bloom and fragrance, always maintaining a compact and shapely bush.
Now, the inverse of the Winter hardiness issue is true as well: there are some roses that are poor choices for hot climates too. In Southern California, Texas and Florida, where there is no appreciable Winter (few or no freeze events) many of the Old European roses will not prosper. The Gallicas we talked about previously are generally poor choices for a Winterless climate. They require a full dormancy with an accumulation of chill-hours in order to grow and bloom properly. Varieties like 'Rosa Mundi', 'Tuscany Superb' and 'Charles de Mills' will often refuse to bloom at all, the plants gradually going into decline over two or three years and finally expiring. One would be wise to choose instead from the warm climate roses like the Teas and Chinas, the modern Miniatures, and yes, of course, the Hybrid Teas, which are perfectly at home in such a climate. The bottom line is that you should make every effort to know the nature of the roses you wish to grow before you acquire them, so that you will make well-informed choices that reflect your understanding of your growing conditions.
Roses and expectations: instant gratificationand the Three Year Rule.
There is a direct relationship between Expectations and Workload. If you want to grow a mountain of roses that are constantly pumping out cabbage sized blooms on pristine, spot-free plants, then you have to realize that the amount of work you will have to do is proportionate to your expectations. Many a novice comes away from a public rose show with the idea that they can purchase a plant of 'Double Delight' and produce show quality blooms with no more effort then a few annual waterings and the occasional sprinkling of Miracle Gro. Rose shows can be misleading inasmuch as the novice does not realize that the roses on display are often (not always, but often) pampered and preened to within an inch of their lives in order to produce such exquisite examples of their variety. People come away thinking that as long as they buy the same variety that they too will have the same results. Anyone who has grown roses for show will tell you that there is much more to it than that, and while selecting good varieties certainly plays a role in the outcome, plenty of hard work and preparation goes into their roses too.
At left: a new Gallica hybrid of mine, to be introduced in 2005.
Whether or not you intend to grow show quality cut flowers or create a garden full of superb landscape specimens, there is a minimum of preparation and ongoing maintenance involved. I won't go into detail here, since this kind of information is generally available from good books, (link to reading) but the essentials include things like site selection, amending soils for optimum conditioning, selection of cultivars appropriate for both climate and personal needs, and knowing how to provide near-ideal ongoing culture during the growing season (and beyond, for that matter). I urge people, novices especially, to spend the Winter months doing research. Most libraries have at least a basic selection of books on the subject of rose culture. Even some of the most basic tomes, like the Ortho book on roses, offer a great deal of practical, valuable information. There are also two volumes by Lone Pine Publishing dealing with rose growing specifically on the West Coast and the Mid-West regions. The first volume is Roses For Washington and Oregon, and the second is Roses For Michigan, both edited and co-written (with Brad Jalbert and Nancy Lindsey) by Laura Peters. Rarely do writers offer useful information dealing with specific climates and their particular problems, and so books like these are valuable indeed. As the saying goes, knowledge is power, and the more you know about rose growing before you start into it, the more satisfying your results will be.
My final comment on this subject: do your best to observe the Three Year Rule. Do not make hasty judgments on newly acquired varieties. It takes a minimum of two years for a new rose to begin performing to the best of its abilities, and in fact, I don't judge a rose until it has been in the ground for at least three years. While some modern shrubs and especially the Miniatures will make mature, high-performing specimens within two years, these are the exception, not the rule. Patience is an essential ingredient in cultivating a healthy, long-running relationship with roses (and indeed, gardening in general), and instant gratification urges will more often than not be met with equally grand disappointments.
Happy accidents: acquiring roses you didn't want.
Sometimes when we buy new roses for our collections, accidents happen. It is the nature of the industry that occasionally, plants get mislabeled or are distributed under the wrong name. It isn't necessarily the fault of the grower; there are many variables that can lead to this problem. Sometimes a nursery will substitute a similar variety when the one you requested is not available. I have long ago determined that these “accidents” can be a blessing in disguise. How so? You are exposed to a variety you may not ordinarily have acquired, one which may not be exactly to your taste. If you keep the rose and grow it for a few years, you may find that you develop and appreciation for it, thus expanding the realm of your taste in roses.
Years ago, I wanted, nay lusted for the Gallica 'Charles de Mills'. At the time that I looked into obtaining a specimen, the suppliers I had access to were sold out. I was too late for that year; please check with us next Winter. Sigh. The salesman I was speaking with had a suggestion, however. (clever fellow, indeed) He said “Why not try 'Cardinal de Richelieu' instead? We have some available.” I paused for a moment, considering. I had not seen photos of this one yet, and certainly never seen it in person. Should I take a chance on an unknown? As you might guess, I did take a chance on it. This rose has become one of my top ten favorites among the once-blooming European roses, and in fact, is likely to make my top ten list of all possible selections. I might never have known this rose had I not taken a chance that day. The evolution of my collection, and even more importantly, my tastes in roses was influenced by that opportunity. Similarly, I ordered one of the new David Austin roses from a mail order company in 1989, and they send a mislabeled plant. (All of that variety was mislabeled that year, coming from a supplier contracted to grow it for them) So instead of getting 'Othello', I got 'Sharifa Asma'. Bleah. I didn't want a plain old pink, I wanted crimson! Long story short, I came to love 'Sharifa Asma' and it altered how I perceived pink roses. In fact, if forced to choose between 'Shaifa Asma' and 'Othello' today, I daresay I would choose 'Sharifa Asma'! Keep an open mind and don't be hasty in discarding a rose you have acquired by “accident”. Some accidents lead to growth and joyful discovery.
Obscurity VS Ubiquity.
Having corresponded with many other rose growers over the years I have noticed an interesting phenomenon. Within any group of roses there are cultivars that seem to enjoy perennial popularity in the "mainstream". Hybrid Musks like 'Darlow's Enigma', Damasks such as 'Mme. Hardy', and David Austins like 'Heritage' and 'Abraham Darby' are guaranteed to be recommended more often than many other varieties of their kind. Why is this? Sometimes these roses get heavy promotion by the growers, hyped and mythologized to the extreme. Some roses deserve the hype and some do not. Often there is a threshold of awareness that permeates the rose growing populace; everyone has heard of 'so-and-so', and it has developed a following. 'Darlow's Enigma' is precisely such a rose. Touted as being able to grow in complete darkness and still pump out a continuous cascade of scented blooms, the likes of which human eyes (and noses) have never before encountered. This is, of course, an exaggeration. While it is a meritorious rose and is able to perform reasonably well under semi-shady conditions, its capacity for tolerating difficult growing conditions is often grossly exaggerated in magazines and in mythology. But I digress. Thousands of excellent roses go relatively unnoticed and remain obscure in commerce simply because they do not receive the adoration and hype that some roses enjoy. 'Darlow's Enigma' is a lovely rose, no argument there, but I would choose 'Trier' instead, for its immense clusters of scented bloom. Like most Hybrid Musks, it will tolerate considerable shade as well. 'Darlow's Enigma' has by no means got that market sewn up! Everyone clambers to get 'Marilyn Monroe', while many superb older Hybrid Teas go unnoticed, and worse yet, unheard of. Give me 'Helen Traubel' any day, or 'Comtesse Vandal'. I wouldn't trade my specimen of 'Mrs. Sam McGredy' for a thousand plants of 'Sunset Celebration'. Don't get me wrong, the 'Sunset Celebration's and their ilk are lovely roses, but so too are many of the older roses that languish in relative obscurity. Dare to seek out a few of the less well-known roses in the classes you prefer. By adopting some of these, you will begin to get a much broader view of the evolution of their class, and you broaden the scope of your appreciation.
Old Friends VS Fireworks concept
They say that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and for the most part, they are right. Where does your eye go when you enter a nursery or a display garden? To the brightest, hottest colors. Every time. Even I do it; it is the nature of being a visual person. I often think that my relationship with my roses is very much like my relationships with my human friends. Its not such an odd concept. Read on. When you meet new people, it is much like that encounter with bright colors in a garden; the brightest sparks attract your attention first. Muted tones and quiet people tend to meld into the softer background colors. While we all need a few fireworks in our lives (at this point I could easily be talking about both humans and roses, you will note), we also need a ground of dependable, consistent, reliable companions. The eye tires of fireworks after a time and needs to find home in a more subdued palette of visual stimulus. One writer who, in the 1924 [British] National Rose Society annual, was commenting on the recent introduction of the brightly pigmented Pernetianas put it thusly:
Quite right. It can't be all 'Chihuly' and 'Joseph's Coat' as far as the eye can see. I often tell aspiring rosarians who want color, color, and MORE COLOR that they should not spurn pink, as this is the most native hue to the rose (along with white, of course). I mean, the Greek word for pink is Rhodos, which in English becomes Rose, after all! Hot colors are great things, but in my mind, they should be used sparingly and wisely, finding homes among the softer colors. The gardener has to live with their acquisitions in the end, and who wants to spend hours in a living room painted flame and orange? I choose comfortable and friendly over fireworks every time. But, as they also say, to each his own. The key is to go forth and explore the staggering diversity of the genus Rosa.
* For those who wish to grow HT's in colder climates, I advise choosing from the Griffith Buck roses, bred in the mid-West for Winter hardiness. Not all selections are as good as the other, but among his hybrids are some very hardy varieties.