Tag Archives: roses

Organic Roses

Roses made me a gardener.

Until I graduated from college, my interest in horticulture extended to mowing my parents’ lawn (for a fee) and watching my mom work magic in her garden (without any inclination to help her). Then, I discovered roses – producers of fantastic multi-petaled wonders that smelled like heaven and made me look like a floral arranger. I had developed a love for the flowers during college – what girl doesn’t appreciate a dozen of them from a boy who makes her knees go weak. What really amazed me about the plants though was the reblooming. Keep ‘em deadheaded and they’ll pump out their prizes all summer long. The first square foot of land I could call my own became my first rose garden.

I inherited three red scraggly roses with this Philadelphia garden, roses I’ve mostly ignored while focusing on other, more pressing projects. I can’t tell you their name. They’re tall (6 feet or so) and arching, so I suspect they are climbers. They seem only to bloom once a season and have about 20 petals per bloom. They did not go the way of the forsythia hedge or the barberry or the sidewalk-invading yews (compost baby!!), but they have received precious little attention. But even neglected, these beauties put on a show every May. They line the fence that divides my back garden from that of my neighbors P and B, and, when blooming, provide a nice little privacy screen.

I’ve often wondered whether P & B shared my love for roses or if, rather, they find them a bit unruly. They do arch, as I mention, and tend to arch into their yard. Also, when we first moved in and were having the “property boundary” conversation with our neighbors (this fence is yours, that shrub is mine, etc.), P made a curious comment. “Oh yes, and ALL the roses are yours.” Hmmmmmm.

So it was with a bit of trepidation that I finally asked for permission to train my roses on his fence. I had been doing it surreptitiously for years, of course. But this year, the darn thing kept flopping back onto my side of the fence. “Surely it’s the wind,” I told my self. “No!” countered a voice inside my head. “It’s P and B being annoyed at your unneighborly rose and detaching it from their pickets. Can’t you get a message?” So I figured I’d ask outright. To my delight, not only was P gracious in his insistence that I use his fence to support my rose, he gave me some pruning advice and some back-story about his history with my roses. Apparently, the former owner of this garden sprayed her roses religiously, fully decked in plastic protective clothing. P, apparently, is a gardener in my style who loathes the idea of any chemical usage in the garden. Ha! An explanation for the luke-warm rose comment 4 years ago. Roses in my garden meant chemicals in his.

And now the best part of the story. P told me that in all those years of spraying, those roses had never looked so great as they do today. Organic roses work. True, some of the leaves are spotty. Some tend toward yellow. But the blooms are still lovely, and I don’t worry about my kids or P’s cat getting some nasty illness.

I’m not the only one touting the benefits of low-maintenance rose growing. I read two articles this week about the benefits of laying off the constant spraying and fertilizing the fussy rose myths would have us do. One was from an expected source. Organic Gardening’s G. Michael Shoup suggests mulching, compost teas and good companion plants to make your roses flourish. He dismisses the idea of an isolated bed of roses you expect to be perfect. “Don’t plant rose gardens,” he says. “Plant gardens that have roses in them.” Amen brother. Even more interesting to my mind though, is the article by rose-grower Paul Zimmerman in Fine Gardening Magazine. He suggests finding roses that are a good fit for your landscape. Do this by amending the soil when you plant and by NOT WATERING once a rose is established except in drought conditions. This is for all the same reasons we all know – less frequent watering forces the plant to send down deeper roots and to, well, fend for itself. True for roses just like it is for lawn. Zimmerman wrote of the many roses in his gardens that haven’t received supplemental water for eight years. Hey – I’m half way there!

The moral of my story: I’m going to plant more roses. With the basics of the garden almost done, I can envision a climber here and an antique shrub rose there, punctuating my landscape with those little wonders that made me a gardener in the first place.

Check out Paul Zimmerman’s blog “Roses are Plants Too” for great tips and resources on low maintenance rose growing!

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You Gotta Have Faith

Faith is being sure of what you hope for and certain of what you do not see.

Wish I could claim to have written that , but I have to give credit to the writer of the book of Hebrews. I was thinking about it though (I can claim thinking about it, right?) when I planted a bunch of sticks in my garden and tried to believe that they would one day be covered in hundreds of roses. Which got me thinking further. No matter where your faith lies for the larger questions of life, anyone who puts their hands in the dirt is exercising faith to some degree.

Plant a seed, cover it with dirt, keep the dirt moist. In most cases, we’re sure of the hope that it will sprout. We can’t see it, but we’re certain it will happen. Better yet, bury a bulb in October. Put it to sleep eight inches underground and wait for six months. We have to go on faith that it’s still alive under there, that it will sprout when days get long enough.

But back to the roses. I spent a good long time back in March searching the web looking for just the right roses to ring my patio. How about the antique shrub rose named “Ballerina?” Introduced in 1937, the same year my house was built, this rose is described as “a tough, fuss free bloomer.” Great. I’ll take six. Here’s what they’ll look like:

They arrived a month or so via UPS. If I’d never seen bareroot roses before, I would have been a bit concerned. No soil? No pot? Just roots and shoots.

Okay, so this is what we’ve got to work with, we’ll work with it. I dug the holes just as instructed, planted them just right, watered them like clockwork. Weeks passed. Still sticks.

But – a little reward for my faith. At least I’ve got sticks with leaf buds. Hurrah!

The cascades of roses may have to wait until next spring, but I know they’ll come. Faith is being sure of what you hope for and certain of what you do not see. Sure is fun to have faith.

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Smell This!

Put your nose deep into a bloom and inhale. You must admit that there is something essentially satisfying in that. Now put your nose deep into a bloom from a moment in your past. What memory comes rushing back?

Researchers think smell triggers specific memories because, when we come in contact with a certain scent, our brains recall the first time we encountered it. The smelling part of our brain also happens to live right next door to the remembering part of our brain. (Clearly, I majored in Literature, not in Biology). According to science editor Sarah Dowdey, “our olfactory bulb is part of the brain’s limbic system, an area so closely associated with memory and feeling it’s sometimes called the ‘emotional brain.’”

Whatever the anatomical reason, I took a walk down memory lane on Sunday when I visited the amazing conservatory at Longwood Gardens.  The first thing I noticed when I climbed the stairs to enter this enormous greenhouse was the smell. It smelled like flowers and dirt and grass and water. It smelled, in other words, like spring. I think that part of what I’m missing during this season of snow covered gardens is the SMELL of things that grow.

As I strolled, I found myself turning my head, sticking my nose up into the air like a dog on the hunt, sniffing my way to lovely and familiar smells. The first was sweet alyssum, the diminutive white ground cover that’s a dead ringer for honey. I’ve planted it in my garden every year since I first encountered it at my sister-in-law’s house. I walked out her back door and was overwhelmed by the delicate honey smell. I started sniffing, and my nose led me down to my feet. I was standing on the source! She had planted the alyssum in between the stepping stones that lead to her garden. Every time someone tread on them, the smell shot on up. Brilliant. And beautiful.

Stargazer lilies took me immediately back to my wedding 17 years ago. My bridesmaids held them during the ceremony, and if you’ve ever been remotely near a stargazer, you know they are pungent. These always turn my head, er, I mean my nose, whenever I pass them by. I can’t remember which of my dear friends were at my wedding, but boy do I know what it smelled like.

The hybrid tea = Nana’s dining room table. My grandmother’s gardening tendencies ran towards a sweeping, weed-free lawn and foundation boxwoods, but boy could that woman grow roses. Her landscaper took care of everything else, but he never touched the rose garden. Legend has it that she braved the back yard once a week with her rose spray and fertilizer, immediately before her weekly trip to the beauty parlor. I guess if you’re only going to “do” your hair once a week, it’s best to tend to your chemical work just before hand. Whatever her methods, she always adorned her table with freshly cut roses. I smell a hybrid tea rose and I am at that dining room table, looking at Uncle Ben’s portrait, laughing with my cousins, and answering PawPaw’s questions about where I want my gravy. (On the turkey? On the biscuit? On the side?)

I wonder which of the flowers I grow in my garden will, in twenty years, make my children flash back to a particular moment. Moonflowers? Hyacinths? Lavender? Maybe it will be another garden smell that triggers the memory: mulch, freshly cut grass, a pile of dried leaves.  Whatever it is, I hope the memory is of a happy time, and not of a crazed, dirt encrusted mother screaming, “Leave me alone! I’m gardening!”

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Roses in January? Outside?

Roses in bloom in January? (taken 1/21/2010, Philadelphia)

Rose petals should not still be clinging to the plant now, should they? It’s January for goodness sake. There’s nothing out there that remotely resembles a flower, and yet, these rose petals hang on.  And it’s not just one either – it’s all the flowers on the whole darn plant.

And buds too!

I have to admit I was a bit surprised to find these in my neighbor’s yard. All my roses are dried up, thorny stick bushes. Without color. What did this fellow gardener do right (or wrong) when preparing this rose for the winter? Surely some trick exists to replicate these freeze dried roses in real life.

So I did a bit of cursory research on how to prepare roses for winter including a quick primer on deadheading. Turns out that everything I was ever taught about roses was wrong.

I grew up in the shade. My mom has no roses in her garden. I probably wouldn’t have listened to her advice if she did have roses (I’m kind of a pain that way). My first introduction to roses came when I got married. We were young and poor and homeless, and a lovely couple took us in as caretakers for their turn-of-the-century mansion in St. Louis. I do not exaggerate when I say mansion:

May I present the "John A. Holmes Mansion". Newlywed suite: 3rd floor.

12,000 square feet of house takes a long time to vacuum, I assure you. Part of our job was to help take care of the yard, which included a nice little rose garden. Mrs. G loved those roses and taught me everything she knew. Ever year since then, I’ve applied these lessons to the roses that have grown in my own garden around my exponentially smaller house.  Only water them in the morning. Take care not to wet the leaves. Water them every day. Deadhead them by pruning at an angle above the first healthy five-leaflet leaf. Prune the canes down to about a foot tall and mulch them for winter.

Okay, except it turns out you’re not supposed to cut them down for the winter.  And you’re not supposed to dead head them after September.  (And some say you should deadhead them right below the bloom, not at the five-leaflet leaf, but that really has nothing to do with this story. See Frances Ballentine’s intriguing article on this subject for more detail.)

According to the University of Illinois extension (seems like a reliable source, right?), the right thing to do is coax them into complete dormancy. This means no fertilizing after August 15. No deadheading after September – which should cause the rose to form hips. Then there’s a whole process of mounding and mulching and covering that seems like a lot of work to me. But they are very clear: “Pruning, however, at this point should be kept to a minimum. The majority of the pruning will be done in the spring to remove dead and diseased canes.”

So my neighbor did it right. He or she did not prune the canes prior to winter. But, I think my neighbor might also have done it wrong. Instead of letting the hips form, my guess is that this avid rosarian kept deadheading, so the plant kept producing more flowers. And in some twisted confluence of rose production and winter’s onset, the first hard freeze came when this rose was in full bloom. Hah! And the result was freeze dried roses for his garden all winter long.

Should we try to duplicate these very cool results despite the risky methods hypothesized above? I suppose only time will tell if this rose survived it’s beautiful winter.

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Can roses cause the winter blues?

The offending specimen

It will be 35 degrees today. Balmy compared to the last two days – maybe we should break out the t-shirts and shorts. The sun is shining. At least we’ve got that going for us. Days are getting infinitesimally longer since the sun made its turn at the solstice and I no longer desire to sit by my fire and look at the Christmas tree and read tales of idyllic English villages covered in blankets of snow. I wish I were still content to do that; I would be much happier. I enjoyed December. I enjoyed the rest, the coziness, the dark evenings that forced us all inside to string popcorn and to watch Jimmy Stewart realize his worth. Now all of a sudden, I’m restless. I’m buying orchids. I’m kicking the snow off my garden to see if I could possibly dig. I’m visiting the local nursery just to stand in their greenhouse and pretend I’m actually warm.  I want spring. Maybe it is the turning of the sun that winds me up again. Slight changes in the amount of light received can cause poinsettias to turn red or Christmas cactuses to bloom; could those few extra minutes of daytime ignite my overwhelming, almost physical need to see things bloom?

Here’s the problem, though: Nothing blooms in January in southeastern Pennsylvania, and nothing will bloom for weeks and weeks and weeks. C’mon, Kelly, you say. Buy some tropical house plants, enjoy some central American flowers in a vase. Certainly those could help take the edge off? Somehow, they seem only to make things worse. I made the mistake of buying myself a few sprigs of salmon colored roses the other day. They’re lovely, no doubt about it. Sitting on my kitchen counter, all cheerful and flouncey, they do make me smile. That is until my gaze wanders to the view out my window. Gray trees growing next to stone houses sitting under a steely sky look even more gray compared to those little show-offs. Thus, the winter blues begin.

I’m not much for New Year’s resolutions, but I just might need some resolve in this case. So instead of moping around and feeling sorry for myself and counting down the days until the Philadelphia Flower Show opens (48), I resolve to be a bit more constructive about my self-diagnosed seasonal affective disorder. (My husband Eric will certainly cheer this news. By the end of February every year, he’s ready to cash in the 401K and seek out serious professional help for his sad, sad wife).  I will seek out a remedy. I will read great books about the earth blooming. I will try to appreciate one thing about creation every day – even if it is neither bloom nor bud. I will look for beauty and take pictures even if I have to trespass. I will write down my plans for the growing season instead of letting them fester in my depressed head. I will look for a job in a nursery. I will take a class on turning my tiny yard into a wildlife habitat. I will wear brighter colors.  I will ….well, we will see, won’t we?

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