Temperamental Beauty

One gardener shares observations gleaned from years of planting and tending a multitude of roses, some more gratifying than others.

My love affair with roses began long before I became a gardener. As a child in England, I loved the wild roses celebrated by Cicely Mary Barker in her Flower Fairies books. I thought the English Rose Fairy the most beautiful, sitting atop a rosebush with her long golden hair and pink gown. My father grew roses in his English garden. Nearby, bees tended their hives. Horses kicked up their large hooves in the field next door. The combined fragrances of roses, hawthorn, cut grass, tomatoes in the greenhouse, and manure on the fields created a kind of olfactory standard in my brain.

My mother had a postage-stamp garden in northern Virginia, where I went to high school. Her brick patio was surrounded by roses. One of them was the popular hybrid tea rose Rosa ‘Madame A. Meilland’ – known more commonly as the Peace Rose, named to commemorate the end of World War II. It was a gift from a friend who knew we could not afford such an extravagance. The pink and gold blossoms were huge. True, there was little scent, but we willingly forgave it for the glamour it brought to our small garden. There were other roses too, more fragrant than the Peace, and even as a teenager mostly interested in boys and clothes, I loved our little plot behind the house, warm and fragrant in the hot southern afternoons.

When I started a garden of my own in Syracuse in the 1960s, I grew my own first roses. Luckily we lived a block away from a public rose garden, tended by a corps of professional and amateur horticulturists. Here I could wander, choosing favorites for my own garden and learning something about their culture. Once I happened to visit when the roses were being pruned and begged some of the cuttings. I was amazed how easily these beauties took root. I simply plunged the cuttings into my garden bed and covered them with mason jars. There they remained until the following summer when, lo and behold, leaves began to emerge. At that time, I removed the jars and fed my new plants.

However, there were the usual problems. I discovered that many roses, even those that easily rooted, are not necessarily easy to grow. I read some books but had insufficient experience to interpret their advice. I lost plants to the climate, which in upstate New York is severe. I tried to grow a yellow ‘Lady Banks’ climber. It died the first winter. (I later saw this rose with its small yellow flowers in all its glory, covering my cousin’s cottage in southern England.)

My one shrub rose, a rugosa, grew very large and full of thorns. When it bloomed in early summer, its perfume penetrated throughout the house. Unfortunately it also attracted a great many Japanese beetles. I bought a beetle trap (complete with pheromones) and placed it next to the rose, thinking it would draw the beetles away. Of course, every beetle in the neighborhood flocked to the trap and the rose, teaching me that the trap had to be placed far away from the plant. In other words, fellow gardeners, don’t invite the fox into the chicken coop.

I had more success with ‘Sea Foam’, a low-growing rose with pale pink fragrant blossoms, really a ground cover that throws out long vigorous branches covered with thorns. By pure chance, I planted it in the very front of a flower bed so that it could spread out sideways and, if regularly pruned, would stay out of the way of the other flowers.

Years later and now retired, my husband and I moved to Martha’s Vineyard. I brought only a pink fairy rose from my garden in Syracuse, but after eight years in West Tisbury, I felt ready to introduce others into my garden. First I planted a red fairy next to the pink one, which was doing pretty well (although not as well as it had done in Syracuse with more sun). Then I ordered a pink ‘Eden Climber’, the most successful performer in my Syracuse garden. It had quickly taken hold and filled the arbor, twining into an ancient pear tree with a mass of blooms that persisted all summer. Could I reproduce that success here in West Tisbury? We put up a trellis for it at the foot of the deck, and abandoning caution, I bought a dark red climber, ‘Don Juan’, to occupy the other side of the trellis.

The following summer, both climbers started well with vigorous growth, not much winterkill, and a few healthy buds. In June, they held their own. I was feeding them and dressing them with regular doses of organic compost. How could they not be happy? Alas, in July, they began to defoliate and by August there were no blossoms and very few leaves. I increased the water. Nothing helped. By the end of the growing season, there were no leaves left on the vines. Perhaps it had been a bad year for roses. They were, after all, still babies.

This past summer, their second full season, they both leafed up well in the spring and set buds, but by midsummer they were even more defoliated than the year before. What to do? This spring, I will resort to spraying them. I know lack of sunlight is a problem, so I plan to cut the trees back even more.

Over the years I’ve learned that tea roses are the hardest to grow. If you are spray-aversive, don’t even think about including them in your garden. They attract insects and develop black spot and other fungi. They need lots of sunshine and rich soil full of humus. If you are lucky, you will be rewarded with beauty and fragrance. I believe, along with a doctor friend of mine whose hobby is tea roses, that vigor is a matter of the individual plant. We must nurture people no matter what, but plants are another matter. If they do not thrive, replace or move them.

Traditional old garden and shrub roses are far less demanding than tea roses. Usually fragrant, most of them bloom early and only once. The fairy, though not fragrant, is extremely easy to grow, blooms almost all summer, and attracts few insects. It easily takes root if a branch lies on the ground; a rooting branch can be lifted, cut from the mother plant, and replanted as another plant. There is a new class of hardy shrub roses called ‘Knock Outs’. Like the fairy, they have no fragrance, but they are floriferous, disease resistant, and bloom all summer.

Some might see my mission – to grow sun-loving roses on my woodsy West Tisbury property – as a Sisyphean task. But with the new easier-to-grow cultivars, I keep trying. As cut flowers, roses are unsurpassed and surprisingly long lasting if you mash the cut end before placing them in a vase. The color and fragrance of roses, both inside the house and out, make them among the great pleasures of our brief and unpredictable northern summer.