GRASS ROOTS — Everything’s Coming Up Roses
After nearly 30 years, the author’s passionate love affair
with these romantic flowers is still going strong.
by Barbara Paul Robinson
When my husband, Charlie, and I bought a derelict 1750s clapboard farmhouse more than 30 years ago in Washington, Connecticut, all that remained of the garden was an unidentified rosebush of ancient origin, a hardy peony and a few iris. If that lone rose could endure years of neglect, I thought, then maybe I can encourage others to grow alongside it. So began my long affair with theses persnickety beauties.
Planning my rose garden, I knew that I wanted not only cold-hardy varieties that could survive the winters of my zone 5 setting, but also fragrant ones. Antique or heritage roses filled both of my needs, but there were so many kinds—classes like ancient gallicas, bourbons, and damasks and newer varieties of hybrid teas, grand-floras, and floribundas—that I was soon overwhelmed. On information overload, I consulted Harold Calverly, a friend who had worked for the well-known White Flower Farm nursery. He helped me develop a rose garden plan: We would combine climbing varieties with shrub types. For a sense of exposure similar to that of a traditional English walled garden, Calverly suggested building a stone wall parallel to the one where my stalwart antique rose grew. Because my New England setting did not seem right for a formal rose garden we dept the wall low and added an arbor built of cedar posts. Horizontal rails that could support the climbers topped the posts and added height.
Unfortunately, the ‘Golden Showers,’ ‘Pease’ and ‘Queen Elizabeth’ roses we planted while beautiful, perished in the frigid New England winters. I realized that trial and error would be my best teacher, so I abandoned any attempt to grow the sensitive hybrid teas and floribundas. Despite their promise of repeat blooms all summer long, I ended up hauling their dead remains away each spring when the snow melted. Also hit-or-miss were the David Austin roses that marry the repeat-bloom characteristic of hybrid teas with the lush and blowsy luxuriance of antique varieties. But I loved the Austin roses, and I still include a few of them in my garden even though most don’t make it through the winter.
Looking back, I realize that y first attempt at making arose garden was not a total loss. I learned that fragrance was a prerequisite in my selection of plants—even though, Calverly warned, I would need to wear a gas mask to venture out when all the flowers bloomed in June. The scent would be that intoxicating. He was right, but I skip the mask and relish the beautifully seductive perfume.
Today, my garden includes a combination of old species such as the Apothecary’s rose of ancient fame. ‘Celsiana’ (a damask rose), Rosa glauca, and more recent ones like ‘New Dawn’ climber, which was only introduced in the 1930s. I have come to appreciate the tough-as-nails rugosas: They are long blooming, fragrant, and produce large red rose hips in the fall. I love the exuberance of older shrub roses such as Gailica, ‘Tuscany Superb,’ and ‘Alba’ and the profuse show of climbers such as ‘Everblooming Dr. Van Fleet.,’ ‘William Baffin,’ and ‘Goldbusch.’ Many of these plants bloom repeatedly through the summer and some, thankfully, rebloom in the fall. For the periods in between, the clematis I’ve planted as companions provide flowers and color.
Best of all, my rose garden requires very little pampering. I rarely spray the plants, using only a bit of dormant oil in early spring. The soil, which I enriched when the garden was first planted on my otherwise rocky terrain, is fine. In late fall, I shovel compost hills around the ankles of each plant to provide winter protection. In the spring I work the hills into the soil for nourishment. Pruning is also a spring job, with a bit of clipping now and then to keep the most aggressive climbers in line. Irrigation comes from low pop-up sprinklers to avoid soaking the foliage, which can lead to fungus.
In the fall the garden reminds me of the refrain, “the last rose of summer.” As the days shorten and the air turns crisp, the flowers throw up one final fling of color. Their captivating fragrance carries far in the cool air, and the red rose hips linger on long after the blooms cease. From early spring until the final days of fall, my rose garden provides beauty and joy to my soul.