Learning to love roses
by AMY STEWART
A NYONE WHO HAS SPENT ANY TIME AT ALL in my garden knows that it is a place where roses come to die. When we bought this house, I felt sorry for the half-dozen roses that had been planted by the previous owner. They were orphans now, and like those unfortunate children in Lemony Snicket's books, they would soon learn that they'd been placed in the care of a neglectful and downright villainous caretaker, under whose custody they would surely fail to thrive.
It's not that I'm incapable of caring for roses. I'm sure there's some treatment that will make them bloom and keep their leaves relatively free of spots. No, the problem is that I'm just not interested in roses unless they arrive in a shiny foil box with a note from a secret admirer. A rosebush in the garden is an eyesore to me, an ugly mass of thorns and red-tinged canes that do not produce enough blossoms to compensate for their otherwise poor behavior.
Roses attract aphids and whitefly. They breed blackspot and powdery mildew. They stand alone in the garden, apart from all the other flowers, as if they're too good to mingle with the others. They're haughty and vain. Worst of all, they scratch me when I walk by. I have fired plants for lesser offenses. So why do I allow the roses to stay?
I have to admit that every now and then, the roses will have a good year. They'll all burst into bloom at once and keep going all summer. I'll bring armloads of them inside, and their sharp perfume will fill the room. I even find myself taking credit for it, convincing myself that they have finally responded to my regimen of neglect and abuse. "You must love roses," my friends say when they see the house filled with vases of them. "Oh yes," I say, with as much sincerity as I can muster. "Doesn't everybody?"
My roses and I live in an uneasy truce. I don't love them, but I also don't seem to have the heart to rip them out. I figured it was time for me to get some advice from an expert, so I called Cynthia Graebner at Fickle Hill Old Rose Nursery in Arcata.
When Graebner moved here in 1987, she realized that she couldn't find the plants she wanted for her expansive garden on Fickle Hill Road. "I was working as a gardener at the time, and I started propagating plants for myself and my clients," she told me. By 1989, she was selling plants at the Arcata Farmers' Market, and it wasn't long after that she began to have open hours on the weekend so her customers could shop for plants and see them growing in her garden.
"I don't like rose gardening per se," she said. "My style is more diverse. Of course, when the roses are blooming, they're the queens of the garden. But I'll plant anything that I find intriguing and fun."
Her garden is a fine demonstration of the ways in which roses can be worked into the landscape. She plants them among salvia, foxglove, columbine and other perennials. She prunes her roses lightly throughout the year rather than cutting them down to the ground in winter, and as a result, they grow lush and tall.
She prefers old roses to the new hybrid teas. "You know, a new hybrid rose will come out one year, maybe it'll be the rose of the year, and a few years later you can't find it anywhere. But these roses have history. It's a real preservation effort to keep them around. I've had cuttings passed on to me from women who gardened here 50 years ago. I propagate them and sell them -- I've sold thousands of old roses -- and it's amazing to think about all the gardens around here where those old roses must be growing now."
Choosing the right rose is probably the most important strategy for growing roses successfully in Humboldt County's damp climate. "It's all trial and error," Graebner said. "You read about a rose that tolerates shade, but what do they mean by shade? Dry, 90-degree shade is very different from the damp shade we have on the coast. So you learn what works."
I followed her around the garden and watched her pick spotted leaves off roses and absent-mindedly stuff them in her pocket. Pulling off diseased foliage, she explained, is one of the easiest ways to keep disease from spreading.
"I don't spray," she said. "If I see aphids, I just wash them off with the hose. If I see sawfly larvae" -- she turned over a leaf that had a few holes nibbled out of it and pointed to the tiny green worm-like larvae -- "I just squash them. For a bad infestation, I might use an organic spray like rotenone/pyrethrin. If I don't, they'll eat so many holes in the leaves that they look like fine lace."
When she planted the garden, she brought in compost by the truckload. Now she just adds an organic fertilizer like Dr. Earth, piles on chicken manure, and sometimes feeds the plants Epsom salts, which contain the magnesium that roses need. "I use a lot of fish emulsion, too," she said. "That's the best source of nitrogen. Alfalfa pellets are also great. I have so many roses that I can't feed them all alfalfa, but if I just had a dozen roses in a garden, that's what I'd do."
This didn't sound so hard. Even I could remember to toss some alfalfa pellets at my roses from time to time. But what I appreciated most about Graebner's garden was the fact that her roses weren't set apart from the other plants and lined up in straight rows as if they were about to go marching off to war. She lets them intermingle with other perennials and she doesn't fuss over them much.
And the best news of all was that I recognized some of her roses. "I have that rose in my garden!" I said, pointing to a buttery yellow rose with plum-colored foliage. It occurred to me that the roses in my garden might have come from Fickle Hill.
"That's Lady Hillingdon," she said. "It's a tea rose from 1910. Don't you love it?"
"I do," I said, and for the first time, I think I meant it.
Fickle Hill Old Rose Nursery is open on Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m. through Aug. 10. It's located at 282 Fickle Hill Road, just up the road from Seventh and Union. For more information, call 826-0708.
garden-related announcements and news to Amy Stewart.
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