So I gambled as I do every winter, sending another hundred dollars to the Antique Rose Emporium, which in my experience sends back the biggest, healthiest plants, the ones that settle in best and last longest…in my hands, not generally long. This year’s purchases include Buff Beauty, Alchymist, Constance Spry, and Albertine–all gorgeous climbers that I will somehow cram into the small bit of sunlight in my city yard, joining the New Dawn and Climbing America that are already there.
In other words, I am giddily celebrating my ability to grow large-flowered climbers, now that I am gardening in balmy Zone 5. My ability to grow them in theory…
I was very serious about roses when I gardened in Zone 4. The first plants I ever stuck in the ground, in fact, were a dozen rugosa roses. Not terribly interesting plants, really. The prettiest was Sarah Van Fleet. She turned out not to be quite hardy–the pretty ones never are–and dwindled in a few years to a pair of unappealing sticks. The only problem with the others was their repeat bloom, which meant that they kept on blooming after the Japanese beetles arrived on July 1. The flowers then stopped looking like flowers and began looking like receptacles for rutting insects. Appealing? No.
So I wised up and planted two dozen once-blooming European roses. For three or four years, they were as beautiful as a dream. Madame Plantier! Charles de Mills! Rosa Mundi! Soft! Lovely! Exuberant! They finished blooming before the beetles showed up. But Japanese beetles turn out to enjoy eating rose foliage second only to the blooms and after a few years of swarming my plants, weakened them considerably.
(I know, I could have spread milky spore disease. But you have to take out a second mortgage to buy the stuff. Also, it has to be spread by the teaspoon in May in my part of the world, just when the vegetable garden is gearing up, so twice, I bought the $80 can and then never managed to apply it.)
There were also many failures of hope–roses listed as hardy in Zone 5 that I somehow thought would manage in Zone 4. New Dawn, to its credit, was a healthy plant in my frigid yard, constantly throwing out new canes every spring. But it never really got tall enough to bloom, which was kind of the point.
Let’s not even discuss the endless series of David Austin roses–local nurseries would swear to me that they’d do fine in my garden–that kicked the bucket over their first winter, no matter how well mulched.
I’ve only lived in Zone 5 for a few years, in a city where there are almost no Japanese beetles, but have managed to kill numerous roses nonetheless. I planted a handful the fall before this one. Several didn’t settle in properly before their first winter. The two survivors are the ones next to my front porch, White Dawn–a mistake, I don’t like its glossy leaves and modern look–and Russelliana, a much lovelier old variety with purple powder-puff flowers.
They were okay last summer, but I would not say that they are reaching for the sky.
So my successes are wishy-washy, while the failures numerous and absolute. I’ve had failures in dry sandy soil, in wet clay, and in perfect loam. I don’t give my roses any supplemental water, but I do throw compost on ’em in fall, give ’em a fistfull of PlantTone in spring, and do what I would NEVER do for any other garden plant, which is make ’em a nice stinky milkshake of fish emulsion every other week in May and June.
So why does my yard not look like Mottisfont? Is it me? Is it Bush/Cheney? Should I blame Wal-Mart, GM, and Exxon and the other coarser aspects of our culture? Or is it the nature of the rose to be beautiful but elusive, anywhere where there is not a steady British drizzle?