Valerie tending to day lilies.

by Stan Cutler

Valerie, my wife, whose daily life revolves around plants, came charging into the den as I was about to fall asleep. I was in my recliner, about to doze off, a magazine laid on my chest. “Guess what! We figured it out. I know what’s making the holes in the roses!”

In the early days of our relationship, we lived in Germantown in a big stone twin that had half an acre of land. I knew nothing about gardening but decided that I would have a rose garden. It seemed like a good idea at the time, our first Spring together, a way to spend time with my bride in a healthy outdoor pursuit. She was delighted that I was showing an interest. I thought there would be nothing to it – dig some holes and put some rose bushes in them. Ha!

We pored over rose catalogs and their floral porn. A rose is photogenic: sculptural, colorful, beautiful. We couldn’t decide so we ordered over two dozen varieties of bare root roses from Oregon growers. I learned that there are many categories of the genus Rosa, in the family rosacea, but four basic kinds: tea roses, floribunda, climbers and shrubs. Tea roses (I still don’t know why they’re so-called) have long stems and large flowers that do well in a vase for few days after they’re cut. They’re the kind you buy for Valentine’s day. Floribundas produce clusters of flowers with shorter stems. Climbers are amazingly vigorous and will grow canes at the rate of 10 feet or more a year. Shrub roses are more compact and tend to produce an abundance of flowers.  

Hybrid tea roses are varieties developed by horticulturalists to obtain new colors and to maximize vigor and disease resistance. They are gorgeous and come in every color except blue. A subset of hybrid teas is called grandiflora, with tea-like flowers and the hardiness (supposedly) of floribundas. We live in a climate that is challenging for roses, especially the teas. Hot, humid summers encourage a fungus called “black spot” that eats the leaves, turning them yellow, speckling them, slowly killing the plant. During the 20 years we lived in Germantown, the disease killed many.

The other great threat was Japanese Beetles. Do not try to grow yellow roses because the little devils are strongly attracted to the petals. From the yellows, they will spread to the others, albeit less voraciously. They burrow into dirt and lay their eggs, creating new generations. They are damned hard to get rid of once they find your roses.

I was traveling a lot during the years we lived in Germantown and wasn’t inclined to undertake the recommended anti-fungal spraying regimen.  It was a chore I was too lazy to undertake – thirty rose bushes and their hundreds of leafy canes. Spraying just the ones with an obvious infection will not do – you have to spray them all. After all, I had magazines and books to read.

We’ve lived in Chestnut Hill for 20 years. Until a few years ago, memories of my Germantown failures were too painful. But, finally, the memories faded and I was willing to try again.  I work from home now, so I might just find the time. We ordered four hybrid teas from the Fred Edmunds rose farm in Oregon, put one out front in the patch of dirt between the sidewalk and the house, and the other three in different locations in the back, hoping to inhibit the spread of disease by social distancing.

Only one of them thrived. I’m uncertain why the other three sent out only a few blooms. Perhaps because they were crowded by other plants, perhaps it was because the soil was too alkaline, perhaps it was because I didn’t feed them. I don’t know.  

There is a 10-by-10 sunny patch at the back of the yard, overgrown by daylilies, where the one rose bush that thrived was located. Valerie was eager to find a better use for the patch and encouraged me to clear out the daylilies and try replanting the three pathetic survivors. And, since I was going to all of that trouble of clearing the patch, why not order a few more?

By tradition, the roses are mine – everything else is Valerie’s. (She can’t look at a plant without wanting to care for it, so I knew that she would be willing to “help”.)  Selection from the catalogs has always been a shared pleasure. So we now have a rose garden – again. I’ve moved the three survivors to the cleared patch and planted four new ones.

To be continued

Stan Cutler is a local novelist, gardener’s helper and volunteer for the Friends of the Chestnut Hill Library.

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