Valerie dealing with bugs.

By Stan Cutler

 (continued from last week’s article on roses)

Something was eating one of the rose bushes. During the first week of the pandemic lockdown, we transplanted three weak bushes to a more congenial part of the garden. We’d planted them last year, but they had not thrived. By late Autumn of 2019 they were thin-stemmed and had not produced many flowers. Valerie, my wife, who tries to think like a plant, believes that they will prefer the new location because it gets full sunlight most of the day.

Trees repel invaders by casting shade that deprives new growth of sunlight. Deciduous tree, like the ones we love in Chestnut Hill, poison the ground around them with toxins in their autumn leaves. In our climate, broad leaf trees dominate the sidewalks and properties because we need them to mitigate the hot and humid summers. Our forest is not accidental – few of our trees had been volunteers. Many of them are elderly, having been deliberately planted during in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Two mature red maples had been planted near the left side of our narrow yard, shading about half of the area. At the back of the property, a garage and tool shed cast shadows in the morning; the house and its twin cast late afternoon shadows. The spot where we planted the roses in front of the shed is exposed to direct sunlight until the evening, though it doesn’t get morning sun until around 10 AM.  

You can buy potted rose bushes from the garden store, but they are less likely to thrive than bare root roses from catalogs. Most roses are actually two plants. The canes we see above ground have been grafted onto the roots of hardy, less ornamental, disease-resistant varieties at what’s called the bud union. One hopes that the grower allows a couple of years for the merger to succeed before he ships plants to gardeners.

Rose roots need to breathe. Unless the soil is fully drained, the roots will wither. On the other hand, the roots need to be tightly anchored. Planting requires preparation of the hole to make sure it’s deep and wide enough to allow water to seep away.  The bare roots radiate downward from the bud union like spread fingers, so you should set the center of the union atop a conical mound. You want the underside of every root to touch the cone. Before you fill the hole, use your own fingers to build up the cone and compact the soil under the roots without gaps. Then add and compact the rest of the soil over the roots. The depth of the hole should be such that the bud union is an inch or so above ground level after the hole is filled. Use your feet to compress the soil in the filled hole as much as possible. Water where you stomped until the water pools at the surface. If you have good drainage, the pool should dissipate in minutes. If not, the chances that the plant will thrive aren’t good.

One of the roses we transplanted, a pathetic little thing that, if healthy, produces creamy orange and red flowers, is not doing well. Not only are the canes not growing much, but the leaves are small. Little holes began appearing in the leaves a couple of weeks after we transplanted it. Inspection did not, at first, reveal the cause. Valerie asked Beth, another fanatical gardener who lives across the street, to offer advice.

I was dozing in my recliner during the consultation. My nap was spoiled when Valerie burst in to inform me that tiny insects called sawflies had laid minuscule eggs where new leaves sprout on the canes. A few days later, green larvae the size of sand grains hatch and start chewing holes. The best therapy, if you can see them, is to squish the teensy worms to death.  

“Isn’t that great!” Valerie declared. “We’ll kill them all!”

“Okay,” I said.

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

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