Balcony roses: my late summer review

It’s been quite the summer, hasn’t it? For me, it’s meant spending lots of precious time with two charmers I’m madly in love with: my darling grandkids are 7-year old Everly Rose and 16-month old Baby Zack. (Grandchildren – I highly recommend them!)   It’s also meant the exhaustion of trying to stay cool during our unprecedented heat waves here on the west coast (as you know, high temperatures can be brutally hard on heart patients).  And it’s meant countless hours out on my little balcony, immersed in a new obsession that’s turned into a complicated late-COVID project for me:  learning how to grow roses in pots.  

I’ve also been writing (very occasionally) about that immersive horticultural education in The Novice Rose Gardener.  All of these summer activities have meant taking a break after 13 years of writing my weekly Heart Sisters posts, although I’m still moderating and replying to new incoming reader comments in response to older posts.  I read and appreciate all your comments, and try to respond to each of them – although sometimes you’ll have to wait a while depending on what’s happening here at Heart Sisters World Headquarters (a.k.a. my kitchen’s breakfast bar).

I may resume writing my Heart Sisters posts once my gardening gloves are packed away in the fall – or not. I just don’t know yet.

Everything I choose to do at this point truly depends on how much I’m able to do, plus how much joy the activity brings with it. When I first announced here that I needed to take a break, for example, that decision  was born from a strong need to focus on other things in life that represent joy to me.  Balcony roses, however, turned out NOT to be the pure perfection I’d anticipated, but rather a frequent source of worrying about yet another gardening crisis I didn’t know how to fix, interrupted by deliciously happy moments like the first emerging leaves, the first swelling rosebuds, or the first breathtaking scent of a fragrant rose in open bloom – growing on my own balcony!   It was pure joy – occasionally followed the next day, ironically,  by pure despair!

Meanwhile, here’s an illustrated overview of what I’ve been up to out on that balcony this summer, from The Novice Rose Gardener: 

“It’s been a horticultural roller coaster ride with my balcony roses this summer.

“From the initial excitement of learning how to plant bare root roses in spring. . .

“. . . to the thrill of seeing the first fresh green leaves popping up. . .
“. . . and then the dreaded fungus afflictions Black Spot (left) and powdery mildew
(things that my Drift roses are supposed to be resistant to) . . .  😦
“. . . to the explosion – finally, after a cool damp spring! – of gorgeous balcony roses in early July . . .
My balcony roses at sunrise

“. . . and then after about three thrilling weeks of bloom, a small second wave of new buds


“My observations as a novice rose grower so far:

  • “Balcony roses need AIR FLOW around them. As landscaping expert David Beaulieu says: “Growing rose bushes in conditions where adequate spacing is not provided is an open invitation to powdery mildew. Let your roses ‘breathe’. Do not plant them too close together. Follow the spacing requirements indicated on the plant label.”   Not only did I plant my Drift roses close together, their square pots are touching – as you can see in the photo of my bare-root planting (above). As they grew, their branches actually intertwined; I could hardly tell where my Coral Drift rose ended and where my Apricot Drift rose began. No wonder I had problems with powdery mildew. . .   I should not have planted them so close together, or so close to other plants that crowd my balcony. Close plantings restrict air flow around plants – which encourages fungal growth. Even careful pruning in early spring helps to make sure there’s enough space between the rose canes for good air circulation so the rose doesn’t become too dense. I’ll need to address the important issue of air flow for next summer’s blooms – even if that means donating at least half of my roses to my favourite son Ben’s garden to create more open space between my remaining plants.
  • “It turned out that I was unnecessarily concerned about PLANTING ROSES IN POTS rather than in deep earth in a conventional garden bed. I needn’t have worried. My son Ben (Daddy of Baby Zack) who ordered his bare root roses on the same day from the same nursery for our respective spring plantings) has three of his four new roses also planted in large ceramic pots in his own back garden – but – unlike mine! – his are flourishing!  Here’s a beautiful example: his Violet’s Pride (named after Downton Abbey’s Lady Violet Crawley) – a standard (tree) rose in spectacularly fragrant bloom in late August. It’s about three feet wide, grafted on a 3-4 foot trunk. (Note those beautiful fungus-free healthy leaves all summer long). I have a pretty good case of rose envy when I see Ben’s roses.
  • “I learned a lot this past summer about the PREVENTION OF ROSE PROBLEMS – mostly because of what I did not do.  Once a fungal infection gets established in roses, for example, it’s extremely hard to overcome. That’s why prevention is so important. A fungus-free rose, for example, is a healthy rose to begin with. Whenever fungus is able to get a foothold, it’s a sign that something’s wrong with the general health of that rose garden. I just never seemed to get on top of those fungus infections.   For example, the spores of Black Spot or powdery mildew are already present and dormant. So we want to create a clean garden environment that’s hostile to the growth of any fungus. Removing all affected leaves that have fallen onto the soil surface will help. Mulching the surface soil will also help to prevent those evil spores from splashing up onto the lower leaves when watering (and lengthen the time between waterings).   If conditions around balcony roses are as uninviting as possible for disease,  it’s far easier to prevent the disease than it is to cure it once problems become obvious.

(This kind of awareness,  by the way, may seem familiar to heart patients, or to those at risk for heart disease. It’s far easier to prevent heart disease than it is to cure it once our problems become obvious!)

“Finally, choose roses that are marked “Disease-Resistant” , specifically bred to resist hideous rose diseases like Black Spot or powdery mildew. My Drift roses were clearly advertised as “disease-resistant” – yet the combination of unseasonably cool and damp weather, poor air control around my over-crowded plants, and lack of simple preventive measures I neglected to take (like mulching) meant that those little roses were in trouble before we even got started.

“What comes next?

“Frankly, I’ll need to carefully consider if I’ll give these balcony roses another summer next year to settle in – or if I’ll replace these generally labour-intensive yet disappointing newcomers with more “well-behaved” summer blooms – like the workhorse (and truly carefree) red geraniums they replaced this year.

“Meanwhile, I’ve taken “Stop and smell the roses” to a whole new level this summer. . .

Q:  Have you ever taken on a sudden new interest in something that turned into a roller coaster of ups and downs?

NOTE FROM CAROLYN:  I wrote more about topics like prevention (or the lack thereof) in my book  A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease“.  You can ask for it at all bookshops (please support your local independent bookseller!) or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon – or order it directly from my publisher Johns Hopkins University Press (use their code HTWN to save 30% off the list price).


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