by Carolyn Thomas ♥ @HeartSisters
For the first time in 14 years, I took a wee summer break from writing my weekly Heart Sisters posts, and started a small temporary site, The Novice Rose Gardener, in the spring of 2022 – mostly to track my new obsession/adventure: trying to grow balcony roses. I truly believed this learning experience would bring me joy ( I LOVE LOVE LOVE roses!) – but, just like in real life, I learned that it’s far more about managing expectations. My adventure can now best be described as a horticultural roller coaster! By the way, to my readers who have been asking when or if I’ll be getting back to writing those Sunday morning blog posts about women’s heart health: I’m unable to say quite yet. Meanwhile, you can find links to my list of all 900+ articles here. And for all of you who happen to love roses – or roller coasters – I’m archiving my balcony rose posts, starting here with the first essay:
1. Right Rose, Right Place – March
My only experience with choosing and planting roses (as opposed to moving into a home that already had roses in the garden) was back in the late 90s when I read an article about an amazingly fast-growing rose called Kiftsgate. The article said: .
“Kiftsgate’ is an extremely vigorous rambling rose, bearing masses of small, single, cream-white flowers with a strong musk fragrance, followed by red oval-shaped rose hips. It’s ideal for growing through large trees or to cover large unsightly buildings or walls.”
Extremely vigorous? Fragrant blooms? I had to have it!
This was just what I needed for a bare two-storey vinyl siding wall overlooking my Vic West townhouse patio. I couldn’t get that Kiftsgate rose out of my mind, picturing how lovely it would look scrambling up all that unsightly siding. The Kiftsgate rose is named after its original home at Kiftsgate Court, a stately English estate near Chipping Campden – where the largest rose in England was planted in 1938 by Heather Muir, the present owner’s grand-mother. It’s still thriving in a gorgeous garden cared for by three generations of female gardeners.
I couldn’t find a Kiftsgate at any local garden shops, but I did find it in a mail order rose catalogue from the rural north end of Vancouver Island (several hours drive from my home on the south end). I ordered my Kiftsgate, and about a month later a delivery truck arrived from up-island. The rose was just a short bare stick, about the thickness of my thumb, poking up out of a one-gallon black plastic pot of dirt. Not too promising, but I plunked the stick hopefully into the hole I’d dug for it, and waited for summer to arrive.
The Kiftsgate took off nicely that first year, reaching the patio roof in just one season. The second year it reached the top of the second storey, and covered the upstairs balcony railing in the most charming fashion. By the third year, it had reached up well past the roof – and all of our neighbours from the next block over could see it. I sold that Vic West townhouse in 2007 and my Kiftsgate was still going strong – by then a famous summer show stopper around our neighbourhood.
You’re probably wanting your own Kiftsgate rambling rose right about now. But this is the important point at which you must fight that urge to buy this or any other rose – temporarily. I’ve learned so far that choosing the right rose for the right place is critical to our success as novice growers.
Before you plant your new rose, answer these questions:
1. Am I expecting the PERFECT ROSE?
I’ve also learned that there are very very good roses, but there is no perfect rose. And besides, you can’t always get what you want, as the Rolling Stones reminded us. In future posts, we’ll look at the importance of matching what you value most in a rose with what a given rose is actually able to give you. I thought my Kiftsgate was near-perfect, for example – up until its relatively short and intense blooming period ended and I then spent every day sweeping up a non-stop storm of dying brown petals for the next three months.
2. Does the spot I’ve picked for my rose get SUN most of the day?
If not, you and your rose may not live happily ever after. Most experienced rose gardeners claim that 5-8 hours of full sun is the ideal needed for a truly happy rosebush. You may be able to get a rose to limp along in semi-shaded areas (as long as the shade is not caused by trees, that can also affect the soil’s water content) but chances are you won’t be thrilled – which is what I’ve decided roses are all about. Lack of sunshine can also increase the likelihood of attracting insects or diseases like Black Spot.
JUNE 2022 UPDATE: I’m starting to worry, just a wee tiny bit, that our unseasonably drizzly and cool spring so far has affected the way my roses will grow alongside the balcony railing: for the entire month of May, for example, we had only seven days of sun! There just hasn’t been enough long periods of sunshine to encourage sturdy stems and healthy blooms.
3. I’ll tell you what I want, what I really really want. . .
Do I want a smallish ground cover rosebush that won’t get too tall, or a medium-sized shrub rose, or a standard “tree” rose for a formal garden or patio, or a fragrant rose for planting near an entrance gate, or a rose that will look lovely in a hanging basket, or a care-free rose that’s resistant to nasty rose diseases, or a repeat bloomer that just keeps blooming until frost, or a big giant rambling rose like Kiftsgate, or a climbing rose (which, surprisingly, is not the same as a rambler)?
Here’s a brief response to that last part, which turns out to be confusing for many would-be rose growers: CLIMBERS generally have larger blooms on not-too-vigorous, stiff growth and most of them repeat flower (meaning a big show in June/July (peak rose blooming months!) usually followed by one or more lesser repeat blooms until frost). RAMBLERS tend to be much more vigorous. They will produce great quantities of small flowers, but most do NOT repeat flower. It’s almost as if they burn themselves out putting on their spectacular June show. This is important because it means that the big tall rose that dominates your garden will basically be covered with unsightly dying brown blooms from July until the first frost. Is that what you want? And that was the problem with my own otherwise perfect fast-growing Kiftsgate. It turned out that fast growth was NOT the only important rose quality to me.
The bottom line: don’t pick out your new rose based on just the glossy full-colour photo on the plant tag (because all plant tags are designed to look irresistibly gorgeous to suck you in). First, identify what you really really want out of your new rose, and then search for plants that will specifically meet your criteria.
In our next post, we’ll look at specific characteristics of other types of roses that may be important to you – especially if you’ve ever found out too late that the plant you’ve just purchased lacks that quality. Try not to go rose-shopping until you come back and read that one.
Read the next essay in this summer series about balcony roses:
2. Balcony Roses: Never Mind What Your Mother Grew
Return to my HEART SISTERS site, or find out more about my book “A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease“. You can ask for it at bookstores (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).
Q: Have you ever launched an exciting new activity/hobby/obsession that did NOT turn out as expected?
Writing about hearts – and now roses
Balcony roses: my late summer review
Heart Month awareness: doing the same thing, yet expecting different results (the blog post that kick-started my need to take a break)
Failure to inspire (answering the question “Should we seek inspiration from people we don’t even know?”) Some of my blog readers seem to insist on it!
5 thoughts on “How I spent my summer vacation. . .”
My mother loved roses, cultivated them throughout her life. Her roses were spectacular though they were sprayed with the heavy pesticides typical in the 1950’s.
When she retired, she transplanted her roses to her cottage and covered part of a hillside with flowers. After her death in 2006 at age 98, I planted a bed of her favorites. Peace rose, Chrysler Imperial and more. This was just as the Japanese beetles came to Wisconsin – so for several years the roses were decimated by beetles. Sometimes I’d know there was a rose bud because it was covered by beetles but not visible.
I gave up and pulled out all the roses because the memory just wasn’t working the way I envisioned. Now I grow zinnias and have a small bed of hardy knock-out roses.
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Hello Sara – Your mother’s cottage roses sound heavenly! What a sight they must have been on that hillside.
I love the idea of planting her favourite roses after she died. Peace and Chrysler Imperial are such classic hybrid tea roses – and I recall they were also very fragrant, especially the latter. Sadly they DO demand those nasty chemical sprays though, so common when my late Mum was growing roses.
When I was deciding on my own balcony roses, I heard about the Knock-out (easy-care) rose family for the first time. Maybe next summer? (she said hopefully. . . )
Take care, stay safe out there. . . ♥
Hi Carolyn. I had been wondering how the Rose Adventure was going. . . Waiting for more stories about managing expectations.
Of course, roses won’t make it through the winter outside in Fairbanks. For several years, we had roses (is “Fred Myer” a variety?) and would diligently bring them inside, cover them with black garbage bags so they wouldn’t grow and respond to light, and wait for the temperatures to be above freezing to bring them outside.
Then COVID hit, and I tried to keep the roses indoors where I could see them and raise them with artificial light. Apparently roses aren’t particularly fond of fake sunlight, and also don’t do well when one is depressed and really doesn’t care about much except sleeping.
They got under-watered, they got over-watered, they got the blues. They passed over the Rose Rainbow Bridge.
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Hello Steve – lovely to hear from you. My condolences on the loss of “Fred Myer.” Not that I’m trying to convince you to give roses a second chance in Alaska, BUT have you heard of the “Morden” family of roses? These were developed by plant scientists at the Morden Experimental Station in Manitoba who wanted to grow a rose that would survive the harsh prairie winters (down to -30F). The “Morden Blush” rose is particularly beautiful – and even claims to grow well in Anchorage. Might do better than Fred did for you. . .
I observed that my affection for my balcony roses grew deeply when the first shiny leaves opened, even deeper when the first pointy bulbs appeared, and went crazy when the fragrant blossoms opened with glorious effect!
But just three short weeks later, after those first blooms turned brown and the powdery mildew/Black Spot took over, my affection for them vanished – instantly. Pretty soon, even the sight of them lined up along my balcony railing became too depressing. Now I try not to even look at them when I pass by to water the GOOD plants on my balcony. I still love roses – just apparently not MY roses.
Thanks so much for your comments – I hope you are still lifting big rocks and staying strong these days.
Take care. . .