How I Spent My Summer Vacation

by Carolyn Thomas   ♥  @HeartSisters

I took a wee summer break from writing my usual Heart Sisters posts, and started writing a series of short essays in the spring of 2022 to track my newest obsession/adventure: trying to grow balcony roses. I truly believed this break would bring me joy, but – just like in real life! – breaks can often be far more about managing expectations!  My adventure can best be described as a horticultural roller coaster. For my heart sisters who also happen to love roses – or roller coasters! –  I’m archiving those essays from The Novice Rose Gardener starting here, FYI:

1.  Right Rose, Right Place – March 2022

My only experience with choosing and planting a new rose (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. Kiftsgate is named after its original home on one of those stately English estates – where the largest Kiftsgate rose in England is hundreds of years old and 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 north end of Vancouver Island (I live down at the south end, several hours drive away). I ordered my Kiftsgate, and about a month later a delivery truck arrived from up-island. The rose looked like a short bare stick, about the thickness of my thumb, sticking 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.

My Kiftsgate rambling rose in full glorious June bloom!

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 way up past the roof and all of our neighbours from the next block over could see it. I sold that 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 roses, 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 – 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 two 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 – which 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 fungus diseases like the dreaded Black Spot.

JUNE UPDATE: I’m starting to worry, just a wee tiny bit, that our unseasonably drizzly and cool spring so far (just seven days of sun in the entire month of May!) has affected the way my roses are growing alongside the balcony railing: for weeks, there just has not been those long lovely periods of sunshine to encourage sturdy stems and healthy plants.  Instead, my stems seem downright thin and frail.   How will they ever be able to support the weight of the blooms once all the new fresh buds open up? Will I have droopy stems too weak to stand up straight? 

3. Let me 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 question, 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 like my Kiftsgate, most do NOT repeat flower. It’s almost as if they burn themselves out putting on their spectacular June/July show. This is important because it means that the big tall rose that dominates your garden will turn into an eyesore, basically covered with unsightly dying blooms from July until the first frost. And that was the problem with my own otherwise perfect fast-growing Kiftsgate.

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). First, identify what you really really want out of your new rose, and then search only 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 important when you find out too late that the rosebush you’ve just planted lacks that quality. Try not to go rose-shopping until you come back and read that one.

Read the next essay in this series on balcony roses:

2. Roses: Who Do You Love?  ( March)

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).


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