Ben and my lovely daughter-in-law Paula moved into their Oak Bay home a few blocks from me last summer – a 1940s house that came with an unusually deep back yard, an apple tree, a pear tree, a grove of five birch trees, two garden swings hanging from an old Hawthorne tree, raised veggie beds, and a wonderful established perennial garden. One afternoon, we were sitting out on their back deck with my favourite new grandson Baby Zack, discussing the fate of a huge old roof-high rambling rose growing up the back of their new home. (Zack apparently has very little interest in this topic, so he promptly fell asleep in my lap).
The trouble was, this huge rose was not well-behaved. Well-behaved roses are those that “pay their rent” by being so beautiful or so long-blooming or so easy-care (no complicated pruning, no diseases/bugs, no chemical spray required) that they’re allowed to take up the valuable real estate in your garden.
This unnamed white climber, for example is one of those unfortunate plants that cling ferociously to their dying brown blooms all summer. This trait could be manageable with a rosebush that stands under 6′. Regular clipping with scissors or pruning shears (“dead heading”) just below the fading flower head, here and there, will keep things looking nice on a short-ish bush during bloom season.
I adore dead heading. I find it meditative; and unlike a real meditation practice, there’s a terrific before and after effect after only a few minutes of puttering.
But because this huge white rose was so massive, and worse, so permanently entangled in the roof-high mesh background that was holding the huge rose vertically in place, it was a bad situation clinging to life on valuable garden real estate. I suspect this mesh background had at one time seemed like a good alternative to constructing a cedar trellis to support a very tall climber. But all summer, Ben, Paula and Baby Zack would have to look at the browning petals of a very large mass of formerly-white rose blossoms. We could dead head the very lowest branches, but this one was so tall that we (and by “we”, I mean “Ben”) would have to rent a crane (seriously) to reach those upper branches. This white rose does not pay its rent.
What to do? We brainstormed a bit (but not being experienced rose growers, we had no clue what we were talking about). We decided to do some research via Ben’s phone. This is how we discovered Russell Nursery, a magical place about a half hour drive from our Oak Bay neighbourhood. Their beautiful and detailed online rose catalogue hooked us right away. Before long, we had decided that replacing the naughty white climber with a truly well-behaved new rose was the answer. Ben decided on a 12-15′ climbing rose called Don Juan, “beautiful deep red blooms, very fragrant (rare in a red climbing rose), disease resistant and low maintenance.”
Remember, this was in mid-summer, during what our weather experts called a rare “heat dome”(the worst time to plant anything! In fact, a number of the rhododendrons and other plants in Ben’s garden didn’t survive the heat dome in spite of an existing sprinkler and drip system. It was just too hot). But pre-ordering bare root plants from Russell’s now would mean they would be ready for pick-up the following March (and a cool early spring is the ideal time to plant bare root roses here on the west coast, we learned, because all of the plant’s energy would go into establishing a strong root system, during a time of year when we’d still be getting regular rain to keep those new roots healthy).
And that’s how it all started: in the Russell Nursery rose catalogue, I discovered smaller shrub and groundcover roses, many described as “ideal for patio containers”. Until that day, it had never occurred to me that the dozens of plant pots lining my balcony could one day contain roses instead of geraniums and other annual bedding plants that needed expensive replacing every spring!
So while Ben spent the rest of that summer day deciding which roses he would pre-order, I walked back home to decide on which ones would make the best balcony roses. I started with the rose family called Drift® roses. These would grow about two feet tall and spread out about two feet wide, making them ideal for my balcony pots.
That was the plan!
Read the next essay in this series on my balcony roses:
7. Balcony Roses: Thoughts on Pots – March
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