15. Balcony Roses: a Powdery Mildew Festival

 by Carolyn Thomas   ♥   @HeartSisters

Flower Carpet Scarlet rose (that white fuzz on the leaves and bud is powdery mildew)

We’re five for five so far out on my summer balcony. All four Drift® roses (pink, coral, apricot and red) plus the lone Flower Carpet Scarlet are now infected with either powdery mildew or Black Spot – or both. It’s been exactly one month since I first spotted evidence of these nasty rose conditions.

To say I’m disappointed by the appearance of these common rose fungus problems would be an understatement.

When my favourite son Ben and I sat down last summer to browse the Russell Nursery pre-order rose catalogue, we were so excited to read about these new types of roses (sometimes known as landscape roses because they’ve become popular plants to beautify highways, shopping malls and any public area that needs low-maintenance, long-blooming and disease-resistant mass plantings from summer to frost). In other words, we decided on these roses precisely because their catalogue descriptions seemed so reassuring to gardeners like us who had been put off by the nasty reputation of high-maintenance roses in the past.

Now we were hooked! Ben chose four easy-care rosebushes from the catalogue for his new back yard garden, while I chose my Drifts and Flower Carpet for my small balcony, based solely on the promise of easy-care that seemed almost too good to be true. See more of how we made our decisions at: Balcony Roses: Who Do you Love?”

The Drift family of groundcover roses is trademarked as “Groundcover Roses Made Easy®” which brings us to that word “easy”. An easy rose, according to gardening journalist Sheryl Geerts, writing in Better Homes & Gardens, is “disease-resistant and produces an abundance of flowers throughout the summer and into fall as long as you plant it in full sun and water during dry spells. Plus, most of these top-performing roses don’t need to be deadheaded like other varieties do to keep blooming.”

Sheryl’s description mirrors my own definition of “easy” roses, and brings us to the mention of “disease-resistant”. This year has been a challenge for local rose growers: an unseasonably long, cool, cloudy and damp spring that spilled over well into June (normally a peak rose-blooming season) here on the balmy west coast of Canada. We’re getting plenty of sun now – but basically playing catch-up.

Fungus infections like Black Spot and powdery mildew apparently thrive in just the right environmental conditions (i.e. out on my balcony!)  All of the grey dampness of spring has resulted in Drift roses which, sadly,  look nothing like that Drift marketing photo above.

Mine started off nice and healthy once the bare-root plants were dug into their new pots of fresh soil in early spring, but instead of sturdy stems loaded with roses, my stems grew frail and long. The first blooms to appear were thrilling, of course – but the thrill was short-lived. Most flowers appeared like droopy bouquets of long stems topped with bloom just at the ends. And when the first signs of powdery mildew and Black Spot appeared on the once-green leaves, I almost forgot to look at the beautiful rose colours. All I could see was the creepy fungus attacking my leaves (and often entire bunches of emerging new rose buds – bad news if you’re a rosebush that claims continuous repeat bloom every five weeks until frost.

I was desperate to learn more about what was going on, and what I could do – if anything. I interviewed strangers I passed in the neighbourhood who were out tending their own roses to find out if their plants were also afflicted. Most recommended I spray my balcony roses with a homemade water/baking soda mixture. It has had no effect on the mildew so far.

I called my gardening friends for their advice, which was to buy Safer’s Fungicide spray. Again, no effect – on either the Black Spot or the mildew. But while at the garden store, I learned that roses planted too close together seem to be more susceptible to Black Spot and powdery mildew. “Too close together”? The branches of my four Drifts were intertwined! I couldn’t tell where the Coral ended and the Apricot began! The Flower Carpet Scarlet is the only rosebush placed a distance from the four lining the balcony railing – yet it too has powdery mildew!

So, what now?

I was so dismayed at the sight of my poor damaged leaves (and also the lack of new rosebuds emerging to replace the rapidly fading first blooms) that I simply couldn’t make a decision:

should I bring all of my new rose pots over to plant in Ben’s sunny garden, where his leaves stay shiny and healthy – and give up on balcony roses?

– should I bring only the two middle pots to Ben’s – leaving lots of open space between the two end pots?

– should I just let them live out the summer as is, and see what happens next spring after I prune them back during forsythia season?

– what can I do to make my growing conditions as favourable as in Ben’s garden?

– should I just return to growing truly carefree red geraniums along my balcony railing?

I don’t know!  I can’t decide!  (Read my late August illustrated reviews in which I take stock of my summer out on the balcony.)

Meanwhile, about six blocks away from the frustrations of my balcony rose garden: my son Ben’s enjoying his new roses in his back yard.

I’m so happy for him about his gorgeous new roses – but do his new roses have to look so beautiful and strong – while mine are looking so sickly at the moment? All but one of his roses are, like mine: growing in pots. Each one is thriving. Each one looks remarkably ike the full-colour photo on the rose tag. Each one has green shiny foliage.

So far, here’s how they’re doing in Ben’s back garden:

The beautiful “Violet’s Pride”

1. “Violet’s Pride” (a fairly recently developed rose named for the Downtown Abbey character, Lady Violet Crawley, played onscreen by the wonderful Maggie Smith). Ben chose a standard form of this unique rose (it’s basically a smallish tree rose, 3-4 feet of rosebush grafted onto a 3-foot trunk). Violet is a show-stopper: gorgeous fragrant blossoms peeking out from dark green glossy leaves.

1. Don Juan ( a climbing rose with large 4″ velvety red, strongly scented blooms that are easy-care repeat bloomers, grows 10-12 feet high, planted in a large ceramic pot at the corner of the house)

2. Arborose® Tangerine Skies (large 4″orange blooms, strongly scented with dark green and glossy foliage, grows to 8 feet high, planted in a large ceramic pot near the clematis/honeysuckle arbour)

3. Flower Carpet Red (red blossoms with butter yellow centres, easy-care, disease resistant repeat bloomers, about three feet high x three feet wide – same family as my Scarlet, minus the powdery mildew, and the only rose Ben has planted in the small sunny area he’s calling his Rose Garden (a total of three plants so far, two of which were planted by previous owners of the house) Pictures to come soon. . .

There are no doubt some important life lessons for me in this new adventure of growing roses in pots. One is surely about my expectations (hey! didn’t I write about that already? )

I’ve written a lot over the years in my Heart Sisters blog on managing expectations after a serious medical diagnosis, and in my book “A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease (Johns Hopkins University Press).

For me, it’s mostly about taking a deep breath, and deciding how you’d like to look back on this time or event. We know, for example, that ruminating over “what could happen next” is actually dangerous for heart patients who – not surprisingly! – can end up worried sick with each new chest twinge that another heart attack is imminent. Read more on this in my essay: “Do You Think Too Much? How Ruminating Hurts Your Heart”

Ruminating about the state of my roses, by comparison, is not as dangerous, of course – but it’s definitely not helpful to my overall emotional health – and worse, it can keep me from appreciating all the good that IS going on in my balcony garden every day. Like these world-class Piilu clematis blooms!

Fabulous “Piilu Clematis” competing for attention out on my balcony

So while I try to limit the time I spend fretting over each poor rose leaf, I’ll also remind myself to just s-l-o-w down – and smell the clematis. . .

Read the next essay in this Balcony Roses series:

Balcony Roses: My Late Summer Review”

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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