Sandy’s Garden ... How to fail with roses

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We grew roses in the garden of the house that was our first married home.

We didn’t grow roses because we knew much about their cultivation. We grew roses because both my wife and I grew up in homes where there were rose bushes in the garden. We grew roses because we both like rose blooms. And, for as important a reason as any newly-wed couple might advance, we grew roses because we were told about a chap in Winchburgh who sold rose bushes for a very modest price. With every penny a prisoner, modest prices made any sort of garden plant attractive. So we planted roses.

We learned the hard way that roses are not entirely undemanding plants, despite this quote from an internet site dedicated to the art and craft of rose-growing. “Growing roses requires no gardening skills or experience. Essentially, there are three easy steps: 1. Choose the right rose for your space. 2. Plant your rose where it will get at least six hours of sun each day. 3. Water regularly. Voila - your roses are off to a healthy start.” Well, I suppose we missed the first step of this three-step process, for we chose our varieties because they were available and cheap, not because they were the right varieties for our soil and our situation. By happenstance, we actually got the second step right, for we formed our rose bed in an exposed part of a south-facing garden, so our plants enjoyed the sun whenever it shone. But that no doubt contributed to our stumble over step three, for we were both working full-time; we had all the housework to do at the weekend; and watering the garden came pretty low down the order of priorities, somewhere after doing the washing, cleaning the house, visiting parents and in-laws and doing the greater part of the week’s shopping.

We also were trying to garden in heavy clay, a growing medium that compressed to the solidity of concrete if it was stepped on … and try spraying, or pruning, or deadheading rose bushes in a rose bed without treading on the soil! Ah, had we but known that we should have checked the drainage by digging a hole in the prospective rose bed, filling it with water and observing how long it took for the water to drain away. However, on reflection, we might have been waiting yet for the water to seep through that impermeable clay. And the remedies … adding substantial quantities of compost or shredded bark … were impossibly expensive.

Now let’s consider the single most important criterion that should have guided our selection of bushes. We should have selected top-quality plants. Easily-said and undoubtedly true: but that was not a luxury we could afford. And, of course, we should have cared for them properly. Well, setting aside the fact that our roses were planted in solid clay that was concrete-hard on the surface in dry weather and puddled in wet weather, we failed to mulch the bushes generously, we failed to fertilize them regularly and we didn’t appreciate the plants’ need for protection from the winter wind in their sunny, but exposed site. And our attempts at pruning were what we might nowadays term a joke, accepting that any serious rose-grower would be reduced to tears by this ‘joke.’ We know … now … that a good time to begin pruning a rose is after the last frost should have passed and the buds have begun to swell; that we should have worn rose or leather gloves to protect our hands from thorns; and we should have protected our arms and legs. We should have had a good pair of secateurs and a pair of long-handled loppers, both of the bypass style which dah-de-dah-de-dah ...

Need I go on? Lack of knowledge, lack of tools, lack of money, lack of time. That’s how to fail with roses!