War With the Roses

I just got back from Chicago, with tons of notes, some samples and a day of excellent sniffage with Ina of Aromascope. But that post isn’t ready yet, so instead I’m going to tell a little story …

I ordered (among other things) two climbing roses from Heirloom Roses last spring. Heirloom sells old, hardy and unusual roses, including some highly fragrant ones. I chose Summer Wine (pictured here from their website) because they were beautiful, highly rated for their perfume, and because they’re continuous bloomers. I planned to plant one on either side of the steps of our screened back porch, so that their glory and fragrance would be nearby for most of the summer.

I am probably not the first person to open the shipping box when it arrives, revealing puny, 6-inch sticks, and think, puh-lease. It’ll be two years before those babies are big enough to climb onto anything. After all, I learned to garden in the high desert of the Southwest, where a lack of moisture guarantees plants that grow a lot more slowly. So I dutifully followed the meticulous planting instructions, dug giant holes (in my case, with a pickaxe and a lot of cursing), planted them in good organic material, and then more or less forgot about them except for the occasional watering.

I got the first inkling of the flaw in my thinking in April, when Number One Son came in shrieking with a huge rose thorn broken off in the sole of his foot (and what a slice of heaven that was to remove, let me tell you.) At that point it was hard to miss the fact that the climbers had shot themselves, oh, eight feet skyward, and then, having discovered that the Gardening Slag failed to give them anything to climb onto, flopped over unceremoniously onto the lawn, where they were making plans to extend their empire into the neighbors’ yard.

It was clear to me that the two adorable fan trellises I’d bought for them were not going to do the job staked into the ground. So I came up with the genius plan to mount the trellises off the ground, bolted to the back porch in an elevated position. Of course, the only tiny flaw in this plan was that I had to climb basically into the rose bushes to mount the trellises.

I started early in the morning, figuring I had an hour or two of hard work ahead of me. I put on my sturdy gardening gloves and my doofy garden togs (maximum sun coverage) and stupid hat, got out the wire, the brackets, the screws, etc., and dove in.

As the day wore on into the afternoon, I began to wish for something a little sturdier than my regular gardening outfit — something more along the lines of, say, the outfits worn by the French Riot Police, complete with helmet, face mask, mace and possibly a truncheon. I had to stop periodically to try, delicately, to disengage myself from countless thorns digging into me from various canes, to the point that I could no longer move. I’d suck the blood off various body parts and take deep cleansing breaths and remind myself that, really, this was a good idea and I shouldn’t cut those sumbitches right down to the ground and go have a beer instead.

After five hours, my efforts were rewarded. The canes, already heavily budding, were more or less subdued, twined upright in beautiful, arching bunches in the general vicinity of the trellises. I took a victory shower, dabbed my wounds, and had that beer, admiring my handiwork.

Now, several weeks later, they greet me every morning with a fresh display at eye-level when I come out with my coffee. I have no idea where they think they’re going, and at this rate they’ll eat the back of the house, and maybe a kid or two, but man, they are a sight to behold.

  • Cheezwiz says:


    Your night garden sounds like a wonderful idea. Don’t know what it is about the evening air, but it sure releases fragrance from certain blooms.

    I had fun looking at the Heirloom site. So many beautiful colours and shapes!:d

  • March says:

    Cheez — you know what your list makes me think of? Some day I will work on a part of the yard as a small Night Garden. I want nicotiana and other like-minded white flowers to admire in the sultry summer darkness.

  • March says:

    V — I’m just getting ready to stick my Chicago post up… it was wonderful.

  • March says:

    BBliss — I’m happy for you. Yes, the yard has really forced me to get over my perfectionist tendencies. It is one of the very few meditative parts of my life right now, and I enjoy it a lot more than I ever thought I would. Have Fun.

  • March says:

    Patch — okay, primroses are always cheerfully ready to spread their love…:-” but they’re pretty easy to pull out, so I forgive them.

  • March says:

    Lisa — thanks for the tip about the rose! It sounds gorgeous.

    Your ex, on the other hand, sounds like a total asshat.

  • Cheezwiz says:

    Thanks for the gardening tips March!

    I doubt I’ll ever be able to afford a place with my own yard, but its interesting to read about nonetheless. Even though I kill everything in my path, I find myself becoming much more interested in flowers as I get older.

    I like to imagine my fantasy garden in my head. I’d have a mix of colorful & very fragrant blooms: lilacs (for spring), peonies, lavendar, freesia, nicotiana, stocks, etc.

    If only the true scent of flowers could be captured & bottled!

  • Victoria says:

    Oh, I read about your Chicago trip on Ina’s blog. Sounds like it was a lot of fun!

  • BBliss says:

    Oh March – thank you so much! I am learning much from you and Patty and other commenters on lots of other things than perfume!

    I am printing out your response for my gardening file. It will give me courage (and good help), since there is so much to learn. Good to know there isn’t a lot of room for perfectionism in gardening, as in life. I’m trying to slay that dragon, but sometimes it freezes me into inaction! I will also need patience (with myself and with the plants), so, your realistic guidelines are an immense help. Have a great week!

  • The colors on my pictures are not as nice as in reality so I’m wondering if I shouldn’t take some more until I get a better result.

  • patchamour says:

    “Unholy deadlock.” Love it.

  • patchamour says:

    Wow, March. Thanks for the gardening advice. Your story about the crazy neighbor reminds me: my grandmother (in South Carolina) had a remarkable climbing rose (hot pink in color, not too many petals, good fragrance). What was unique was that it bloomed once in every month of the year, including December and January. The man who now “helps” my mother with yard work kept whacking it down with his weedwhacker, despite her entreaties, and now it’s gone. So sad. You and Lisa S have got me all inspired to make room for some roses (primroses are presently taking over my garden. EEK. The plant from Purgatory at least. Too pretty to be from Hell.)

  • Lisa S says:

    The flowers sound gorgeous & I’m green with envy from my garrett. If you have room for more I would suggest getting an Rosa Gallica Officinalis (Apothecary’s Rose). A once bloomer but amazing scent that lasts even after the petals have dried. A long time ago when I was united in unholy deadlock I had two of these in my yard – made delicious rose petal honey by warming the honey in a pan & steeping the petals I’d stripped from the flowers. Great in tea when one has a sore throat. Can also recommend Rosa Alba Semiplena (another ancient rose & once bloomer) for unparalleled fragrance (two or three blossoms perfume a room.

    When I left the great satan I only requested that I get my roses once autumn ended – as I could not disturb them until they went dormant. (I had planted almost the whole back year with herbs & veggies & flowers, but only wanted the roses…to give to a good home since I was rather emotionally attached to them). So I got them in January – hoved up by the great satan himself with half the rootstock missing & shoved in a hefty garbage bag. Fortunately a co-worker had a wonderful mother with not just a gren thumb, but I believe green hands & spirit, who managed to save two of the three children.

    So now I live in an apartment & have perfumes…but rose perfume? The Gallicas & Albas spoiled me for anything out of a bottle.

  • March says:

    BBliss — I knew nothing about gardening and learned the old-fashioned way, when faced with my first yard — a quarter acre with absolutely nothing on it. In the last 10 years I made every mistake you can make, probably. You asked me my opinion, so here it is, FWIW:
    1) Plants look better massed in groups of 3 or 5 or more (depending on size) of the same thing, rather than 1 of each thing. If you’re not sure what will work/grow, plant 1 of each, far apart, and fill in with more of the same if you like the plant and it likes the yard. You will not get The Perfect Garden in the first year (or even 2.) I say 3 summers before it really shapes up.
    2) I am all about the flowering shrubs, preferably ones that will repeat bloom after trimming. I have no patience for annuals except re-seeding ones like Cosmos.
    3) My garden is messy (cottage garden) but the colors are streamlined, mostly blues, purple and white, with a smattering of hot pink, which I find more pleasing visually than every possible color of the rainbow. Consider picking a color scheme.
    4) Get some books from the library or whatever, look at photos, and decide what kind of garden you like — orderly? Messy? Varied greens? Then pick plants that will grow in your climate. There is NO joy in trying to get things to grow if they’re not happy in your zone, and I speak from sad experience there.
    5) Do you have heavy pests like deer or rabbits? I don’t grow hostas or daylilies, much as I love them, b/c it’s just a salad bar.
    6) On a cheerful note: at my most frustrated with myself, I read some gardening memoirs by some gardening “greats,” looking for ways to avoid more mistakes. What cracked me up is they spend all their time lamenting their mistakes and moving things around. The point being: I realized, hey, if THESE geniuses can mess up repeatedly, I can too, and so what? Be willing and prepared to transplant if you need to (more shade? less damp?)
    7) Last one and I’ll quit: I am not a Gardening Coddler. It’s pretty Darwinian out there, I don’t have time to spray, tent, dig up for the winter, etc. If you plant it and it dies, oh well. The good stuff will probably spread.
    On your roses: if your soil is crap, please dig THAT GIANT HOLE, even if you hate it. You will be rewarded many times over. Pick the disease-resistant continuous bloomers if you don’t want to be spraying them endlessly for black spot, mildew, bugs. My Award-Winning Rose Combo is: roses in the back, lavender and evening primrose around or in the front. You can buy those dinky 6-packs of Lavender Provence and they’ll get huge. There is nothing more glorious than the smell/sight of roses and lavender.
    Have fun! Looking at the catalogs and going to the nurseries is quite addicting…
    PS I grow a number of “drought tolerant” things I fell in love with in Santa Fe, right here in DC. Violating my rule #4 sort of. But as long as they’re not completely xeric, they work in our humid climate, and I never have to water!

  • BBliss says:

    Thank you for sharing – I envy the gardener in you and Patty. I have a new yard and want to start roses, but have to wait several months for the right time to plant now. They would burn up in the heat we have. Will definitely order from Heirloom – their site is gorgeous to browse so thank you for the link.

    So, the gardening gene skipped a generation and I didn’t learn early – any suggestions on where to start? Or, just read and research and plunge ahead experimenting?

  • March says:

    Cheez — my favorite rose bush is my father’s rambler, there since long before I was born. It blooms sweet, open-faced white blossoms in May, which we put on all the family graves (including my mother’s) on Memorial Day.

    A crazy neighbor cut it down to the ground and ran his mower over it in a fit of pique a few years ago; my father was devastated (it is at the edge of his property along a shared driveway.) The kind man across the street cleaned out the debris and tossed a little composted manure on it, and crossed his fingers. I’ve never seen that rose happier — it’s now probably 9 or 10 feet tall and 15 feet wide! I have a cutting going strong in the corner of my own yard now.

  • March says:

    Mimi — ah, post some photos on your site! I love looking at people’s gardens.

    The ones in my back yard are actually a little lighter; yours are probably different. There are so many varieties, and so many have been lost with time. Apparently there are ardent rose lovers who cruise old cemeteries and around old abandoned homesteads, looking for undiscovered heirlooms. Your comment reminded me: on my evening walk the other day I passed a stunning climber spilling across a split rail fence and down a driveway. I crept up their driveway because I HAD to sniff it, it was just so gorgeous, a deep, cinnamon-red. I was astonished to discover it had no scent at all! I mean, just the faintest rose. I stood there flummoxed and thought, why would anyone plant that?!?! But there you have it — different priorities.

    The Summer Wine smells richly sweet, almost liquor-y, rather than spicy. The scent is so strong that two or three cut blooms can perfume the first floor.

    A scent memory: my mother had a tea rose (long since dead) with darkish red, tightly formed blooms that were, frankly, nothing to write home about in appearance. But the smell … oh, what a miracle it was. Such a strong spice that for years I assumed all roses smelled like that — like cinnamon with a bit of mace, or allspice maybe, and very, very strong honey.

  • Cheezwiz says:

    Can’t wait to see your pictures March! I think I prefer climbers because they don’t have that scraggly look that regular rose bushes have.

    I bet the roses look beautiful (and how do they SMELL?);;)

  • I just came back from a photo safari in our garden, the day being so beautiful, and I find your post on roses.

    There are roses that look a lot like yours except that they are truly of a wine color. I’m wondering if the color in the picture is accurate?

    They are reasonably fragrant, but not very fragrant, so it must be another species.

  • Patty says:

    Given my advancing age, peeing my pants gets easier every year.

  • Dusan says:

    March, I forgot to ask you if you’ve tried L’Eau Bleue d’Issey Miyake. I’m considering getting a bottle and am sooo curious to hear your thoughts. All other ladies are also welcome to comment/help.

  • Christina H. says:

    I agree with Dusan.Post some photos please!I love roses!

  • March says:

    Dusan, patchamour, Ina — our crappy scanner died, I’ll borrow someone’s digital camera and upload some pics. We really need to join the 21st century… my daughter’s 12-year-old friends have nicer cameras and cel phones. I’d rather spend my money on other things … :-”

    PS Ina — I cannot think of the last time I had more fun. You are a joy to hang out with.

  • March says:

    Oh, Cait, I wish you were here to drink some wine while drinking in that smell. No wonder rose fragrances tend to disappoint me. Nothing comes close to fragrant climbers in the warmth of the afternoon. Even the bees are shocked.

  • March says:

    Hey, P — wish you’d been there to help. Or laugh at me until you wet yourself, maybe.

  • Ina says:

    March, I’m waiting for your account of our sniffage with baited breath! Oh, and, yeah, post the pics of these roses, would you? :d

  • patchamour says:

    Hi March,

    Great story. I’ll join Dusan in requesting some pics. The rose sounds so beautiful.

  • Dusan says:

    … back!

  • Dusan says:

    Any chance of you posting some pics of the lovely back porch? Welcome

  • cait says:

    And the way she writes as she subdues with a truncheon! You deserve all the summer wine you can drink. Beautiful. Wish I were there to see all the blossoms.

  • Patty says:

    Anyone who knows you at all would have no doubt as to the outcome of that battle. Nothing more beautiful than fully loaded climbers.