• Carolyn Thomas

Balcony roses: the promise vs. the reality

The promise: gorgeous fragrant rose blooms in July!

As I wrote here back when I was still planning this year's new balcony rose experiment, I'd anticipated (as the plant tags promised) rose plants that were uncharacteristically easy-care, disease-resistant, fragrant and repeat bloomers - meaning they'd be in gorgeous bloom from early June through to frost.

What I experienced, however, was not quite what was promised. After an early spring planting success (Healthy green leaves sprouting! New buds swelling!) and a truly thrilling mini- rose display for the first three weeks of July, the fungus attacks of powdery mildew and Black Spot took over. Despite my tireless efforts every day (yes! every day!) to fight back with first homemade and then commercial fungicide sprays to help keep on top of the fungus attacks, nothing seemed to help.

The reality: just one month later, the roses are essentially done

In fact, most of the colour in my balcony pots now comes from my lush hanging basket begonias (I tucked four 4" annuals in May into an empty basket left over from last summer's balcony garden). Those four small plants have exploded, and will continue right up until the first hard frost. Meanwhile, only the very occasional pinkish/coral roses are still in bloom.

There are many potential reasons for these disappointing gardening results (as I described in detail here) - likely ranging from an unseasonably cold and wet spring, to not enough unlimited sunshine, or pots planted too close together (not enough air flow?)

The bottom line, however, is this: my hope had been that my balcony roses could replace the usual annual bedding plants I put in every May, and which bloom like crazy all summer well after frost. Here's a fairly typical photo from last summer of what late August usually looks like on my balcony garden:

A beautiful jungle of impatience, lobelia, cosmos, geraniums and other annuals

These truly carefree annuals that I plant each spring don't fuss over sun or air flow or fungus attacks - because such issues do not affect them! I anticipated that my new rose plants might even permanently replace those flats of one-summer annuals. I pictured the roses growing stronger and bigger as the summers passed into one magnificent and carefree perennial border.

But after what I learned this year, it seems that a balcony garden that blooms for only three weeks a year is not, after all, what gardeners would call "plants that pay their rent".

Some garden plants (like peonies, for example) are so fabulous that they're worth planting even though they have very short blooming periods. They pay their rent! Roses, on the other hand, tend to look awful when they're not blooming - which is why those advertised as long-blooming or repeat blooming sound so irresistible to rose-lovers.

In fact, I now look enviously up at balcony planters and window boxes around my neighbourhood that are spilling over with bright red geraniums. There's a reason that geraniums are so predictably popular everywhere. They are the workhorses of the garden, in the garden or in pots. I even used geraniums as a descriptor of my Drift roses when I first learned about them: could these wonderful little landscaping rose shrubs, I wondered, turn out to be replacements for all those geraniums I plant every year?

It seems clear by now that they can't. A plant should offer more pleasure each day than pain. That truism has helped me decide over the years which flowers I'll plant more of, and which ones are not worth it.

So what will I do with my four Drift (and one Flower Carpet) roses? I'll likely donate them to family or friends who have better growing conditions than my east-facing balcony can offer. I may keep just one of the Drift roses (Apricot was my favourite) - just as another experiment for one more summer.

The balcony rose experiment didn't work out as hoped, but I'm still very glad I jumped in. For the past year, my son Ben and I have had endless conversations about our rose choices and our respective gardens - and many happy hours digging holes and planting roses together. Those hours are priceless! I've also been able to live vicariously through Ben's fantastic results with his own very healthy roses.

I still do love roses - but I have to say that, as I reminded myself here, there's no such thing as a perfect plant.

When I write for my Heart Sisters readers who are heart patients, I like to mention that so much about living with a chronic and progressive diagnosis like heart disease is simply about appropriately managing our expectations.

With my balcony roses, what I EXPECTED (non-stop carefree roses from spring until Christmastime) turned out to be an unrealistic expectation - largely due to some factors I couldn't control (e.g. weather) and some I could have but didn't (e.g. improving air flow for my roses).

I did my homework, I made the best buying decisions I could at the time, and I learned a lot. And what I learned has helped me make new decisions about future gardening plans.

Isn't that what gardeners do? As a longtime gardener, I've often described gardening as a basically hopeful activity.

Gardening forces us to both focus on the present (planting, watering, weeding) and the future. We always seem to be planning what needs transplanting, what needs pruning or deadheading, and how this plant will look five years from now and if the shade it provides will mean moving a sun-loving plant out of its way. So many decisions to make! Excellent use of brain power - and our muscles.

Changing focus in mid-stream is just normal for gardeners. Unless you're designing a show garden at the Chelsea show that demands unwavering precision, most gardeners are fairly casual about what plant goes where each year. We like to try out new plants (especially, as garden columnist Helen Chesnut once wrote, if they are rare or if they won't grow in our zone!) But we do tend to like the flowers that are gracious enough to do well in the spot we've picked out for them.

My 2022 roses, alas, did not do well in the spot I'd picked out. So I'll spend this fall and winter poring over my garden books and seed catalogues - and see what ideas leap out at me for 2023.

We live in hope, right?

Meanwhile, take care - and always remember to slow down and smell the roses in your life. . .

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