• Carolyn Thomas

My rose gardening buddy, Ben

Updated: Jul 4

I blame my favourite (and only) son Ben for my recent infatuation with growing roses out on my balcony. It's all his doing.

Ben and I at one of our neighbourhood beaches in Oak Bay

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 roof-high climbing 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 climbing rose was not "well-behaved". (Read more here about what I've learned about well-behaved roses, about roses that "don't pay their rent", or about some nasty rose pests and diseases you'll want to avoid - all of which are important factors in choosing the right rose.)

This unnamed white climber is one of those unfortunate plants that cling ferociously to their dying brownish 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 white climber was so massive, and worse, so permanently entangled in the roof-high mesh background that was holding the climber vertically in place, this was a bad situation. 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 buy or borrow a dangerously high ladder to reach those upper branches.

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."

"Don Juan" climbing rose - will Ben's "Don Juan" look like this some day?

And then we discovered all the other roses we could pre-order from the catalogue.

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 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! For more on choosing appropriate pots for your space, see Balcony Roses: Thoughts on Pots.

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 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.

For an update on how Ben's rose choices are turning out, read this.

And for a thrilling July 4th update on what's FINALLY blooming this week out on my tiny balcony, read this! Here's a hint:

Meanwhile, always remember to s-l-o-w down and smell those lovely roses - yours or not!

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