Confessions of a Reformed Black Thumb: How a Single Rose Catalog Rocked My World

single_yellow_roseBefore my 35th birthday, it’s safe to say I single-handedly killed more flora than last summer’s wildfire at Yellowstone. Don’t get me wrong, I worship Luther Burbank and love vegetation of all kinds, but houseplants wilted when I so much as breathed on them, and entire lawns had been known to shrivel and turn toasty-brown at the first sound of my sneakers.

This all changed when we moved into a house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with four rose bushes planted out front. No matter what I did to these poor plants – watered them daily or not at all for a month, pruned them with a machete, left an old raincoat over them for a week after a storm – the damn things just patiently produced slender coral buds that opened into lush blooms, refusing to die.

When we bought a house the following year, I was wondering what to do about the front yard, which was looking a little stark after we put up a fence around the property. One bleak day in January, a rose catalog arrived in the mailbox, addressed to the previous owners. The kids were in school, my husband was at work, and I decided to leaf through the thing as I ate my solitary lunch.

I was intrigued, first, by the riot of color contained within those pages – there were blooms of butter and egg-yolk yellow, crimson and scarlet, lavender and mauve, buff, cream, and pure white – everything but blue. Outside, under a white sky, the world was blanketed in snow with only the black branches of trees to offer any contrast, but the catalog was overflowing with summer.

I started to read the individual blurbs on each type of rose. The copy described the shape of the blooms, from pointed to cupped. Some had a mere five petals, showing stamens in a variety of hues, some had more than 100, that furled or “quartered” when fully open. Even fragrances were described: musk, green apple, spice, “tea rose.” I was hooked.

I quickly decided that I most liked the look of the old garden roses, such as the raspberry climber ‘Zephirine Drouhin’ and the hybrid musk ‘Ballerina’, which sported sprays of tiny cream single blooms, edged in pink. These old roses are hardier and more disease-resistant, I read, than “modern” hybrid teas – the long-stemmed and often scentless type you find in Miss America’s bouquet – but they often don’t bloom much after a first flush in spring. Rose Breeder David Austin, however, had combined the Redouté botanical-print “cabbage” shapes and heady fragrance of the ancient varieties with the bloom power of the new, in a series of plants known as “English Roses.”

I started doing more research before I chose which plants to order – found out which zone we lived in, joined a gardening website’s rose chat group, and bought several books, starting, of course, with “Roses for Dummies.” I measured the front yard, decided where to place beds, and then mocked up what the garden would look like by making a scale picture of it, gluing pictures of the various roses onto the back of a brown-paper bag to see if I had the layout of color and form thought out in a pleasing way.

For my birthday in March, I ordered 26 plants: several ‘Zephirine Drouhin’ and climbing ‘Cecile Brunner’ to run along the fence as a background, and English roses ‘Heritage’, ‘Gertrude Jekyll’, ‘Mary Rose’, and ‘Eglantyne’ for the foreground, interspersed with lower clumps of ‘Ballerina’. All of these bloom in a variety of pink shades, from a robust raspberry to a pale shell tint.

The plants arrived “bare-root” about two weeks before the last frost, so I kept them, according to the package directions, covered in the garage until I was ready to plant. They looked like little bundles of sticks, and I wasn’t very encouraged, but I proceeded to dig 26 holes, mixing bone meal, dried blood, compost, triple super phosphate, epsom salts, and, yes, a whole banana, in with the dirt for each.

For weeks nothing happened. I inspected my army of sticks several times a day, wondering if I’d killed them all off. People living further south in the rose chat group were posting pictures of amazing blooms – I was still waiting for my first leaf. I watered and fussed, bookmarked rose websites and bought more books, talked people’s ears off about new varieties I’d found online and generally bored all my friends to tears.

By early June the sticks had filled in with healthy green leaves, and the first buds were beginning to show. By July, there were dozens of blooms and the whole front yard was perfumed. In late August, we had a garden party.

Now we’ve moved to California, and that garden belongs to another family. I’ve only planted six rose bushes so far at the new house, but some of the blooms are the size of butter plates, and I have big plans to fill out the rest of the property with varieties that wouldn’t tolerate Massachusetts winters. I have to admit, however, that I’ve already managed to kill off half a dozen lavender bushes.

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