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It’s What You Don’t See That’s Nicest of All

by the late Sam Jones, Master Rosarian

From the 2005 ARS Annual

'Veteran’s Honor'

I recently took a bush of 'Veteran’s Honor' to a friend who enjoys formal outdoor gardening. Soon after I arrived, he received a telephone call, and I overheard him say, “Right now we have company. Some friends brought me a rose to plant and that doesn’t happen very often. Can you call me back?” When he hung up he said, “That was my daughter who lives away. She doesn’t call me that much, but this is a very special occasion.”

Roses are not known as the “Queen of Flowers” for nothing (“Ode to the Rose,” Sappho, 600 B.C.) As Queen they often take priority — as statements of love, affection, concern, celebration or appreciation.

The next day at church my friend said enthusiastically, “I planted my rose in the afternoon, and, would you believe, I used the whole bag of soil you brought me? When first I saw the bag I thought, ‘Sam has brought me enough soil for planting three or four roses.’ But when I dug the hole the size you suggested, I was really surprised. I used all of it.”

Of course, I had wanted my friend to have a good experience with the rose that has won so many high honors from veteran rosarians, as well as newcomers. So, I loaded a wheel barrow full of Royal Soil (available from The Compost Farm in Nashville, TN), amended it with bone meal, Mills Magic Rose Mix, time-released fertilizer and Epsom salt, and gave him the bag of the soil to accompany the rosebush. I had also included a small container of super phosphate for him to work into the soil in the bottom of the hole before planting.

This 'Veteran’s Honor' rosebush was replacing a 30-year-old 'Peace' that had finally played out, among others that had been new 30 to 40 years ago, such as 'Garden Party'. So, I wanted this rose — one of his firsts of a newer generation — to show off its best qualities. But the main message I conveyed by giving soil along with the rosebush is that in what and how a rose is planted, are as important as the bush itself. In other words, the primary lesson I have learned this far in my 10 years of growing roses is this: As long as the location is acceptable (adequate sun, water, drainage), the care and attention a rose gets underground is even more important than the care a rose is given above ground.

There is much to be said about the care of roses underground. For instance, the composition of the soil, the nutrients available, the friability (organic content or humus), the “aliveness” (microbial activity), the regularity of feeding and watering, the air (oxygen) available to the roots — the balance of all of these elements contributes more to the quality of bloom size, color and even form than all the careful pruning techniques, spraying, timing and grooming behaviors above ground. The unseen cultivation of a rose — the care given to the bed before and after planting — will have a greater affect on the satisfaction and enjoyment roses give you than all the hours you spend in the garden tending to your plants growing above the soil. For instance, my friend’s 24 roses — 12 each in formally designed twin bed surrounded by well-manicured dwarf boxwoods — were very well cared for above ground. They had been pruned almost perfectly before winterizing in late November. All the pruning cuts had been sealed with a compound to keep out cane borers. The bushes had been heavily mulched with composted leaves. They had obviously survived the winter in fine shape. There were surprisingly few dead canes, and where some of the more winter-tender ones had succumbed to the cold winds of December and January, there was new growth and even tender basal breaks beneath the mulch. But overall the bushes were small. The canes were small. They appeared healthy enough, but in no way reaching their potential of vigor, size and bloom production. Thus, his roses, as time-consuming and carefully tended as they were (much more carefully than my own), were not yielding the full satisfaction and enjoyment that my friend should have been receiving from the work he was putting into them. In other words, his roses required a lot, but were not giving back their fullest potential in return for his investment of care.

My roses, on the other hand, were sometimes neglected during critical periods, requiring special efforts to get rid of blackspot, for instance, or perhaps were not deadheaded as often as I would like. But what my garden yielded overall in bloom profusion and enjoyment was far superior. On a past summer’s day visit to my garden, my friend exclaimed, “Your miniature bushes are the size of my hybrid teas, and your hybrid teas are two to three times larger than mine. My canes don’t come anywhere near the size of yours.” But he threw off these differences by saying, “Well, you’re the professional, and I’m the amateur.” And so, summer and winter, with much effort, my friend’s roses limp along, well cared for, but not producing results he could so much more enjoy — the greater pleasures he could have in sharing his roses and having others enjoy his garden. The differences are actually not between professional and amateur, but rather between the amount of effort and cultivation he puts into his roses under the ground as opposed to the care he invests above the ground. He pays a lot of attention to what he can see, but not nearly enough attention to what he cannot see. And it is what he cannot see that could produce so much more pleasure — the pleasure and enjoyment that by nature and breeding, roses desire to give.

I hope my gift of a simple bag of amended, excellent soil, along with the rose (the whole bag of high quality growing medium probably cost less than $10 — well worth it — when added to the value and potential enjoyment of a new, high quality new) will open the door to new insights of pleasures from roses. My wish for him is that he may cross the threshold from growing roses requiring work to a new concept for him — that roses can actually give back more than they demand — if they get the things they really need in order to show their stuff.

What then do we need to pay attention to under the ground? What is the unseen cultivation of a rose? When is it done? How often?

The unseen cultivation of roses starts with the rosebed. One rosebed may look like another from the top side. But underneath, a well-mulched surface there may be worlds of differences that have to do with such conditions as soil structure, consistency, density, composition, organic matter, moisture and nutrient retention, air circulation, water drainage, hydrogen potential (pH), and even electrical conductivity.

Think of the bed as the rose’s “home.” Think of how much better you thrive when your home is spacious, well-furnished, convenient and full of light and uplifting décor. Your surroundings have a great deal to do with your mood, your health, your productivity, and ultimately with your mental, emotional, physical and spiritual well-being. So it is with your roses.

The home in which roots are anchored day and night has a lot to do with what the plant — stems and foliage, canes and blooms — can capture from air and water (primary sources of carbon and hydrogen, which make up as much as 95 percent of a rose’s substance), along with the sunlight, protection from pests, and nurturing care they receive from above. From a hospitable environment where roots can flourish and spread, the plant can then reach up, out and beyond its underground base, toward the sun, rain and wealth available above in its competitive, nurturing exchange with other plants and animals, humans, insects and birds. When ample raw materials are provided (the pantry is wellstocked), the manufacturing process occurring within the leaves can turn out abundantly energizing foods — sugars, starches, proteins and vitamins — that will build the structure and ultimately create the beauty that rose lovers are seeking from the Queen of flowers. Let’s look then at rosebeds:

• Consider Location — Look at sun direction. Morning sun is better than afternoon sun. Consider prevailing winds, especially winter exposure. Consider natural drainage, low ground or high ground. Consider convenience. How easy is it to get to your rosebeds? How close are they to where you will sit? How easily can your roses be seen? How convenient is it to walk through your garden when you have only a few moments? Or, when looking out your favorite window at mealtime, or from your favorite reading or working spot, are your roses located where they can be easily enjoyed? Roses crave attention, whether from actual hands-on grooming, smelling their fragrance, or just being seen from a distance.

• Consider raising your beds — This will allow you to develop the best soil composition and structure possible, and to improve many times over even the best soil that happens to be in the natural location of your garden. I once suggested to my friend that some soil additive like perlite would greatly improve the aeration in his rosebed. His response, “I don’t want to add artificial or foreign matter to my native soil.” Well, what nature provides can often be improved upon, and a raised bed may be the best and easiest way to decrease the work that roses seem to require, for then you set them more easily in a location where they can thrive for themselves without being fussed over all the time.

Landscape timbers, stones or bricks are often used to raise beds, and these materials provide some permanence and definition. But beds can be raised more simply.

For instance, a 10’ x 10’ (or whatever size or shape) plot of flat ground in the location you have chosen for sun and enjoyment can quickly become an attractive raised bed area with some simple steps: First, simply dig and turn over the soil with a shovel or tiller — a shovel is better on the first groundbreaking (always choose a day or two after a rain or after a thorough ground-soaking with a hose). Then, with a long and narrow spade, loosen the underlying soil structure another 12 inches or so. Yes, this will require work on the first day or two, but then with the turned and loosened soil you will already have started raising your bed. Dig a trench 4 to 6 inches deep around the edge of your bed, of whatever shape you have chosen, and throw this soil up onto the bed. Now, you have raised the bed a little higher and given it a shallow ditch for better drainage. Next, add soil amendments to your bed. You can add a 6- to 8- inch layer of well-composted manure, or you can add an equivalent amount of sand and organic matter (peat moss or other composted mulches). Work the added material into your bed (best using a tiller) and you have raised it even higher. Adding a few stones around the bed for definition can be helpful and attractive. Don’t worry about your raised soil washing away. As you improve the soil consistency, you will find that the rain will drain through it, and each rain will help improve its structure, particularly its “aliveness” with beneficial microbes. By now your rosebed is likely 10 to 12 inches above the surrounding ground. Over the course of a year or so, much of this soil will settle and pack naturally. But as you add and work in material each growing season, your mound will grow higher.

• Consider water sources — Many watering options are available — drip irrigation, soaker hoses, overhead sprinklers and hand watering. When you have the time, hand watering is great. Unseen soaker hoses placed a few inches under the soil are also good. A drip system is usually a high-tech, “professional” option and overhead sprinklers are best for drier climates.

• Consider your planting medium — Even though you have improved the structure of your entire bed, planting is the time to give your rose a boost by using specially amended soil in the actual hole where you plant. Take all the soil out of the hole if you want to give your rose plenty of room for a vigorous root system, adding that soil to the total bed mound. Then prepare a special planting mix in your wheelbarrow. This mix will be the underground “bedroom” where your rose can thrive all year, nourished with each watering.

Following the late Bob Whitaker’s advice, I like to prepare the following planting mixture: 5-gallon bucket of nursery-blend, raised-bed soil mix (Royal Soil is great), 5-gallon bucket of composted manure, 11/2 gallons perlite, 11/2 gallons pine fines (soil conditioner), 2 cups Mills Magic Mix, 1 cup bone meal, 1 cup Osmocote time-release fertilizer (nine-month formula, with minor elements). These are the basic ingredients to start your new rose growing vigorously. A few extras will give an additional edge of potency. They include blood meal (1/8 cup or less), elemental sulfur (1 tsp.), Epsom salts (1/4 cup or less — magnesium for assisting chlorophyll activity), gypsum (as much as 2 cups — for enhancing soil drainage), and super phosphate (triple phosphate, 1/8 cup, worked in the planting mixture at the bottom of the hole before planting).

• Consider your planting procedures — Preferably dig the hole 11/2 to 2 feet in diameter, round or square, and 6 to 8 inches deeper than the distance from the crown or bud union to the bottom of the root structure. Put several shovels full of mixture in the bottom of the hole, working in the super phosphate. For bare-root roses, shovel in enough mixture to build a cone shaped mound in the middle of the hole around which you will place the roots (after pruning broken and extra long ones).

For nursery-potted roses, slice all around the bottom of the plastic container, and holding the sliced bottom disc in place, set the rose in the container into the hole with the crown or bud union at about ground level (or several inches lower or higher, depending on the warmth or severity of local winters). Slide out the bottom disc from under the pot. Shovel planting mixture around the potted rose up to the top of its container. Pulling away some of the mixture from a small area on one or two sides of the pot, slice the container top to bottom with a pocketknife and remove the cut container parts from the hole.

Fill the planting hole with mixture up to a few inches below surface level. If selected as an underground water source, add a soaker hose generously surrounding the planted rose and then cover the plant completely, soaker hose, bud union, and canes, up to 8 to 10 inches, with loose mulch (such as Royal Soil, pine fines or softwood barks — avoid hardwoods mulches which may compete more heavily for nutrients while breaking down). Such mulching after planting will help keep canes from drying out while roots are establishing themselves and will prevent tender shoots from being nipped from spring cold snaps and morning frosts. After danger of frost has passed and the rose has begun growing basal and cane breaks and foliage, gradually and carefully remove the top mulch over several days with a water stream from your garden hose. Make sure the stream is gentle enough not to harm tender growth.

Now, having a well-constructed and amply furnished home, your rose has a foundation in which to stand and feed itself, drawing out of available air and water what it needs for yielding the pleasure, joy, love, beauty and fragrance that it wants to give to you, your visitors and to all the beneficial life forms on which it depends, including even the microbes. As a living, and in many ways breathing (“transpiring”) plant, your rose wants to give back to its surroundings some of the life and nourishment it has received.

Once you have ensconced your rose so satisfyingly in its bed beneath the soil, remember that every time you provide water, it is being nurtured. You don’t have to go on fertilizing all season long. Now that you have given it what it needs underground, you can begin building on the foundation by giving it the care you desire above ground — staking, spraying, pruning, selecting, cutting, enjoying and showing off its qualities. But without having laid the foundation below, you will always be going back to the basics, because your roses will keep asking you for more of what they need. And you will be too exhausted or preoccupied to conceive of exhibiting, sharing or fully enjoying them yourself. ABOVE: 'Sombreuil'

Once you have given your roses what they need from the start, under the ground, (assuming you continue to provide adequate water, air, sunlight and fungicidal relief) you can enjoy their aboveground pleasures. You can begin to experience the real enjoyment of roses — bringing them into your home, grooming them for a show, arranging them for display, and developing all the techniques of bringing a rose deserving of Queen of the Show, as well as “Queen of the Flowers.” But remember that it all starts underground. If it doesn’t start there, you will have handicapped yourself and severely cut your chances of ever getting a rose to the show table. Certainly you will have limited the full enjoyment your roses have to give, and that enjoyment is vast.

Think of the things roses give, which far outweigh what they take: Roses are associated with precious memories of special occasions, with ideals of beauty and national pride, with companionship with other rose lovers, with the therapeutic benefits of outdoor gardening, and with experiences of creativity, achievement, love, friendship and appreciation. By growing roses we are contributing significantly toward a more beautiful world. Growing roses even inspires us toward growing spiritually. Through the latent beauty of roses we aspire toward higher standards of loveliness in cooperation with the Creator.

Poets have captured the spiritual essence of gardening at least since the Greek, Sappho. For instance, mark these words:

Who loves a garden Finds within his soul Life’s whole; He hears the anthem of the soil While ingrates toil; And sees beyond his little sphere The waving fronds of heaven, clear. ~ Louis Seymour Jones

Many would echo the sentiment that through the fleeting beauty of the Rose, “we see the lasting glory ‘of heaven, clear.’” But for roses to offer their fullest potential, we have to invest time and effort on the front end. No one may ever see or know but you; that is, until they see your roses.

“How do you get such size? Color? Foliage? Profusion of blooms? So many possible Queens?”

You will smile and say to yourself, “Yes, what you see is nice — the wonderful potential of these roses. But what you don’t see is the nicest of all. That’s where it all starts.” And out loud you may respond, “If you want to know the secret of enjoying roses like these, don’t come and watch me while they’re blooming. Come visit me early in the year, when I plant and prepare my rosebeds for the season, because ‘it’s what you don’t see now that’s nicest of all.

Photos by Rich Baer


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