Dear Miss Floribunda,
Like “Lazy on Livingston Street” last month, I, too, hate to weed, especially in my rose bed. I don’t mind the sweat of gardening, or even a few tears, but weeding thorny roses involves an unacceptable amount of blood. I always come out looking as if I’d wrestled wild cats. If peonies and camellias had longer blooming seasons and the same fragrance, I wouldn’t bother with roses. It’s not just the thorns. My rose bushes remind me of the Holly Hobbie dolls I once played with. Sweet-faced but painfully thin, they are without Holly’s bloomers or petticoats to hide their knobby knees.
Despite these complaints, I have filled one large bed in my backyard with 12 hybrid tea roses that give admittedly lovely blooms for cutting all summer. These bushes are generously spaced, and stepping stones make it possible to walk around safely. Now, because I garden without chemicals, I can’t get rid of the weeds that have invaded those clear areas. Mulch has to be constantly replaced, and a lot of weeds get through it anyway. I planted annuals like marigolds, but they got enormous and weedy themselves, and the usual weeds still thrived. Are there any permaculture plants that could crowd out the weeds around the rose bushes but wouldn’t rob them of their food? Maybe then gardening would be a pleasure rather than a blood sport.
Red-handed on Hamilton Street
My rose consultant, Citizen Cane, informs me that you can put botanical petticoats on the knobby knees of your rose bushes. Such perennials as catmint (Nepeta mussinii), Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) and various salvias will spin a cloud of lavender bloom around them that can be trimmed to your specifications. Different yarrows and coreopsis would add other colors to the palette.The ethereal foliage of these plants doesn’t interfere with air flow. They are light feeders and won’t steal from your heavy-feeding roses. In addition, my mentor recommends low, mat-creating herbs like the yellow-flowered Lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis) and creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia). Citizen Cane, who has many years of experience, suggested these plants because they thrive in our area, whereas he’s had mixed experience with other companion plantings that are often touted. For example, many of the recommendations of the great English rosarian, Graham Thomas — violas, pasque flowers, Carpathian bluebells and primroses, for example — have to be planted in partial shade in our area rather than in the full sun of a hybrid tea rose bed. But there are others on his list you might try: Alyssum saxatile, stone crop, creeping phlox, saxifrage (there is a variety native to our area, saxifraga Virginiensis) and the creeping Jenny approved by our own Citizen Cane. In addition, these all provide food for the bees and other pollen-seeking insects that your hybrid tea roses frustrate.
The highly admired urn shape of this rose cultivar causes the conformation of the petals to be too tight for insects to penetrate, and they cannot reach the pollen. The hybrid tea roses not only shred your fingers, but they deceive and disappoint insects. They are the Mean Girls of the rose garden.
Rather than limiting yourself to hybrid tea roses, why not literally branch out? Floribundas are looser in form, and although perhaps not quite as elegant in a formal arrangement as the high-centered hybrid teas, they simply burst with bloom from late spring till frost, and are hospitable to pollen-seeking bees and butterflies. So are shrub roses and, of course, our own native roses. Not all are fragrant, however, and those that aren’t might not attract as many pollinators. The rapturous aromas of the antique OGR (Old Garden Rose) varieties are legendary, and these heirlooms come in many varieties of bloom form: single, semi-double, double, cupped, globular, quartered, pompom, the opulent centifolia (“100 petals”) and still others. While most of the OGRs bloom for only six weeks, their display is magnificent, and they are most often grown in a mixed border of companion plants that bloom at different times to assure continuous interest. Perhaps best of all, the David Austin “English rose” hybrids combine the charm and fragrance of these heirlooms with the longer blooming season and wider color range (more yellows and oranges) of modern cultivars — as do the French Generosas and Romanticas and the Kordes collections from Germany. Because these varieties are bushy rather than rangy, they create shade that keeps weeds away from their base.
Of course, efforts are being made to develop thorn-free roses that retain the charm of their pricklier cousins. You might be interested to know that a distinction is made by rosarians between what are called thorns, spines and prickles, based mostly on the areas of a plant’s stem they arise from. Some insist that roses have only prickles. Be that as it may, they are all painful to touch. From my observation, rose lovers and cat lovers have in common a certain resignation to the fact that a few scratches are inevitable, even from the best-trained of their charges. Perhaps that element of danger enhances their appeal.
If you’d like to help arrange roses and other flowers for the Hyattsville House Tour, please come to the Hyattsville Municipal Center, 4310 Gallatin Street, on Saturday morning, May 18. The Hyattsville Horticultural Society and its helpers provide the flower arrangements for the beautiful homes on the Sunday afternoon, May 19, tour, which is an event not to be missed.