Leonard Moorehead, the Urban Gardener: My Love is Like a Red, Red, Rose

Saturday, February 10, 2018
Leonard Moorehead, GoLocalWorcester Gardening Expert

A rose is a rose, a rose. Our affair began a long ago and is fresh today. Like life itself, linguists propose rose as one of the most ancient words among Indo-European languages, formed when people emerged from Paleolithic caves to inhale, pause, and speak. In the beginning was the word, the divine too sacred to utter, rose found its name. Their claim upon our heart’s soul is evident, worthy of the afterlife, roses were found in King Tut’s tomb. Widespread in temperate regions across the world, the rose has claimed our hearts since the Flood.

The rose’s claim upon us is elemental. Adored, their color, scent and form rise far above the commonplace. Like star crossed lovers, roses can be humble or grand, never forgotten. No one forgets their first kiss, the fragrant rose reaches deep inside to reside forever. When Cleopatra reached into a basket of flowers the adder’s bite was the rose’s thorn. She could not live without Anthony, nor could Romeo without Juliet. Eternally innocent, the rose cannot be lost. No Eden is complete without the rose. Barren is the garden without a rose.

Confused? Relax, rose’s appeal reaches beyond the impossible. When Priscilla said, “Speak for yourself John Alden, he carried the first rose brought aboard the Mayflower to the New World. Plucked from Oberon’s Bower, the ever practical Pilgrims brought their familiar rose still widespread in New England. Love’s power trumps belief, the rose inspires passion, its fruit one of nature’s great sources of vitamins, their longevity remains present when others have passed. No one is immune to love’s perils, the rose’s beauty is framed among thorns. Despite all thorns, roses triumph. Amateur or expert, any gardener can succeed with roses. As one kiss leads to another, a few simple techniques assure success.

Above all else, roses require sunshine. The heartbeat is within, roses thrive in love’s direct sunshine, hidden in darkness roses will wither and falter. Often the sole inhabitant of abandoned houses in derelict urban districts is a sturdy rose, testament to their self- sufficient habits. Easy to propagate from cuttings, patience is required to grow roses from the many small seeds encapsulated with their fruit, the rose hip. Often prone to fungal and virus infections, roses may develop spots and wrinkles but few shirk life’s coil. Before we can find a princess one must kiss many frogs, jump into the fray and look among the many until the right one appears. Be hopeful, there is a rose for everyone.

Let color, scent and form be your guide to the rose of your dreams.  Patronize locally grown cultivars and do spend a little more and purchase the largest potted plants as offered. June is the month for rose bloom, visit area rose gardens for favorite examples. Local for me is the Roger Williams Park rose garden. Replanted and restored several times since the Victorians the rose garden is featured in countless wedding pictures. Best of all, the roses in the garden are named and labeled. Search for the most robust named types acclimated to our climate. Don’t be intimidated by the grand scope of the park’s garden. Seek those roses that cast a spell and note the name. A few square feet of sunny space is fine for a rose bush, breeders have expanded the vast range of bush sizes from miniature towards immense. Roses thrive in large pots.

Or go vertical, the climber varieties offer the chance to build a trellis of choice. Many such as the Pilgrims rose are rampant and form dense thorny thickets ideal for traffic control.  All require well drained but moist soil. Roses thrive with minimal care as long as safe from shade. Roses have an undeserved reputation as the refuge of the elite or difficult. No, they are not.

Colors? The entire spectrum is represented. As Alice discovered in Wonderland, red or white are classics. Pink and yellow are also more familiar to our ancestors. However, rose lovers have created marvelous striped, shades and colorful bursts of colors such as Jacob’s Coat. It’s easy to form period gardens, often well represented at historic home sites and arboretums. Aside from their association with events or people, the great appeal of period gardens is the rigor and strength of the old plantings. Tastes change over time, period gardens evoke a pace of life foreign to our present.

Although Romans introduced the rose to Britain, the Crusaders certainly returned from the Crusades with the Damascene Rose in the 12th century. Native to Damascus and appreciated in medicine, cuisine, and scent, it was revered as a relic of the Holy Land by returning crusaders and pilgrims. A living symbol from sacred ground was widely planted beside castle and cottage. The Damascus rose form defines blessed light filled Gothic cathedrals. Pure inspiration is apparent each sunrise. Beautifully abstract in rose form the lyric petals narrate parables and miracles. Damascus roses survived Puritanical cleansing of less rigorous vainglory and brought it to New England. Just as from Damascus to England the rose arrived under sail.

I’m convinced the Damascene fragrance is the miracle. It floats in the morning air, beguiling. Behold the Damascus rose on cool June mornings. Inhale the gentle fragrance. Gaze upon the pearl like dew. Exhale the teeming mind. Breath deep present within the rose’s embrace, all else flows by. Roses are good for gardeners.

Other inspiring shapes range from very simple daisy like petals to the cabbage rose’s complexity. Those from the florists? Snip tea roses early in the morning, blush, and fall in love again as dewdrops from the bloom.

Be prepared and carry sharp clippers and wear gloves among roses. Move slowly, wear long leg and sleeved garments. Clip off faded blooms, anything dead or diseased. Prune back to the 3 branch junctures after bloom although it’s inevitable a healthy rose will escape your attention. No worries, roses do not require precious time.

They are prone towards a disorderly tangle apparent throughout the winter months. Roses laid in during the spring benefit from burlap bags wrapped around 3 stakes. They are easy to transplant. Broken pieces or pencil sized cuttings will root, transplants in my garden are often surrounded by a cluster of new plants at the new site and often the old. Like all urban gardeners in search of more sunlight, one must adjust plants to changes in lighting. For example once sunny spaces may now be shadowed or one moves the pot from home to home. Community gardens in the inner city became nurseries, perfectly lovely among friends and neighbors. When the time came the roses moved with me. In urban migrant style, someone somewhere enjoys a rose left behind.  Community gardens are treasuries of good will.

Animals and roses are good neighbors, insects, fungi and viral infections are endemic to our soil. Release Ladybugs upon fresh new sprouts covered in aphids. Do not smoke tobacco or spray with tomato worthy tobacco tea. However, in a complex association of many types of plants most troublesome insects are consumed by predatory wasps, mantis and birds. Onions, chives or leeks thrive adjacent to roses. For most, a rose scented geranium planted nearby compensates for the dog days of summer’s lack of bloom. Wear gloves around your roses. All are more or less thorny, some such as the common beach roses or Rosa Ragusa, challenge any passage.

Beware of stinging bees or wasps whenever rummaging in thick foliage. Exit immediately without turmoil. Place sugary baited bug traps hidden nearby and compost the captives. Blockade traffic to prevent accidental encounters. Respond quickly whenever someone reacts to bee sting.

Roses benefit from rock phosphate or bone meal troweled or raked into their plant site. Add small amounts annually along with mulch pulled up to but not covering the plant’s base. Urban gardeners who don’t keep a shed of balky garden staples such as peat moss, pelletized lime or rock phosphate can find more compact natural soil amendments tailored for roses in convenient packages. Read the ingredients carefully and note proportions. Many will contain elements more affordable in large quantities and easily mixed at home. Turn the savings into another rose!

There is no other word for love, the adoration of all that adds up to the greater sum of its parts. Hold onto love manifest each day in the garden. It takes many forms but we all know a rose is a rose is a rose. Perfect.

Leonard Moorehead is a life- long gardener. He practices organic-bio/dynamic gardening techniques in a side lot surrounded by city neighborhoods in Providence, RI. His adventures in composting, wood chips, manure, seaweed, hay and enormous amounts of leaves are minor distractions to the joy of cultivating the soil with flowers, herbs, vegetables, berries, and dwarf fruit tree. 

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