Strictly for suckers?
Thanks to the internet, I’m that
annoying patient who comes into the doctor’s office, primed to the gills with
“informed questions”. And, similarly, the people at my local nurseries probably
cringe when I show up, printouts, catalog, or book in hand, looking for a
particular plant or product. Case in point: roses.
About three years ago, having cut
down the existing, sickly, spindly roses behind our 1920s bungalow, I decided
to replace them with roses I remember from growing up in a Victorian on
California’s central coast. These were tea roses, both pink; they flourished
with little water, without a sign of disease or pests, year after year. “That,”
I said to myself, “is what a rose should be.”
These were clearly not the roses I
was likely to find at Home Depot, however, so I went hunting for them online,
and in the process I acquired that proverbial small but dangerous amount of
knowledge. One thing I learned was that “suckers” are bad. Very, very bad. To
avoid this lurking danger, I would have to buy own root roses. I also learned
that I should dig a big hole when planting my roses. So it was that in January,
armed with shovel and pick axe, my husband and I were excavating three enormous
craters for the three wee little rose plants I had bought online–two Cornelias
and a Cecile Brunner.
The descriptions of the Cornelias
on the websites I surfed reminded me of the huge five-foot-by-five-foot shrub
that engulfed part of the white picket fence around our Victorian, while the
Cecile Brunner reminded me of the better-behaved tea rose that lived on the
other side of the house, near the plum tree. I got lucky, here. The Cecile
Brunner, which is a shrub variety rather than a climbing variety, is pretty much
exactly what I remembered and wanted. The Cornelias, however, were another
The Cornelia roses were said to
tolerate a little shade, so I planted them near the edge of the shade of the
ficus tree that looms over the back yard. Neither of them apparently liked this
choice, despite the giant pits my husband and I had dug for them so that their
roots would have room to expand. One grew a little and put out a few anemic
blossoms. The other sulked, remaining exactly as it was for over a year. Then I
moved it to a new, sunnier location, where it began to make many long, sprawling
canes, but without a sign of flowers. Eventually, both Cornelias met the fate of
the original roses that came with the house.
However, I was undiscouraged.
Having built an arbor during Christmas break, I decided I wanted a climbing rose
and, again, I was determined to buy own root to avoid the horror of….suckers!
But I didn’t want to pay shipping and in the interim I had found a local nursery
with a huge selection of roses. So, another grey January morning found me poking
around among uninspiring thorny stumps, thumbing through the well-worn rose
catalog that had been living beside my bed.
The nursery guy who came to my aid
had the kind of grime embedded in his hands that comes only from a lifetime of
gardening, but despite this evidence of experience, it seems he either didn’t
see my catalog or he kindly decided to overlook it. No, he said, they didn’t
have the rose variety I wanted, but he could suggest an alternative: Sally
“Is it own root?” I asked, very
concerned, but also a bit smug in showing off my knowledge. Here, I knew he
would say to himself, is a true rosarian.
“Nope. None of these are own root.
They’re all grafted.”
“But what about suckers?” I
inquired in horror, surveying at the hundreds of plants in neat rows stretching
out around us, clearly lying in wait to sprout something from beneath the bud
union as soon as the unwary buyer wasn’t looking.
“We never have a problem with
them,” he said.
“Maybe one in all the time I’ve
Very skeptically, I bought the
roses, and, perhaps because I had already erred against the wisdom of the
internet, stuck them in holes just big enough to spread out the roots. And…you
know what? There’s a reason why the expert is an expert and you, despite the
reams of information printed off the internet are not. The Sally Holmes roses
have flourished, with nary a sucker. They do have a problem with powdery
mildew, but so do a lot of things in my yard, and I find that spraying them with
a solution of water, horticultural oil, and baking soda (1 T each per half
gallon of water) every couple of weeks keeps the mildew in check.
So, are ‘suckers’ a bogey man to
scare people into sending away for tiny pricey own root roses? I don’t know, but
I do know that they don’t frighten me any more. Perhaps even more importantly,
I’ve learned that the root stock roses are grafted onto can give a rose the
energy to produce great results in a short time. And, I’ve learned to implictly
trust experts in the field of their expertise. (Just kidding. You’ll still
recognize me by my smug look of expertise and my handfuls of dogeared printouts
Photos by Veratrine: top, ‘Sally Holmes’ in her ‘goth garden’ (bat house, skeleton
flamingoes, artemisium absinthium— the usual). Bottom, Cecile Brunner.