Under The Catalpa Tree…

Travelers between Calais and Paris must surely have noticed the lumps and clumps darkening like magpies’ nests the many neglected-looking strips of trees along the railway line in the North of France.  Perhaps the neglect is deliberate; perhaps they pay a good dividend.

-Vita Sackville-West
A Joy of Gardening; 1958

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The one and only catalpa tree in our neighborhood sits by our sidewalk.  Belonging not to one individual but rather to the entire City itself.  It is somewhat neglected yet it continues to flower and thrive year after year.  Perhaps neglect is all the better for it.

It was a great surprise as I rounded the corner on my morning walk and was greeted pleasantly by its white orchid-like frills.  A happy sight, as it looks like a tree belonging to the wild tropics rather than our conservative state of Michigan.

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Rarely do we see trees flowering in June, but the Catalpa shares with us its blooms; throwing them down for weeks.  They send a fragrance of rosehip and honeysuckle floating through the humid air as you pass, and when the flowering is done, its seeds appear. Like giant vanilla beans, they hang and dangle until they too eventually fall, hoping to spread the fruit of their mid-summer labor.

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A tree with many good qualities indeed.  Their fragrant, deep blooms make for a fun hiding place for the little fingers of children.  A canopy of huge heart-shaped leaves provide a hiding place for animals during rain storms, and the wood is resistant to rot, making it the perfect material for railroad ties.

Every year, I can’t help but wonder why I do not see more of this unique tree growing in the park or elsewhere?  I have not the slightest clue as to the origins of this one specimen.   I’m wondering now, how it came to be? Why on earth was it planted that close to the sidewalk but just off the property line of our neighbor’s?  Was it planted deliberately or did it seed there by accident?  It really is the only one I know of in this area.   Perhaps I haven’t been looking up enough.  Perhaps we need to plant more.

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The Art of Conversation…

…Poison has done its work only too well.  In what agony, during the dark hours, have these miserable members of God’s Creation perished?

-Vita Sackville-West
In Your Garden; 1958

I panicked when I saw the caterpillar damage on my rose bushes.  Easily distinguished by the large chucks of green taken from the leaves.  They came in flocks in the springtime and had their feast, leaving only a skeleton of foliage in their path.  Before I knew what was happening, the damage was done.  I wasn’t listening very well.

I sprayed with an insecticide but it was too late, many of the leaves had perished.  But with the catapillars gone I welcomed a new problem.  Variagated leaves, speckled and discolored, this malfunction left me distraught as all my research seemed to point to only two conclusions:  A vitamin deficiency, or a dreaded virus.

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Through these symptoms my roses had found speech.  But what were they trying to tell me?   What warning were they struggling to present?

After an inconclusive internet search, I took the leaves up to a couple nurseries.  One group of ladies told me it looked like a fungus.   Another told me it was probably insect damage and to keep spraying.

But who to believe?  I went ahead and bought the recommended fungus remover and a soaker hose as it’s really the only way to water new plants in this drought.  But I bought one more object to satisfy my own suspicion: a pH meter.  

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I had my suspicions; an intuition if you will, that if I fertilized perhaps all problems would be solved.  I’ve noticed the blooms have decreased greatly since spring.  Also a sign that it’s a vitamin deficiency.  Roses like an acidic soil and as you can see I have very low acid levels.  In the spring I gave them all a slow release fertilizer but I don’t think it is working fast enough.  So I’ll give them a little ‘snack’ of miracle grow throughout the summer and next year I’ll mulch with some manure to increase the nitrogen in the soil.

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It’s a grand experiment really. I have no idea what I’m doing as I’ve never dealt with inconsistencies before.  So here I am, yet again, learning something new. Yay!

One thing the roses are telling me is that their new growth is healthy.  This is a great sign.  To me, it points to a pest problem; an easy fix.  All other symptoms however, seemed a mystery,  and perplexed even the master gardeners with which I spoke.  But in the world of gardening, everything is learning by doing.  You have to be a detective and listen to the plant as well as your intuition.

As summer progresses, I’ll see if there seems to be more damage but I’m hopeful it’s not a virus.  If it is, God forbid it, I’ll have to rip out all my bushes and burn or tie them up in plastic bags, then I would have to replace all the soil before planting anything new.  Total buzz kill to summer’s euphoria.

Listening is precisely why gardening is an art form.  There is an art to listening; an art to conversation.  Coming up with a response that is both wise and applies directly to the point.   One must listen well because plants always have something to say.  If your plants could talk, what would they tell you and how would you respond?

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Spiderwort or The Unfortunately Named

It is sufficiently remarkable that a great and powerful noble should have accepted so frank a criticism from a peasant, little more than a child.  He was more accustomed to see such people tremble in his presence.  Such impertinence must have taken his breath away.  Besides, it attacked him in his most private feelings.

-Vita Sackville-West
Saint Joan of Arc; 1936

I like to learn things.  A “natural curiosity”, as my Grandma calls it, will keep one from being bored.   In fact, in my house, the word “bored” is considered a bad word.  It strikes me right to my core when my children say they are bored, because all that means to me is that they haven’t yet learned the ability to entertain themselves or they themselves are boring.

We have spiderwort plant growing behind our fence, completely neglected.  It was growing there when we moved in and we left it.  There was not much we cared to do with that plot of land anyway.  It is a scraggly, sloppy looking thing.  It just hangs there with its electric blue flowers that only seem to minimally dot the green foliage from afar.  I never thought much of it, in fact, I’ve always observed it as an ugly plant.  But as I’ve learned many times in life and in the garden, it is easy to make enemies of those we don’t know well.

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So let us get to know the spiderwort a little better, and perhaps from now on the sight of it won’t aggravate me.  We will perhaps satisfy our natural curiosity in doing so…

The unfortunately named spiderwort actually has many good qualities, and it has proved itself a very useful plant for centuries.

The word ‘wort’ originated in Middle English.  Middle English; think Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  ca. 1343-1400

“Whan that April With his showres soote
The droughte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veine in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flowr…”

I could read Chaucer all day but alas, we must continue with today’s acquaintance.  The word ‘wort’ applies to plants or herbs used for medicinal reasons.  The root of the spiderwort are used as a laxative.  Brewed into a tea, they will help with numerous stomach ailments, including kidney pains and “women’s complaints”.

Its flower, the electric blue stars that smile with yellow stamens, can actually be eaten.  I can imagine it used as a decorative edible garnish for a summer dinner party in the garden. The sun sets in the background as your glass of Sauvignon Blanc politely sweats in the warm summer night air, while you get the pleasure of studying solely this flower at close range.

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Perhaps while you’re at it, you’d like to use its tender young leaves in your salad?  Yes, you can!   Forget the romaine, walk a little further to that forsaken plant round the corner and pluck some leaves to add something a little different; texture or otherwise.

Speaking of its leaves, the larger ones contain a mucus that can be used as a healing ointment.  This is also where the word ‘spider’ comes from.  If you tear a single leaf, this mucus-like substance will thread and stretch just like a spider web.

Well?  What say you?  Will you look on with disdain and turn your nose up at the spiderwort?  Or have you gained a new appreciation because you’ve gotten to know it better?   Personally, I’ll take the later response.  From now on it will remind me of the days centuries ago when Chaucer wrote of the great pilgrimage, and Middle English reigned in the world of literature.  Perhaps the peasant is the noble one after all.

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Of Honey Bees And Red Clover

I loathe bees myself, one single sting sufficing to send me to bed, quite seriously ill, for nearly a week.  Yet I must admit to a romantic feeling for this self-contained world of little creatures, with their extraordinary arrangement of a life entirely their own, but at the same time, dependent upon what we elect to grow for them.  We cannot all grow wide acres of clover, nor can we compete with honey from Mount Hymettus in Greece, which is the best in the world…

 

-Vita Sackville-West
A Joy of Gardening; 1958

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(Pictured Above: Our hive this spring.)

When I was a little girl, my friends and I used to pick red clover during recess.  We’d pluck the little petals one by one an suck the sweet sugared ends dry.   We would giggle and show others what to do, and when the bell rang we’d toss the spent flowers on the earth to seed for future generations.

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Both the white clover (see in my post yesterday in An Ode To The Innocent Ones ) and the red taste sweet, but it is the red clover that we coveted most, and it is the red clover that is pollinated exclusively by honey bees.

When my husband and I harvest our honey in the summer we are collecting clover honey.  Clover honey not only tastes better than Fall’s harvest, which is primarily from the goldenrod flower, but it also will never crystalize with age.  Instead, its color will remain bright and shine like gold like it did the day you poured it.

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Yes, it can be dangerous.  My husband has gotten stung a couple times in the two years we’ve had bees, but for the most part, they are a gentle group.  If you do some reading and research and know your place, you’ll be alright.  Beekeeping is truly an equally fascinating and rewarding hobby.  It takes but a little amount of money to start a hive.  About $400 or so will get you all the supplies you’ll need and the bees, but you will be richly rewarded in forwarding years never having to invest another dime.

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Do consider starting a hive.  We need more bee keepers! We need more bees in order to live.  For instance, without honey bees we wouldn’t have clover at all, and I wouldn’t be here telling you how when I was a little girl, when I feared neither danger nor death, I pranced about in a field of clover delightfully sucking the sweetness out of life.

An Ode To The Innocent Ones.

Strange were those summers; summers filled with war.
I think the flowers were the lovelier
For danger.  Then we lived the pundonor,
Moment of truth and honour, when the bull Charges and danger is extreme…

…Strange little tragedies would strike the land…

…when wrath and strength were spent
Wasted upon the innocent…

-Vita Sackville-West
The Garden; 1948

 

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Clover is indeed an innocent plant.  Innocent as the children who gather it, innocent as the ones only looking for that lucky mutation; the four leaf, which will grant security in all its forms, and equally as innocent as the ones only seeking love and friendship.

One afternoon, on my walk, I came across a field of clover in the park.  Its cream colored patches smiled and blotted the green with different shapes and patterns reminiscent of the gardens at Versailles.  This beauty struck me, perhaps more so, because I found my neighbor sitting in the middle of one, while her daughter pranced about making a bouquet of the little flowers.

With innocence abound, its beauty was enhanced all the more.  So I took some photos before the dreaded mower, or the landscaper’s guillotine, with his ignorant blade of precision and correctness destroyed my view.

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Perhaps it was all the lovelier for danger.  Life is the same, when danger feels close and fear reigns, little reminders of beauty and innocence can indeed be all the lovelier to behold.  In times of war, we should seek not to remember the destruction and destroyer, but instead strive to remember only the innocent ones and their smile.

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Dedicated to the innocent ones of the Orlando tragedy.

 

 

 

 

 

History’s Peony: A Search & Rescue

Small pleasures must correct great tragedies,
Therefore of gardens in the midst of war
I boldly tell…

-Vita Sackville-West
The Garden; 1946

In this little beloved town of mine some take pleasure in knocking down the very old homes and building instead new homes of fiberglass and vinyl.   One of these very old homes, which was a rental property, had a clump of the most unique peonies I had ever seen.  They were pink with very few petals and a bright yellow center.  I regret I do not have a picture.  They sat sunning themselves by the porch stoop.  There were many flowers as the plant had to be very old.

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I’ve been told that the house was the general store for the neighborhood a hundred years ago.  Perhaps the store owner himself planted the peonies for his wife or wanted his customers to have a pleasant sight as they approached the store for their sundry goods.

Well, yesterday they knocked the house down; front stoop and all.  Imagine my horror as I listened to the demo trucks rolling over earth and concrete, not knowing the fate of those peonies!   When supper came and the bulldozers ceased.  I went over and surveyed the damage.

Everything was destroyed.  The grass and all the Hostas had been tossed about- landing willy-nilly all over the property.   But, alas remnants of the front stoop remained, and I knew under the earth next to that spot, the tubers might still be hiding.

From reading Vita’s many posts about peonies I know that the tubers should not be buried too deep.  So with a shovel, I sifted through the dirt carefully as if I was searching for the most delicate and rare fossil.  After about fifteen minutes my shovel scraped a single tuber, then another.  With the gentlest touch I brushed and dug to release the rest, and finally pulled up the most gnarly looking group of them I had ever seen.  I imagined the neighbor’s celebrating from their windows (Mrs. Kravitz from Bewitched) as they finally realized what I was up to.

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Pictured above: A small portion of what I uncovered

My purpose would have been easily recognized from a distance, as this thing was about a foot and a half in circumference and twisted into many other tubers of varied sizes.  Talking to several neighbors, it seems these peonies were most coveted throughout the hood (don’t call it that), and some were kicking themselves for not saving the flowers before demolition began.  I separated most of the tubers and passed them around while I listened to their words of regret.

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In the midst of war between the historical and the modern, these flowers were spared.  Hopefully, they will produce their fragrant blooms of nostalgia once more.
We won’t know for sure until next year, but if these plants flourish they will be cherished by me all the more, for their journey was difficult and traumatizing.  I don’t know if any of the nutrients and energy remain for them to make it, but I have tried to give them a second life.  We can only wait and see if my efforts will flourish in the years to come.

Thank you for reading!

Please speak up if you’ve ever performed a “search and rescue” with plants.  Did they survive?  Thank you for your feedback.

The Object Of My Disenchantment

There are few more repaying plants.   Rabbits dislike them; their flowering season extends through May and June; they last for a week or more as picked flowers for the house; they will flourish in sun or semi-shade; they will tolerate almost any kind of soil, lime-free or otherwise; they will even put up with clay; they never need dividing or transplanting; in fact, they hate it; and they are so long-lived that once you have established a clump (which will not be difficult) they will probably outlive you.  Add to all this that they will endure neglect.

-V. Sackville-West
In Your Garden: 1958

What Vita said is all very true.  So why have I been indifferent to our four peony plants growing around our house?  Let me explain, perhaps we’ll both learn something.

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For years I’ve been disenchanted by peonies, particularly our peonies.  I never paid much attention to other’s plants to correct my assumption that peonies are unimpressive in their flowering.  Their foliage was outstanding, but the blooms?  Almost nonexistent.   Our largest produced only four blooms this year, and another plant, only one, while the other two continually produce nothing every year.

Surprisingly, I never gave it much thought as to why our plants were at odds with the consistently generous plants of our neighbors.  However, it struck me last night when preparing for this post that we might be doing something wrong.  I read a little passage from Vita which states, “Never cut [them] down“, very seriously and in italics!  Then I realized our problem.

As I recall, for years we have been cutting them in autumn.  Now mind you, I didn’t give two hoots about gardening up until three years ago (I was raising toddlers), and even then, never paid attention to the peonies because they never produced much of anything.  But here was the problem:

My husband chopped them and I didn’t care because they never produced many blooms. So this cyclical pattern began where my husband chopped them every year and I sat back not caring because they never bloomed anyway. But they never bloomed because he was chopping them.  You see where we goofed?

 

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So this fall I will say no to chopping them down, and hopefully next year they will produce more blooms and I will acquire a new opinion.   I have however, always liked cutting them for bouquets.  They do very well, (lasting over a week) and will add fragrance to an entire room.   I have always liked this quality about them.  They smell wonderfully nostalgic to me-like sweet lemon, and remind me of Victorian front porches dappled with morning sun.

Thank you for reading…

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Ramble On…

He kept them sitting for hours over the dinner table, he who was usually so impatient to move away; he kept them entertained by anecdote after anecdote, reminiscence after reminiscence, observation after observation…

-V. Sackville-West
Easter Parade: A Novel
Copyright: 1953

 

Allow me, if you will, to ramble a bit?  Ramble like a climbing, rambling vine?  One that reaches and twists until its head is in the sun or in this case the truth?

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The Clematis, if planted with good support, such as a twiggy bush – like a rose or lilac, will grow well and fast.  If the support is not there, it will falter and stagnate.  I have also heard that it will produce more blooms if grown horizontally.  Take for example, my neighbors clematis which grows on our side of the fence, much to my delight.  It grows horizontally through the fence and rambles about itself, see the abundance of blooms as a result?

However, for my three varieties of clematis I have chosen other plants to support them.  I have two growing throughout my lilac bush, and I recently discovered a third I assumed was dead. See my post, The Living Dead, for a good lesson on this.  Perhaps I should have read my own post.  Anyway, I thought about transplanting it to the lilacs as well, but instead I simply left it alone and planted a yellow rose bush beside it.  This purple Clematis growing through my yellow Floribunda Julia Child rose will make a striking combination when they begin to flourish.

SONY DSCThe clematis found its way to the rose without any assistance from me.  It shot up from the ground erect and happy, strong enough to support itself, but as it grew too long, it slumped over and slithered across the garden like a snake in search of a branch to coil and climb upon.

 

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The honeysuckle (featured in yesterday’s post Honeysuckle Fireworks ) has done well for me, I am surprised actually because the first year is usually hard on my perennials.  I watch the newly planted with nail biting anxiety, and at the slightest inconsistency or yellowed leaf, I worry and fret.

It seems this year more so than others, I have subconsciously made bright decisions about troubled plants.  I will attribute this to all I’ve read in books for the past two years.  In the past, information that had enlightened me was soon forgotten.  This year however, my focus has been more acute and I’m able to recall garden truths on a whim as if someone besides me has thought of it.

One such example of a bright decision was the transplanting of our Holly bushes.  They were originally planted in complete shade and continually had spots on their leaves and weren’t growing.  So I dug them up and planted them on the west end of the house where the morning sun would touch them.

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I gave them a drop of fertilizer and destroyed all their yellowing leaves as some looked to have the dreaded black spot fungus.  Again, evidence to me that they just needed more sun.  Since bacteria and fungus is usually killed by UV rays I would think more sunlight would lessen the chances of the black spot coming back.  But I am no botanist, this is only my educated guess.  Either way, they are doing quite well. They are now producing beautiful, perfect growth rapidly.

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Honeysuckle Fireworks

…it is not generally realized by the amateur gardener how many shrubs and climbers will lend themselves happily to layering.  It is possible to obtain quite a nursery of young, rooted stock in a short time, at no cost and for very little trouble.
Honeysuckles sometimes layer themselves of their own accord, so avail yourselves of the hint if you want to increase your supply.

-V. Sackville-West
A Joy of Gardening
1958

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Honeysuckle.  Its name alone suggests a heavenly plant.  Indeed it is.   It took very well to my planting it in full sun and I gave it a sturdy support of our little pergola entranceway at our back door.

An avid climber, the honeysuckle will grow about four to six inches a day.  However, you must frequently check on it and guide its shoots in the right direction.  I often find the precious little things stretching their way under our deck, and I have to pull them out and wrap them elsewhere. This picture (above) was taken about two weeks ago.  You can see it was just reaching its goal, grabbing hold of our deck.

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This morning it has reach far and beyond as it naturally wraps itself.  There is no need to train it as you would a rose.  It finds its own way.  Independently emerging around every corner.   Reminiscent of the fairy tale Jack and the Bean Stalk, it stretches to the sky.  The treasures you’ll find as you follow its course are the firework display of blooms that smell heavenly sweet, and continually appear from June until the frost.  My variety starts out white and ends a honey colored yellow just before dropping.

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As Vita explains above.  Honeysuckle takes easily to layering, basically another term for propagation.  Simply cut one of its stalks at a 45 degree angle, and bury it in the ground with some sort of support so that it will not topple over.  Let it be for a year, and you’ll have yourself another plant to ramble up an entrance way or perhaps a  hedge of sweet briar like Vita did at Sissinghurst.

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Here
 are a couple different ways to propagate in detail.   I’ve seen this procedure done in books to many other plants.  In some cases a root growth will have to be applied.

Thank you for reading!

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Garden Of Roses…

Indeed, I think you should approach them as though they were textiles rather than flowers.  The velvet vermilion of petals, the stamens of quivering gold…

-Vita Sackville-West
In Your Garden
May 28, 1950

 

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I have been waiting all year for this.  Waiting for the perfect opportunity to purchase my roses.  They will be the staple of my garden forever more.   I knew the perfect place to go, and if you live around you should check them out.  Vita always gave suggestions to nurserymen, as she called them, and as I have become quite a connoisseur of the big names around these parts I will do the same.   The place for roses, without a doubt, is Wiegand’s Nursery in Macomb, MI.

I say this because they have a most well organized selection.  Organized by hybrid teas, old English, Floribunda and the climbers.  Each bush stands against a white picket fence.  What perfect staging!  Someone was clever enough to know the color of the blooms will stand out better.  Their position along the white picket fence also brings to mind the beautifully overgrown gardens of yesterday’s American dream.    Somewhere the Dining Sisters begin to sing in their usual perfect harmony, and all is right with the world.  Sigh…

Anyway, I ventured to this particular nursery because I knew I would find perfect specimens.   Each rose is clearly labeled.  You needn’t bend down to look at tags, but instead the information for each variety is displayed at eye level.

I walked along the pathways of old world romance and waited to be spoken to.  I didn’t have to wait long before I came face to waist with this, the most gorgeous rose I had ever seen. This floribunda Moon dance (above).  Its head did not waver or fall but stood erect, staring at me.  It’s petals did not fall at the touch of my hand.  Its color, a creamy white like churned butter, and its fragrance sweet.  All the leaves were intact and healthy, not one of them disturbed in the slightest.  Then, like a tidal wave, others spoke up.

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Floribunda, Sheila’s Perfume (above) was recommended to me by one of the staff.  I was a bit overwhelmed and told her I was going to plant similar colors that would eventually melt into each other as their colors fade to white, as most do.  I liked the two toned petals of yellow and pink so I added this to my collection.

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Floribunda, Tuscan Sun (above) joined soon after.  I liked it’s big full blooms, and I thought planted  within range of Sheila’s Perfume it would make a nice blending effect.  It starts out with the same pink as Sheila’s Perfume then ends with a peach.   With the Moondance behind them I think they will make a striking show.

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On the opposite side of my garden a white climbing rose will work its way up the fence.  Having a pink climber at home, I had to remember they bob their heads downward when they bloom so I told myself to not be discouraged by this sight at the nursery.  They are not wilting for lack of care or water, they are merely wanting you to see them better.  They have formed this habit of pointing their heads downward, because they know someday they will be a mighty towering thing and will have to look down at you.

I then was intrigued by a rose that is grotesquely named, but fortunately, its flower is not.  It’s called Ketchup and Mustard…

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Beside the Moondance, this bicolored beauty spoke to me in a very strong way.  I was disgusted with the name, but I put that aside.  Its coloring was quite beautiful, and attracted my eye.  Let’s instead refer to it as Sunshine’s Kiss.   Sounds much better than Ketchup and Mustard.  Gag me!  The name reduces a garden to a flimsy hotdog.  Not exactly what I meant before by achieving the American dream.   Anyway, last but not least I picked up a yellow to blend with the unfortunately named.

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Floribunda, Julia Child.  See the white climber in the background.  Like the moon aglow on a starry night.

I emerged from this adventure an hour later covered in blood (the thorns) and sweat.   I choose all Floribunda’s because they are hardier for Michigan.  I felt I had gone about my task carefully.   When I was done I drove away completely satisfied with all of my choices.  Not a drop of regret.  These roses will be in my garden for a very long time, hopefully forever if I can do my job well.   Wish me luck!!

Tell me, what is your favorite rose?

…And as always, thank you for reading…