Thursday, March 24, 2011

Roses Are More Than Just Roses To Me

When I was invited to speak at the Northern Neck Rose Society's Christmas luncheon back in December, I struggled a bit as I tried to think of a topic.  A luncheon isn't really the place to lecture and teach like I usually do, and I wasn't sure what I could talk about that would be appropriate and interesting.  I decided to 'introduce' myself and tell the folks about how roses have been a theme that has followed me, and how roses are more than just 'roses' to me. 

The beautiful 'Honorine du Brabant'

I spoke mostly off-the-cuff, as I am most comfortable doing, with only a few notes to keep me on track.  The Society members listened, smiled, snickered, nodded, and genuinely seemed to enjoy themselves. I'm going to see what I could do to put my thoughts and stories into this post ... so you can all get a better sense of why I grow roses and what they mean to me.  (This post is L-O-N-G ... so grab a snack or something to drink and get comfortable.  I guarantee that you will have a much better understanding of who I am by the time you reach the end.)

My Grandmother grew roses.  She grew Hybrid Tea roses with Hall of Fame names ... 'Peace', Mr. Lincoln', and 'Mirandy' were some of her favorites that come to mind.  Her southern California garden was an ideal place to grow these roses to perfection.   When I was a newlywed in our first house in the early 1980's, I wanted to grow roses ... my Grandmother's kind of roses.  That first spring, I went to a nursery and bought roses, and I planted them proudly in a blazing, south-facing bed against one wall of our house.  Those poor roses suffered from the heat, the poor soil, and my complete ignorance of even basic rose care.  My Grandmother did what she could to help, but she couldn't be of any real help since she was 3000 miles away and in a completely different climate than mine.  For example, she called me in January that first year to remind me that it was pruning time.  I tried to make her understand that roses in Virginia are often under snow in January, and we have to wait until March or April to prune.

My grandmother, c. 1930

My husband and I lived in that house for four years and the roses survived, though they were never beautiful.  At our second house, a new, larger house with a similar south-facing wall, I again planted another row of Hybrid Tea roses in the blazing sun in unimproved, back-fill soil ... having obviously not learned anything from the suffering of my original roses.  These roses (Angel Face, Peace, Tropicana, Chrysler Imperial ... or was it Mr. Lincoln ... and others) suffered even more than my first ones did.  I dubbed them "The Mangy Roses", a name that stuck and it accurately describes their pathetic appearance and unhealthy condition.

Mr. Lincoln, growing beautifully in a friend's garden.

One afternoon, fed up with the struggle I went through to try to grow decent roses, I decided that they looked awful because I COULDN'T grow roses.  In a fit of frustration, I dug them all up and tossed them into the back of The Husband's truck, and he drove them to the dump for me.  While he was waiting for his turn to dispose of his load, a woman came over and asked if he was throwing those roses away ... if so, could she have them.  He agreed, of course.  The Mangy Roses were transferred from his truck to hers, and I have often consoled myself with the thought they undoubtedly had a better life with her than they ever could have had with me.

'Chicago Peace' in my current garden -- not mangy at all, now that I know how to make it happy.

Most of the yard at that house, in its wooded neighborhood with mature trees, was quite shady.  My urge to garden was strong, so I learned which plants thrived in that shade and I created a shade garden that I was very proud of.  The rest of the yard developed beautifully, but I never could get anything to survive in the spot were the roses had been.

House #2.  I took this photo the day the For Sale sign went into the yard.

Our next house was also in a wooded neighborhood, with sunny conditions only in the front yard and the driveway.  I made a lovely shade garden in the backyard for my own enjoyment, and put traditional landscaping in the front, as dictated by the over-zealous homeowner's association.  By this time, I was educated in gardening enough to realize that I couldn't force roses to grow where they wouldn't be happy ... a lesson that I have since passed on to others many, many times.  I worked three roses into the design, with 'Blaze', a red climber, on an arch by the front door, Knock Out beside Blaze (a hideous combination, by the way) and 'Verdun', a dark pink Polyantha (my first OLD ROSE) at the end of the sidewalk by the garage.


In 2002, I went back to school to study Horticulture.  During the first class, the instructor asked us to introduce ourselves and to describe why we were there and why we were interested in horticulture.  One of the other students introduced herself, explaining that she was a Master Gardener and that she coordinated volunteers at the James Monroe Library in downtown Fredericksburg, and that she was a member of the Fredericksburg Rose Society.  This woman seemed like my kind of person, and I introduced myself during the break.

She and I became friends, and I volunteered many hours at the James Monroe Library, manicuring its small garden and planting ROSES.  One day while we were working, I told her that I liked working with her, but that I COULDN'T grow roses inmy garden.  She laughed at me and said something that I will always remember ... she told me, "If you think you can't grow roses, you are probably trying to grow the wrong ones."  This was all the encouragement I needed.  Under her guidance, the rose garden I have now started that day.

She introduced me to Old Garden Roses, and patiently answered my questions.  We made trips to Sherando Roses (an old-garden rose nursery that was about an hour from here.)  Sherando was a wonderful place, run by a retired teacher who shared his huge love of roses.  I would go see him with a well-researched list of roses which I thought would be perfect for my garden.  He would take my list, nod and concur with some of the choices, and he would poo-poo other choices, saying, "You don't want this one.  Let me show you ...".  He would lead me to the garden to show me his alternative to my choice, which always turned out to be better than what I thought I originally wanted.

Sherando's gazebo -- where I spent many hours talking roses.

By this time, we owned this old house we live now, but we didn't live here ... I was working full-time on the renovation.  This house is my dream house, and its property has fertile soil with nine acres of sunshine that is perfect for growing roses.  I didn't have time for much gardening then ... I had more pressing things to do, like paint stripping, masonry, plaster, roofing, and a full kitchen remodel to deal with. 

This is me sanding the family room mantel.  The hose comiing from the sander is attached to my shop vacuum to collect the dust, so I don't spread the dust around the house ... or into my lungs.  Notice the heat gun and the carbide scraper in the background.

While I was working on this house, and still living in the house with the shady yard, the roses I was buying from Sherando lived in pots in our driveway ... waiting for the day that I could plant them in gardens at my dream house.  The driveway had great sun, and easy access to the hose.  By the end of 2003, I had a virtual hedge of large pots of roses in a double row that stretched most of the way down the driveway, forming a hedge between our property and that of our neighbor.  Our neighbor loved the view from her side, because she had the sunny south side of the 'hedge' where the most flowers always were.

My fascination with roses grew at a lighting pace as work on the renovation progressed, and my roses-in-pots garden numbered about 60 inhabitants by the end of 2004.  Our renovation was supposed to be finished enough for us to move by summer 2005, and it seemed perfectly within our ability to move this many roses, continue to care for them in their pots, and plant them in gardens that were yet to be designed.  As is common with renovations, this one encountered obstacles and took longer than planned.  We were finally able to leave our former house and move into this one in October 2007 ... and, according to my database, I had 138 roses in pots in the driveway at the time.

It took three trips with The Husband's truck to move all the roses from our old house to this house.

It was during this time that I discovered online rose discussion forums, and it was very rewarding to 'converse' with folks with similar interests from all over the world.  This is how I found my friend Robert.  He and I 'met' on GardenWeb's Antique Roses Forum.  We corresponded and we realized that we lived only about an hour away from one another.  Another Forum friend (who I also had never met in person) mentioned that she was planning to visit Robert and his garden.  I sent her a message, asking if she'd like company for the trip.  Picture this ... two women, who had never met each other in person before, driving to spend the day with a man neither of them had ever seen.  Before you get all excited about this seemingly dangerous situation, let me tell you that Robert's name is unique enough that I checked him out pretty thoroughly online, and I satisfied myself that he wouldn't turn out to be an axe murderer.

The Rose Tunnel in Robert's garden, in full bloom in May.

Robert and I liked each other instantly (he calls it love at first sight), and our friendship has grown to be something that I treasure ... as trite as that sounds.  It's about a LOT more than just roses, but it all began by sharing our love of roses that afternoon in his garden.

'Leontine Gervais', my favorite rambler, in Robert's garden.

In 2008, Sherando Roses closed.  This hit me hard, because it meant the loss of the only Old Rose nursery within hundreds of miles of here.  Robert and I were talking one day afterward, wondering what we would do without Sherando.  Robert encouraged me to follow my dream, and open my OWN nursery.  He said that this wild-hare idea of mine wasn't nearly as crazy as it seemed.  He assured me that I would be good at it, and he told me he would help in any way he could.  He is my Number One hole digger, a great listener, and a dangerous person to go to a nursery with ... I wish I had a picture of what it looked like one afternoon when we stuffed his BMW completely full of plants.

Once I committed to starting the nursery, I threw myself into collecting roses at a dizzying pace.  I hadn't planned to add so many roses to my collection so quickly, but circumstances presented themselves and it seemed like I had little choice but to roll with the opportunities as they came.  Three of my favorite mail-order nurseries closed in 2008 and 2009, potentially taking with them the commercial availability of the rare and unusual roses in their inventories.  I felt that I couldn't let this happen, so I went on a HUGE rose buying streak to collect any of the roses these nurseries sold that I wanted to have here.  According to my database, in the two year period between January 2008 and December 2009, I added more than 650 different roses to my collection! 

Roses waiting for spots in the garden, living in pots in the driveway, in August 2008.  Forgive the blurry, through the window screen view.

This is what it looked like at ground level.

Opening this nursery has brought many friends into my life.  Some have come as customers, visiting the gardens here in season and sharing their love of roses.  Others were online Forum friends that have become real, flesh-and-blood friends ... much like the blog friends that I now cherish.

Blurry photo of Jim and Robert and me.

I cannot separate my relationship with roses from my membership in Rose Societies.  I attended my first Rose Society meeting in 2002, with my friend from Horticulture class, and I discovered that Rose Societies aren't at all what I thought they would be.  I imagined a group of straight-laced, white-glove-wearing, tea party ladies ... no men allowed.  Things USED to be like this long ago, I am told, but it is not at all like this today.  Rose Societies are full of generous rose growers, who want to do whatever they can to help members (and anyone else) GROW BETTER ROSES.  Monthly meetings are important because personal IN PERSON contact is the best way I have found to learn.  Experienced members mentor beginners, often sparking lifelong friendships.

Frenzied preparation in the staging area at the 2009 Colonial District Rose Show.

My dear rose friend, Rick, came into my life as a fellow Rose Society member.  He and I see eye to eye on a lot of things, and I can always count on his advice when I need it.  (I introduced you to Rick's garden in THIS post.) 

That's Rick, second from the left, judging the rose show.

As I delivered my talk at the Christmas Luncheon, and I told of my experience, I think I got my point accross.  Roses mean a lot more to me than their role as flowers in the garden.  Roses have followed me in one way or another for my entire adult life.  Sometimes I was struggling with them, or longing for them, or (now) thoroughly immersed in them.  Roses have taken me to places I didn't know about, and have brought me friends I can't imagine being without.


  1. What a great story, Connie, and what an interesting life you lead. It is so wonderful that you make rare roses available to all of us. Beautiful pictures too, and may I say that is the hugest rose ghetto I have ever seen!

  2. I was so enthralled in this story!
    And, yes! Now I understand :)
    Your pics are so beautiful I can actually smell the roses!! I am passing your blog on to aunt. She is the Master Gardner in the fam and I think she will love your blog just like I do!
    Thank you so much for taking the time to write this!
    xo, misha

  3. Wonderful post, Connie... and I am in love with that Chicago Peace.

  4. Thank you for writing about your from there to here Roses story.
    - Joy

  5. I remember your posts on the Antique Rose Forum when I first arrived in '07 and your tales of the pot ghetto in the driveway. I had no idea it was such a spur of the moment decision to open a nursery. I thought it was something you'd been planning for a long time. Way to jump in with both feet!! Great story. I enjoyed reading it and getting to know you better, Connie.

  6. Hi Connie, I love your story. Sometimes all you have to say is "I love roses" and you know you are friends. I love roses too, and it's so nice to meet you and visit your blog! Jill

  7. So interesting to read and so much work (even though you downplay the hard work involved in taking care of your nursery). I love roses and wish I had land enough to grow a hundred or so-
    Thanks for sharing

  8. This is a wonderful post. So glad to know you better. I just laughed at your driveway full of roses!! There is never enough room!

  9. I thoroughly enjoyed this!
    And it was nice to see your old house again :)

    You've gotten me started on roses. I keep trying to find more places to put new dawn, im just so in love! And in a couple years when we buy our farm land Ill be coming to you for advice again!

  10. What a wonderful and interesting story! I'm glad you didn't give up on roses!

  11. Connie this is such a wonderful post, I'm so glad you shared it with not only the people who attended the luncheon but all of us as well! You are my rose hero, and your love of roses is contagious!

    Kat :)

  12. Connie, I don't know where to start with my comment, so I will just go with it. First, I love that you inherited your Grandmother's love for roses. I love that you aren't afraid to jump in and get your hands dirty. I love your short hair and need to make an appointment with your stylist. I hate how skinny you are, sorry, that's just mean of me. One last thing, I can't believe you are sanding without wearing a mask! I can only imagine how much of that ended up in your lungs. Ok, I'm done. LOL! Love ya, girl!

  13. I loved this post,Connie. Your passion comes through so strongly. I look forward to readin your posts everyday but this one really inspired me~! Wish I lived within driving distance so I couls come pick up some of those gorgeous roses but right now I would have to fly down from Dubai.:) Guess I'll have to be satisfied with seeing those wonderful pictures.

  14. Connie,
    This was such a great story! I love your blog. Roses are in my blood. My grandmother, Virginia Sommerville, was at one time, the oldest consulting Rosarian in the country! She was a very active judge, and had beautiful gardens in southern Virginia. I grew up helping her. I'm working in DC these days and dreaming of the garden my husband and I will have when we get our retirement home in Mathews, VA underway. Until then, I can follow your blog and plan!

    Ps- I had a rescue greyhound for years- he was the best!

  15. Thanks for sharing such a great story! I love how your life evolved because of a desire to grow roses like your Grandma did! Another testament to never giving up on a dream!

    Hmm, makes me want to try growing roses now in my woodsy, shaded, sandy yard just to see if I can!

  16. Connie, what a great story and you were very lucky to meet the right people to get you started on your rose path. Good advice pointed the way.

  17. Thanks for sharing! I love roses (especially antique ones) and it is great to hear someone else who does too! Thanks!

  18. What a wonderful post. You express so eloquently what so many of us feel about roses. Thanks for starting your nursery and this blog. The rose world is a better place because of them.....

  19. Wonderful post! I really enjoyed reading it and learning your story.

    I can only dream I had your energy level and focus.

  20. As I post this I have about 15 tiny rose bushes waiting patiently for me to put them in the ground...ones that I started last year from cuttings. I discovered old and tough roses about 3 years ago and have had a whirlwind relationship with them ever since. I love everything about them, their color, variety, smell, history and ruggedness. I really enjoyed reading this post.

  21. Thank you for sharing such a lovely story. What a gorgeous pot ghetto you had! And it's morphed into your beautiful nursery, which I would visit in an instant if I weren't on the other side of the country from you. I'll just enjoy experiencing it through your stories and photos!

  22. Connie- how wonderful to get to know you through your love of roses and to learn how they have touched your life. You should write a book- fill it with these gorgeous photos andcsell itvat your nursery. Truly- this is an amazing story--

  23. Thanks, thought I had been forgotten,


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