“You must be a very talented gardener to have such a huge and lovely garden!”
“Why, thank you. You are very kind!”
This exchange occurred after one of my continuing education classes at our local high school a few years ago. I had given a talk on growing roses in upstate New York and shown several before and after pictures of my garden. A few students had stayed behind, some asking questions about more specific issues, and this comment was made in passing. At the time, I gave it little thought; it seemed just a pleasant remark. Over the years, though, this remark has resurfaced in my musings, usually with a self-deprecating smirk.
What that person could not have known was I have never considered myself talented at gardening. Dedicated, yes; obsessed, absolutely. Talented? Not so much. I have always bought plants I liked and put them wherever I found room for them – no talent required. Space requirements were occasionally followed but not religiously. Zone information was noted but only in passing. Soil and water recommendations were unashamedly laughed at. So why did I have an admittedly huge and, to me, beautiful garden?
I think what has made me a successful gardener is not talent but pure cussedness. Gardeners, as a species, seem to take it personally when things go wrong and will go to long lengths to make it happen anyway. In fact, stubborn doesn’t begin to describe it; we can be downright mulish when it comes to what we want in our domains.
Several years ago, I found a rose I absolutely adored in a catalog. This rose was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen. The petals were ivory and blushed in the sun to a rich pink; the flower form was perfection. Aptly, it was named “Color Magic”. The description said it was hardy to zone 6, disease resistant and had a lovely scent (a blatant lie, by the way; rose porn . . . er, catalogs should be perused with a salt shaker handy, especially when they are describing fragrance). Needless to say, I had to have it. Zone 5 and zone 6 are almost the same, right?
Into the garden it went, in a large planting hole with a modest dash of Rosetone and a good drenching with the hose. It was spectacular the whole season, covered in flowers and only the faintest touch of black spot. Everyone ooh’d and aah’d; a few exclaiming what a shame there was no fragrance (I was one of those but my language was somewhat stronger).
Come the following spring, after an average winter, it was dead. Well, said I, I must not have protected it sufficiently or maybe the local varmints chewed up the roots or maybe I got a bad plant. There is always some excuse the first time you kill a plant and it’s never because you ignored one of its cultural requirements. Ergo, I ordered and planted another one. This plant, too, was gorgeous all summer and I was extra careful to mulch it for the winter with branches pruned off our Christmas tree. Sadly, history repeated itself and the second one was also dead as a doornail the following spring.
The gardening gloves were now coming off. I wanted this rose in my garden and that was final, darn it!
I tried planting the third one in a massive pot. Another extravagant show graced our patio rather than the garden but it was still a sight to behold. That fall, the pot went into our unheated garage (with some minor and good-natured grumbling from my husband, Brian, He of the Strong Back) and emerged alive and well the next spring. Success!
After spending two winters in the garage, the rose succumbed to a combination of black spot and one missed watering too many during the season. Also, Brian was grumbling less good-naturedly about moving that pot again; understandable, as it must have weighed 60 pounds. At that point, I decided it was more trouble than it was worth and gave up.
Cold zones matter and fighting them is hard. It took me 3 dead roses, 5 years and a mildly disgruntled husband to come to that conclusion.
I have learned a few other lessons over the years and try to avoid making the most egregious errors more than two or three times, no matter how much I want them to work this time. I learned to pay attention to cold zones and cultural requirements. If you are gardening in zone 5, you really can’t grow tender roses without a great deal of fuss. Really.
Fortunately, there are plenty of other roses out there. I don’t have the rose that I was besotted with anymore. I did however find another, not quite as breathtaking but a lot hardier, and if I squint, I can pretend they are the same. It too has no scent, though to their credit, the supplier described the scent as “light”, which in catalog speak means “non-existent”; most rose gardens understand that little fiction and don’t feel cheated.
I think if you are stubborn enough, everything eventually does come together into a beautiful garden, if only because you’ve already tried all the wrong things, usually more than once, and all that is left is the right stuff. If you’re really lucky, other people might even mistake that perseverance for talent!