Down to earth — stop and smell the roses

(Originally published June 24, 2015 in East Bay/South Coast Life newspapers.)

There’s so much going on in the June garden my choice of topics is overwhelming. I could share my latest list of impulse purchases, which includes ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius) number three, a moundy-roundy purple-flowered mint-scented tender perennial I’d never heard of (Hesperozygis), and enough packs of amethyst flower (Browallia americana) to fulfill the promise I suddenly remembered making last June to give my garden the blues. I would also love to commiserate on the aches, bone-deep fatigue, and gratification of getting everything in the ground before the heat hits or the rain pours. Except I’m not nearly done yet. And every time I start to land on a thought worthy of sharing, the scent of roses completely fills my idea box.

I am no fan of Rosa multiflora. It is an invasive scourge capable of climbing, crowding, and killing otherwise healthy trees, shrubs, and perennials. Even whacked back to the ground (nice try), it can resprout from its roots (most roses can) and all of the birds that find its tiny hips delicious drop the undigested seeds in a packet of manure (roses love the stuff) all over the neighborhood and woods. But boy, does it ever smell good.

Rosa rugosa
Rosa rugosa

It’s almost as deliciously spicy as our beloved beach rose (Rosa rugosa), which isn’t ours at all but another invasive exotic from Japan. I hate the thought that beach rose has crowded out beautiful and ecologically important shoreline native bird feeders like beach plum (Prunus maritima), bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica), and goodness knows what else might have lined the dunes before it was introduced, but full disclosure: I moved back home to Rhode Island from a Zone 8 garden in the Pacific Northwest because I missed the scent of Rosa rugosa on a salty June breeze.

I can’t in good conscience recommend planting it, particularly if you live on the water, but beach rose, in the classic cerise or more elegant white, is readily available for purchase and is one of the most disease resistant, drought and lousy soil tolerant roses on the planet. I planted one in my garden and have allowed its extra-thorny stems to spread hedge-like along a six-foot section of front fence. (It’s deeply rooted and a bear to edit.) Its hips should be too big for the birds to redistribute and are an excellent source of vitamin C for anyone with friends ambitious enough to put up jelly.

Of course there are hundreds of varieties of roses unlikely to colonize and commandeer the local ecosystem. Instead, most roses have a reputation for being high maintenance, disease and insect prone headaches and mid-summer eyesores that require an arsenal of toxic chemistry just to keep alive. Perish the thought. They may require slightly more care and attention, in the way of regular water and rich soil, than your average shrub but the bad rap isn’t entirely deserved and chemistry is certainly unnecessary. For one thing, breeders have been on a mission to develop disease-resistant cultivars — and are working hard to breed the heavenly scents back in too. And for another, any gardener who plants a garden-full of distractions for the bees, butterflies, and birds to enjoy as their roses’ blooms come and go is less likely to notice or care a whit about a smidgen of foliar imperfection here and there.

nameless once-blooming apricot rose...
nameless once-blooming apricot rose…

One of the other roses in my full-to-the-gills front border grew from a cutting off an antique shrub, possibly a climber, whose apple-scented, peach sorbet ruffles will only be open for a week or two. For the rest of the season it displays bright red prickles (roses don’t have thorns) and grass-green leaves that I would only notice if the rest of the garden died. (Perish the thought!)

Right now that un-named rose’s scent — and the rugosa’s — pulls me deep into the garden, through the prickles (the rugosa’s are particularly deadly; I bear my scars proudly) and past the bees. It distracts me from planting the dahlias, and scrambles every thought in my head except the one that sighs, “boy, do roses smell good…”

Are you distracted too?

Invasive is a 4-letter word

Because Garden Rant’s Susan Harris posted this excellent rant about the word “invasive,” and because my book, which just released(!) happens to be two-thirds full of plants that self-sow and spread with certain amount of abandon and highlights the benefits of taking advantage of nature’s generosity, I feel compelled to throw my two cents in with hers.

I believe the word “invasive” is overused. I also believe that the more arbitrarily the word is used, the faster it loses its meaning. “Invasive” should be reserved exclusively for those species that pose an actual threat to ecosystems. Plant species capable of outcompeting the native flora necessary for supporting native insects and wildlife and providing essential services like water filtration and erosion control. Invasives are scary and we as gardeners bear a responsibility, especially if we live near sensitive wild ecosystems, to remove—or at the very least refrain from planting—anything truly, actually, and potentially invasive. By overusing the word to describe any plant that spreads from the roots or self-sows, we risk losing sight of that. 

Plume poppy rambles among the shrubs in my side yard.
Plume poppy rambles among the shrubs in my side yard.

And it makes it so much harder than it needs to be to determine what to avoid planting. The sad thing, especially for new gardeners who might be relying heavily on the interwebs as their guide, is that a whole lot of awesome plants are apparently off limits.

It shouldn’t be that hard to restrict our usage of the word. Many states, university extensions, and Master Gardener programs have compiled lists of specific local devils and don’t we all know them well? My Z, catching the title of this post, remarked that the bittersweet vine (Celastrus orbiculatus) sending its tell-tale orange roots into our yard, its tentacles to the tops of our junipers, and its seeds far and wide from the neighbor’s untended lot, warrants a string of 4-letter words. You don’t need to be a gardener to be familiar with the most un-wanted on your region’s invasive species lists.

And like Susan said, it’s important to remember that what’s invasive in my neighborhood, might not survive the summer or winter in yours. Just because gardens from California to Cape Cod tend to look a lot alike doesn’t mean that plants exhibit the same vigor everywhere they’re grown. I recently saw crocosmia described as invasive. All but ‘Lucifer’ barely survive here. And just because a plant self-sows or spreads from the roots doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a monster. Not if we are capable of editing and managing its overgrowth. It might simply be rambunctious. Enthusiastic. Generous. I believe those are much better words for a whole range of plants too pretty and/or useful to be dismissed and disparaged as “invasive.” And if you can’t say something nice, “aggressive thug” paints a good enough picture.

My two cents. What’s yours?

Spectator sport

dead as a door knob and not nearly as pretty.It’s exhausting watching other people work.  I would generally like to do everything myself – if I’m going to be wiped out at the end of the day, there might as well be a good reason for it.  But some jobs – like dead tree removal – are much better undertaken by professionals.

The back side of our property is bordered by a privacy screen of overgrown bramble.  What was once probably a typical Bristol Portuguese farmlet complete with barn, chicken coops, rabbit hutches, grapes and gardens is now essentially abandoned.  The house looks like a rental, the barn is fallingdown and the coops and gardens have been overtaken by every invasive species – from Norway maple to rose of sharon, from bittersweet to Rosa multiflora, from English ivy to poison ivy.  They’ve got it all.  And … now so do we.  Three out of the 6 existing trees on our property have been under direct threat from the bramble.  Whipple Tree, LLC The previous owners told us how beautiful the rose was in the spring and I thought, “uh-oh” – in a stronger language.  The white pine was the worst – fully draped in bittersweet and rose and although it limped along our first year, it succumbed this last.  The only things holding it upright during this winter’s wind storms were the tentacles that killed it.  I certainly didn’t have to worry about it falling on the house.  Lazy gardener that I am though, I couldn’t just leave it indefinitely to rot and drop its bits on my beds. I also knew that I couldn’t take it down myself.

Skippy slung and tugging bittersweetLucky for us then that our Best Man, Eric started a tree work business with his brother Bradford.  Whipple Tree, LLC to the rescue!  Timber!  The actual trajectory is not as it appears.They showed up Saturday armed with more sharp toothed gear than should ever be slung from one body, miles of rope, a chipper all the way from the Sunshine State, 2 bio diesel trucks and a trailer.   Eric made his monkey way up the tree while Brad orchestrated gear and debris and teased me mercilessly about the “grave” (which, I guess when considered along with our “dungeon” down cellar, is an especially skeevy looking thing).  Two and a half hours later, the white pine was felled, the bits and brambles chipped and we all stood around the kitchen inhaling Z-made guacamole and chips and sucking down ciders.

Their finesse with the felling was truly impressive and I’m not just saying that because they’re friends and letting us pay them in trade.  The pair of pears weren’t touched (aside from a little judicious pruning of one wayward branch), the bulbs coming up at the base of the tree weren’t squarshed and even though it looked like every branch was falling on my tiny gooseberry, not a stick or stem of it snapped.

the final cut for my new ... birdbath? ...potted specimen on a pedestal?

We have a pretty good view now of the thicket in our neighbor’s yard that is sending feelers into our remaining Junipers and with our neighbors’ permission (or without – under cover of darkness if need be) I’ll hop the fence and lop the thigh-thick vines off at the knees.  I’m pretty sure that’s a job I can do myself.

There it is - the perfect garden ornament. But they wouldn't let me keep it.

Have you had tree work done?  Did you wear yourself out watching them work?