by Greyson Keller
June is alive, June is here.
Happy Memorial Day! Crack a beer.
The solstice is upon us,
With late nights and early mornings.
The candle burns at both ends,
For long awaited dividends.
We’re all in this together,
I’ll be the wind at your back.
A reopening is needed,
With Baker at quarterback.
Although the streets are less full,
And the bandhouse is empty,
Some things feel right,
The lighthouse spins steadily.
The Stripers are arriving,
And the fog horn blows
Flowers are in bloom,
June is for the Rose.
Nantucket is known for its roses, particularly in the town of ‘Sconset…such quaint, squinting faces, smiling as you stroll past. This season, we might be greeted by the roses more often than our usual annual visitors. As with people, roses can be a bit thorny, but give them a chance and you’ll see that the more attention you pay, the more sunsets you spend, a “New Dawn’ will rise. Roses can be a complicated and unforgiving challenge, but when done right, there is no better reward. Whether it be heirloom roses or hybrid tea, one thing holds true, you’ll need sunlight. A south-facing wall is ideal. If it’s a climber you had in mind, it would be nice to have a trellis, too. You will also want free-draining soil, with plenty of nutrients. Roses can be hungry. This week’s column will take you through the process of selecting, planting, pruning and, of course, enjoying your roses.
Garden centers are some of my favorite places on Earth. I love the smell and the optimistic feeling as you walk through those automated doors. The scent of last year’s fertilizer and this year’s tropical hiatus waft ceremoniously in the air. There is inevitably a rose section with displays of climbers who have just triumphantly completed their solo up the south face of an arbor, along with a hoity-toity section of David Austin’s best. When selecting your rose, think about what you want from it. Do you need to soften a wall with too many shingles? Are you looking for a hydrangea substitute for just under your first floor windows? Maybe there is an area of wild perimeter that could use an unabridged rambler? Whatever the circumstance might be, you’ll want to have a plan in mind. Let’s talk about prepping your planting site.
Regardless of the type of soil you have, you’ll want to dig a hole at least twice the size of the rose you’re planting. Add your amendments, like cow manure, compost, bone meal, or Espoma’s Rose~Tone. I like to use compost and Rose~Tone. If I use bone meal, my dog will surely sniff it out and decide it’s best to dig up whatever I just planted. Chop and mix it all up like you’re prepping a cake batter. You don’t want this hole to be a haven of rich, decadent soil, surrounded by whatever the rest of your garden is composed of. You’ll want to mix in some lesser-quality soil so there is a gradual change as the roots move from the initial planting site. If you don’t take this step seriously, the roots of your roses will live a short and lavish life inside of the little amended bubble of nutrients you started it off with. It’ll be the princess rose who never found her prince. The roots will soon become bound, and the rose will suffer. You want the roots to travel to find more water, more food, sending them deep into the subsoil.
Once your hole is dug and the site is prepped, it is time to plant your rose. Always make sure that you’re not planting too deep. You want the knuckle of the rose to be just above ground level. If you’re planting a bare root rose, it helps to start off too deep, then backfill, shimmy up, backfill, shimmy up, backfill until the desired height is reached. If you’re planting many roses in an area, be sure not to plant them too densely. There’s an old timer’s rule of thumb that your spacing should be two thirds the expected height your rose will grow. I find this to be true for shrub roses and most hybrid teas, but not as true for a climber. Before you plant, throw a 16-penny nail along with a handful of freshly caught scallop shells into the hole. Not only does that match the soul and grit of true Nantucketers, but the rose will appreciate the iron and calcium, too.
On to pruning. There is really only one time per year that you should dive in and do a heavy-handed prune on your roses, and that is in the spring, after the worst of the nor’easters but before too much growth is underway. You’ll want to remove any dead or diseased stalks and tie any unruly, but healthy canes as necessary. As with our children, the goal is to nudge them in the right direction.
The second time we prune our roses is right after the fourth of July. THIS IS NOT LAW. In fact, none of this is law. We’re dealing with Mother Nature so you have to be flexible. This has been a particularly cold spring, things might be delayed. Ultimately, when your rose has completed it’s glorious and awe-inspiring show, you can deadhead. I’ve always been taught to prune to the closest five leaves. That works pretty well for shrub roses, hybrid teas, and even wild ramblers. But for climbers, I find it best to prune roughly six- to eight inches off the trellis, keeping in mind the five-leaf idea. Sometimes, climbers will send out these gorgeous, vibrant canes with no flowers on them. When you see one of these canes, look up to the sky, and do a little rose jig as thanks. Take this cane and train/tie into your trellis as horizontally as possible. The more horizontal a cane, the more potential for blooms in the following season.
Once this midsummer deadheading is complete, it’s prudent to feed your roses. I like to use either Neptune’s Harvest fish emulsion or the tried and true Rose~Tone from Espoma. Now, we wait. We wait until September, my personal favorite month on our little spit of sand. We will slowly, but surely see a second bloom. Not as Charlie Parker on a Saturday night in June type showing, but more of a Yo-Yo Ma String Quartet in the Atheneum park type of bloom. Both are beautiful and appreciated appropriately for the time of year.
The final step of pruning roses comes right after Christmas for me. I always look forward to seeing family, enjoying the holidays, and giving a winter prune to my roses. This is a light prune. You’re really assessing and bracing for winter. Remove any diseased canes, tie any loose ends, and move on. This is also a good time to mound your roses.
Mounding roses is really becoming more of an art as we’re having to deal with new pests like voles more frequently. If you’ve ever unmounded a rose in spring, just to find it loose in the ground with the tap root chewed to a pencil point, that is a vole. To prevent this, I’ve started adding some repellants. I’ll spray the base of the rose with hot pepper wax and then mound the rose with compost, followed by a light coating of mulch. This is when you want to cover the knuckle of the rose to protect it from the freeze and thaw that can happen throughout the winters on Nantucket. Finally, I’ll mark my territory with a motion censored, vibrating tube to scare any curious voles away. The solar powered “sonic spikes” are a good idea, but I find the battery-powered ones to be more reliable.
In the spring, when you unmound the roses, all that compost and mulch can be spread around neighboring perennials and shrubs. This makes the garden as a whole more vibrant and amends the surrounding soil year in and year out.
The ultimate goal is for your roses to pay you a visit. There will come a day when you’ll be sitting in a second story room and you’ll hear a tapping at the window. You’ll think “that’s odd” and go to investigate, toss open the window, and see that your climbing roses have come to say “hello.” Welcome them with open arms. You can enjoy your roses and use them as cut flowers. You can sit on your patio and share a cup of tea (they prefer loose leaf as you’ll dump out the stewed leaves into the garden), or you can simply smile back as you stroll by.
No matter how you enjoy your roses, I hope you truly enjoy your summer. Support the friends, family, and businesses that need you. Go to the beach, sleep in, and, above all, smell the roses. Despite all the terrible reasons we’re in this situation, we as Nantucket residents may never see another summer like this. Much like roses, if we want to enjoy the bloom of summer, we’ll have to endure the thorns of some difficult public restrictions. Let’s take it in stride as a community and live happy and healthy, day by day.