A culture that promotes instant gratification and overnight success is almost certain to discourage would-be gardeners.
This time of year, for example, someone who has never gardened before will see a beautiful planting of English primroses (Primula polyantha) – those shade-loving bedding plants with brilliant yellow, red, pink, blue and white flowers – and long to see them on both sides of his front steps. The prospective gardener will run to the nursery, purchase a flat or two of primroses and stick them in the ground.
The next morning, our proud primrose planter rushes out to check on those gorgeous new flowers. Alas! The primroses have disappeared. Is there a thief in the neighborhood? Upon closer inspection, the culprits of the primrose “heist” are revealed to be snails who have munched the fresh plants down to the nub. Our new gardener-turned-primrose-protector dashes off to the nursery and returns with more plants and the most potent snail bait money can buy. Within days, all the snails are dead, but now the primrose leaves have started to turn an unpleasant yellow. Another dash to the nursery with a sample of sick leaf results in procurement of a fertilizer that contains eight different minerals.
Two weeks pass and the leaves are still yellow. Another trip is taken to the nursery. Iron chelate, a product recommended for plants whose leaves do not turn green when fertilized with conventional mineral additives, is sanctioned and applied. But these primroses still don’t grow and soon begin to wilt. By the end of their first month in the ground, all are dead.
What led to the demise of these primroses is what usually brings plants to an untimely death: the soil. Where somewhat delicate plants such as primroses are to be planted, a layer of aged compost or sewage sludge (no less than 12 cubic feet per 100 square feet of planting area) must first be dug into the ground. However, soil that is instantly amended in this manner will still not support the growth of primroses – which are perennials – for more than a few months. Compost and other amendments must be added to a California soil on a regular basis for many years before English primroses can live in it for the five or six years that constitute their true life expectancy. Oh yes, and a nice coarse mulch of shredded bark or pine needles should be placed around the plants to keep snails away.
One of the most useful horticultural books anyone could write – I’m sure it would be a best seller – would document gardening failures. Were someone to come forth and admit to horticulture blunders, disappointments and disasters – with the same sentiment and passion usually reserved for gardening success – there would be instant identification (and relief) among all those who have ever held a trowel or pruning shears.
In gardening and horticulture, failure is frequently the first step on the road to success. Talk to someone who is an expert grower of orchids or bromeliads or hybrid tea roses, and you will hear about all the plants that were damaged or killed in the process of learning to grow them.
Browsing in a used book store, I discovered a volume almost 100 years old titled “A Book About Roses.” The author, S. Reynolds Hole, called the first chapter “Causes of Failure,” which, in the end, were reduced to two: improper exposure (too much sun and wind) and improper fertilization. “A Book About Roses” was written nearly half a century before the modern era of artificially manufactured fertilizers. At that time, roses were also fertilized with bones (whole, crushed, powdered or acid-dissolved), burnt earth (clay soil incinerated on a bonfire of garden prunings, tree stumps and weeds), wood ashes or soot, night soil (human waste), sodium nitrate (mined in Chile) and bird guano (scraped off islands along the coasts of Peru, Bolivia and Patagonia). The author tried all of these fertilizers, with moderate degrees of success, but none of them could compare to farmyard manures of horse, cow and poultry. Manure not only coaxes the rose bush to grow lush leaves and perfect flowers; it deters disease and insect pests.
Master the elements
Before or even during the rainy season, put down several inches of manure around your roses. When spring arrives, work any still-visible manure into the soil. If you have recently seen piles of steer manure covering the crowns of rose bushes throughout our city, appreciate that this practice has been popular for all of the 20th century.
The author considers wind and afternoon sun to be the greatest threats to the overall health of the rose. He has rather exact specifications for the ultimate rose garden, which should be more or less enclosed: “A large proportion of your plants may have the sun on them from its rise to the meridian (midday), and after that time, be in shadow or repose. To effect this, the garden must extend from north to south, rather than from east to west – the form being oblong or semicircular. The western wall or fence should be high, from 8 to 10 feet; the northern tall and dense, but not necessarily so high as the western; the eastern, such as will keep out cold, cutting winds, but not one ray of sunshine – say 5 feet. To the south the rose garden may be open; but even here, so hurtful is a rough wind, which occasionally blows from this quarter, that I prefer some slight protective screen, such as a low bank or bed.”
As for the walls or screens surrounding your prize roses, the author recommends making “hedges of the rose itself.” In the early part of the century, it was a common practice to graft hybrid roses onto a sturdy brier rose, such as Rosa villosa, with the result being 10-foot-tall hedges of perpetual bloomers. A hedge of roses would make an interesting alternative to the plants commonly used in our city for screening, such as Ficus nitida and Ficus benjamina, oleander, photinia, privet and eugenia.