Home Garden Feature Garden: Everything’s Coming Up Roses

Feature Garden: Everything’s Coming Up Roses

Ruth’s garden gate is the perfect spot for a few of her many, many climbing roses. One of her favorites is the thornless climber, ‘Zephirine Drouhin’ because it’s a good performer that thrives in partial shade.

Because almost everything is a rose in this fancier’s 50-year-old garden.

Text and garden photos by Kimberly Ezzell

Ruth Roberts has finally lost count of all the roses in her yard. After planting and tending them for 50 years at her west Boulder home, “I have more roses than anybody else would want to have,” quips the spry, 83-year-old gardener. “Thousands! These days, I just tell people thousands.”

Ruth’s garden gate is the perfect spot for a few of her many, many climbing roses. One of her favorites is the thornless climber, ‘Zephirine Drouhin’ because it’s a good performer that thrives in partial shade.
Ruth’s garden gate is the perfect spot for a few of her many, many climbing roses. One of her favorites is the thornless climber, ‘Zephirine Drouhin’ because it’s a good performer that thrives in partial shade.

It all started with a single rosebush her husband Shorty gave her on Valentine’s Day in 1961. The couple had moved to Boulder from Iowa with a shared passion for roses and a new landscape that needed filling in. “No doubt it was red,” Ruth says of that first rose they planted at their new home. “And it was miniature. I remember, because it was the first time I’d ever seen a miniature rose.”

Thus began the couple’s tradition of giving each other a rosebush on Valentine’s Day to plant in spring. That first rose now shares its bed with thousands of roses, many acquired for free at rose shows. As longstanding members of the Boulder Valley Rose Society, “we would always enter our special roses in the shows,” Ruth recalls. “At the end of the show, people who had entered roses wouldn’t take them home; they’d just throw them in the wastebasket. Shorty would go around and ask if he could have them. That’s how we got so many roses.”

She also acquired cuttings from friends and fanciers. Ruth would plant them in soil and place a quart canning jar over the canes. “I’d muddy up the glass to protect them from the sun and keep the jar on until they got established,” Ruth says of her technique. “We’ve got a lot of old roses in our garden now, and many are not for sale anymore. So cuttings are a good way to give your friends starts.”

Shorty passed away in 1998, but Ruth kept their tradition alive by buying two rosebushes every Valentine’s Day—one that Shorty would adore, and another she knew he would want her to have. Now that she doesn’t drive and she’s cutting back on chores, Ruth has let the tradition come to a graceful close. “I did buy one last year, because it was so unusual,” she says. “Light orangey and pink and full of ruffles.” Fittingly, that rose’s name is ‘Easy Does It’.

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Family Roots

As a young girl, Ruth planted, tended and harvested a Victory Garden at her family’s farm 10 miles south of Iowa City. “I grew many different things, like peas, corn, potatoes,” she says. “It was a regular vegetable garden,” which fed her family in the years during and after World War II. The farm is where she and her older brother, John, learned to love plants. “He would point out roses and plants growing in other people’s yards,” Ruth recalls. But her family didn’t have much luck when it came to growing their own roses. “They got so many bugs, and the one climber we had died back so far and never bloomed because it was too cold.”

Roses galore line every inch of Ruth’s garden. She favors modern varieties for their disease resistance, hardiness and vibrant colors. But her garden also boasts old varieties that aren’t found in nurseries these days. She also grows other perennials, annuals, bulbs and vines, like clematis
Roses galore line every inch of Ruth’s garden. She favors modern varieties for their disease resistance, hardiness and vibrant colors. But her garden also boasts old varieties that aren’t found in nurseries these days. She also grows other perennials, annuals, bulbs and vines, like clematis

Fortunately, Ruth’s own roses have fared much better in Boulder. With her vast knowledge and experience, Ruth has mentored countless gardeners and lectured on insect predation, rose diseases, propagation, pruning and more. And though she isn’t partial to a single variety of roses, she does favor modern ones for their disease resistance, hardiness and vibrant colors, particularly creamy apricot ‘Just Joey’ and laid-back ‘Livin’ Easy’.

She’s also fond of Austins—cultivars developed by world-famous grower David Austin, who favors classic English roses. Ruth likes the peachy-yellow blooms of Austin’s ‘Abraham Darby’ because they smell like juicy mangoes. She also likes the blushing-pink blooms of stately ‘Queen Elizabeth’ and the sunset colors of  ‘Chicago Peace’.

Above all, Ruth values performance. Her thornless climber, ‘Zephirine Drouhin’, thrives in partial shade and won’t prick guests who pass by to admire the cerise flowers that mingle with the tiny, fresh pink blooms of ‘Jeanne Lajoie’.

Three’s a Crowd-Pleaser

Like many rose connoisseurs, Ruth likes to apply the “rule of three”—or grouping three rosebushes in a planting. Ruth adds a twist by planting three complementary colors that intertwine indiscriminately in a pleasing bouquet, like Austin’s crimson-red ‘The Squire’ paired with pink and white blooms.

Ruth also plants other perennials, choosing plants with similar soil and sun requirements and, whenever possible, planting companions with shallow roots or one large taproot so that fussy roses don’t have too much competition for nutrients. Clematis is particularly suited to climbing roses, and with many color choices it can blend in to add texture or contrast sharply for drama.

Ruth and Shorty planted lots of trees when they bought their property 50 years ago. Now the shady retreat harbors many spots where Ruth can take a break from gardening and enjoy herself, and her plants, in her golden years.
Ruth and Shorty planted lots of trees when they bought their property 50 years ago. Now the shady retreat harbors many spots where Ruth can take a break from gardening and enjoy herself, and her plants, in her golden years.

Ruth’s garden also harbors peach trees and espaliered pear and apple trees. “We had a lot of fruit trees at first, but they died out because it used to be so cold in winter,” she says. Espaliering helped her remaining apples and pears to flourish. When its branches are stretched against a building, an espaliered tree soaks up more sunlight, as well as the structure’s residual heat late into the evening. In Ruth’s front yard, azaleas and a rhododendron greet visitors. “The trick to growing these acid-loving plants is to place them in the shelter of an oak,” Ruth says.

Recently, mountain lion sightings in Ruth’s neighborhood prompted a meeting with wildlife officials who warned that water features lure big cats into otherwise private backyards. At the urging of neighbors, Ruth filled in her tranquil koi pond, converting it to a bog garden with Ligularia ‘The Rocket’, ribbon grass and reedy iris.

Other than mountain lions in her yard, Ruth still enjoys a good surprise. “I love that I can walk through my garden and always be surprised by something that’s in bloom—even in the wintertime, because some things do bloom in winter. I just love that surprise,” she says, “to see something new and different that I didn’t see the day before. That’s the fun of gardening.”

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