Plant more roses than you think you have space for? Why not? Inspired by Ruth Roberts’ 50-year-old Boulder rose garden, Lynn Nichols’ garden overflows with roses of all varieties. Here’s his advice for aspiring rosarians.
By Mell McDonnell
Photos by Lynn Nichols
A visitor to Lynn Nichols’ rose garden is usually given three things: a gracious smile from Lynn, a plastic bucket filled with water, and pinking shears—followed by his invitation to wander about and cut whatever blossoms suit one’s fancy.
There are sculpted hybrid teas, like the kind you buy on Valentine’s Day from the florist, the far more unusual Old Garden Roses—bourbons, hybrid perpetuals and Damask ‘Rose de Rescht’, with its frilly petals and rich scent—and newer floribundas and hybrids like David Austins and super-hardy Griffith Bucks.And there’s plenty to satisfy. Nichols’ sunny rose garden sports a thousand points of light and color—whites, reds, yellows, pinks, oranges, even lavender blues. Squint your eyes, and it’s like being inside an Impressionist painting.
There are deep-hued reds like ‘Mr. Lincoln’ and ‘Firefighter’, bright pinks like ‘Pink Peace’ and ‘Yolande d’Aragon’, pink blends like ‘Amazing Grace’, yellows like ‘Golden Celebration’, and multicolored beauties including ‘Double Delight’, ‘Sheila’s Perfume’ and ‘Gemini’. Last but not least is ‘Dainty Bess’—a lovely shell-pink single with deep-red stamens that Nichols first encountered 10 years ago in Ruth Roberts’ Boulder rose garden (featured in the online spring 2011 issue at homeandgardenmag.com).
What’s the secret of his success? With hot, dry summers and windy springs, Colorado is not noted as a habitat where roses thrive. But Nichols’ rose-growing skills grew—through dedication, trial and error, and pure passion. Here are a few tips he’s learned about growing roses.When Nichols moved to Gunbarrel, he hadn’t planned on developing one of the loveliest rose gardens in our area. But with a large backyard as an empty stage and the lure of variety in rose colors, shapes and perfumes that he witnessed in Roberts’ garden, Nichols became an accidental rosarian. At last count, he’d planted more than 260 roses arranged in beds and terraces, and on trellises. Each season, he acquires or propagates more.
Q: Lynn, let me see your thumb. Is it green?
When it comes to roses, there’s no such thing as a green thumb! It’s all about your priorities and the time you dedicate to it. You educate yourself by reading, you take some risks by planting what you think you’ll like, and then you observe. I’ve added about 30 roses each year and now I’m ready to stop and see how they do, just replacing the ones that don’t work or that I’m not so fond of. I’ve been at it 10 years now, and it seems there are plenty [of roses] that will be good for the long haul.
Q: I don’t believe you when you say you’ll stop putting in new roses! I see that love, mindfulness and caring are key ingredients, but what about sun, location and layout?
The more sun, the better. At least six hours of truly direct sunshine is minimal; with less sun, there will be fewer blooms. As for location, remember, you can always move a plant if you don’t have success where you first planted it. Also, if a rose doesn’t please you, take it out and give it away. I’ve learned to get up my courage and replace roses…try something else!
Q: Name a few roses you especially like for various traits.
‘Golden Celebration’ is my favorite yellow David Austin for its rich color and a fragrance that, to me, changes from the smell of black tea to a wonderful citrus perfume. ‘Pink Peace’—bred from the famous ‘Peace’ rose released at the end of World War II—for its vibrant deep-pink color with just the slightest edging of white on each petal. ‘Double Delight’—everyone loves this for its yellow/white centers and strawberry-tinged petals. It gets redder the longer it blossoms in the sun, and it has a wonderful, strong fragrance.
‘Amazing Grace’ (sometimes called ‘Myriam’), because each of its large, multi-petaled blooms is a bit different combination of cream and soft pink, and its perfume is always delicious. And ‘Magnificent Perfume’, a pink hybrid tea that matures into an old-fashioned rose look. It seems not to be very well known; it was bred by Heirloom Roses and has my very favorite fragrance of all of the roses in my garden.‘Portland from Glendora’—there’s argument over whether this is truly a Portland or not, but it’s very hardy and builds into a large shrub, even in our climate. It has sweet little full-petaled pink roses that have a fragrance just like what I imagine an old rose should smell like.
Q: Do you prefer grafted roses or roses on their own roots?
There are good arguments for both, and I have some of both. Grafted roses may grow faster at the start. Own-root roses are noted for hardiness. And it may be true that when you plant grafted roses deep enough, they develop their own roots along the bottom stems—at least the David Austin rose catalog says so.
Q: Garden books and catalogs always list the zones where various plants thrive. What zone are we in, and does it really matter?
Well, yes and no. We’re mostly in Zone 5 here on the plains, which indicates low temperatures of between -15˚ and -20˚ F. But there’s a lot more to consider. Our springs are so variable—they warm up and then freeze again, and if roses are coming out of dormancy this can cause a lot of damage. And there’s the wind—it dries out plants, whips long canes around, and wiggles delicate roots. But if you’re willing to live with some dieback and you plant right, you can have a huge variety of roses here. Most will come back, even if they die to the ground in some winters.
Q: Does that mean you can plant any variety and it’ll come back?
Not any, but probably more than most people think. I usually try roses labeled for Zone 6, but avoid Zones 7 and higher. There are some varieties that are much hardier than others: Canadian Morden varieties, Griffith Buck roses that are especially bred to withstand cold Midwestern winters, old roses such as ‘Harrison’s Yellow’, and the Portlands we’ve already talked about. There are a few that are best left to gardeners in the deep South, but I’d say don’t be too picky. I’ve grown varieties that aren’t supposed to work here. A lot is in how you plant them.
Q: You mean dig huge holes?
Sort of. Some books say 2 feet by 2 feet. I don’t do that; I get too tired. But I try to approximate that, by digging holes that are more like 18 inches by 18 inches. I then enrich our clay soil with compost or good potting soil. Whether I’m planting grafted roses or roses on their own roots, I plant them deep, partly to keep them stable. For grafted roses, I make sure the bud union is at least 3 inches below the surface. A lot of people plant roses and in later years find they have a red rose with multiple blossoms and rangy growth. That’s because the grafted top died back and the rootstock—probably an extremely hardy ‘Dr. Huey’ rose—took off.
Q: What about climbing roses?
Climbing roses are difficult. If you really want them to climb up on something and cover it, the best bet is to get Zone 3 and 4 roses that will not die back as much each year. Zone 5 climbers just die back and you start over each year. That’s OK if you don’t really want them to grow to 10 or 12 feet, but frustrating if you do. I thought I was doing rather well when several climbers did seem to grow over several years to 10 feet. Then we hit a harsh couple of winters in Boulder, and they suffered severe dieback. And most of them were Zone 4!
Q: Do you mulch and fertilize your roses?
Yes to mulch, because in our dry climate, mulch helps keep moisture in. I usually just fertilize once or twice a season with time-release granules and a bit of Epsom salts in the spring, which helps the plant take up the materials needed for healthy growth and numerous blooms. If you can afford it, organic fertilizer is good because it also slowly releases necessary nutrients.
Q: How about watering?
If you have a little plant that just arrived in a small container, you’ll need to water it frequently so that its small root ball doesn’t dry out—at least once every second or third day for the first couple of months. After that, keep an eye on your bush. It really depends on how hot it is, how much or little it has rained, and where the bush is located. There are no rules of thumb, although I’ve seen that the roses close to my deck that get more water are healthier and more vigorous than older bushes down at the foot of the garden that get less.
Q: And pruning? Seems to me I’m always seeing advice on what to cut and what not to cut. And there’s varying advice on when to prune.
The standard advice used to be cut out the dead canes, snip out the weak and crossed canes, cut to an outside bud so that the interior of the bush will have air circulation, et cetera. There are entire workshops and videos devoted to pruning. Recently, there’s been what I think may be a better way: Prune the bush to fit the space it’s in, which is what most gardeners tend to do anyway. Of course, you don’t want to hack down a giant, so be sure you plant really large varieties in a space where they fit. Then trim so that the shape pleases you.
As for the timing, [rose expert and author] Paul Zimmerman, whom I admire, simplifies it by saying: “In springtime prune when the forsythias bloom.” And I’ll add that in fall, I cut back long canes on all my plants to keep the snow from breaking them off and to protect against wind damage to the roots.
Q: Roses are often susceptible to molds, mildews and pests. How do you handle them?
Some people just don’t worry about a little “fungus among us,” but I try to spray with Green Cure about every other week, but often skip the varieties I’ve learned over the years do not seem to be bothered by fungal spores. As for aphids, I use ladybugs in my greenhouse; outdoors, a potent stream of water to wash away aphids works pretty well.That dreaded spraying. Well, we’re lucky here in Colorado. Our dry climate means not only fewer bugs, but also less fungus—powdery mildew, black spot and rust. There is a new product called Green Cure, made of potassium bicarbonate. Sodium bicarbonate [baking soda] had for years been a home remedy for fungal diseases—with limited effect—but it’s been found that potassium bicarbonate works better and is safer than other fungicides.
Q: What are your sources for all these roses? Your collection is so eclectic; you must do a lot of shopping around.
I do! I’ve found roses all up and down the Front Range, and by mail order on the Internet. Locally, I recommend Harlequin’s Gardens, because it’s dedicated to natural and sustainable gardening for our region. I’ve also found beauties at Sturtz & Copeland and at The Flower Bin in Longmont. I’ve even found bargains at Home Depot and Walmart—for instance, four bare-root Mr. Lincolns for $4 each, which I potted in my greenhouse and set out the next spring. They’re thriving. The Internet is great fun, as it gives me the opportunity to correspond with true rosarians—hybridizers and cultivators who’ve dedicated their lives to all things rose.
Q: Lastly, how did you become interested in roses?
When I was a student and lived on the Hill in Boulder, my landlord asked me to plant something in the yard to keep drunken students from cutting across the front grass. I planted a diagonal of hybrid teas—and do you know, they’re still there almost 30 years later? But my real interest came when I took a tour led by Mikl Brawner and Eve Reshetnik Brawner of Harlequin’s Gardens, who developed the rose garden at the Dushanbe Teahouse in downtown Boulder. When Eve cut a few blossoms of ‘Abraham Darby’, that deeply scented, apricot-colored David Austin, and handed them to us, I had never before seen or smelled anything like it. And that is when I fell in love.
Lynn Nichols teaches and directs at the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Department of Theatre and Dance. Mell McDonnell is a freelance writer.