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Northern California: Roses for the Shore

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Northern California BY MARY WILBUR /Trinidad, California, Zone 9

“Love thou the rose, yet leave it on its stem."—Lord Lytton, The Wanderer, 1858

Roses have been on this earth since long before man, and as one might guess, they are as tough as they are beautiful. Here on the coast of California, some 300 miles north of San Francisco, they face cool summers, lots of fog, and a rainfall of 42 inches between November and April. The other months are dry, but the humidity is high and the fog wet enough to generate continual arguments about whether it is rain or mist. Strong winds, salt air, and hungry gophers add to the challenge of growing roses in my garden, 500 feet from the ocean.

I have two rules for my roses: they must be without black spot and mildew—or relatively so, since I do not spray—and they must not have too many petals, since summers here are often cool, and many-petaled roses tend to rot in the bud. Keeping clear of black spot and mildew is no easy task in this climate. I have regretfully banished both ‘Graham Thomas’ and ‘Double Delight’ to the empty lot next door.

My very favorite rose in the garden is Rosa chinensis ‘Mutabilis’ (now correctly known as R. xodorata ‘Mutabilis’), a China rose so ancient its parentage is unknown. The five-petaled flowers start off as yellow buds, then turn to pink, and finally to a deep red. Since all these colors are visible at once, it's clear why “butterfly rose” is one of its common names. Add to this the fact that it's the first to bloom in the spring, and does not give up until Christmas, and we have perfection. Purists may complain that its form is ungainly, but I prefer to think of it as casual and airy.

A close second among my favorites is the gallica rose (R. gallica var. officinalis; pictured), also known as the apothecary rose. This is a rose originally used in France for the development of perfumes and medicines, and it is the primary rose I use for potpourri. Its semidouble blossoms are a rich red with a touch of purple surrounding a center of golden stamens, and they open up like a layered plate. It has only one bloom period, but it is an abundant one that lasts from the end of June and through July before tapering off in August. Some gardeners use this rose as a groundcover, but I prefer to let it climb, which it will do to a height of about eight feet. In my garden, it is totally free of black spot.

Two other favorites also merit a spot in my garden: the shrub rose ‘Golden Wings’ and the hybrid musk ‘Penelope’. The first has large single flowers, reflecting its name, and a light scent. After its first flush of flowers, it will continue blooming in a more restrained manner for the whole summer. ‘Penelope’ has large, semidouble flowers that are a pale, creamy pink with a wash of salmon and gold. It has a burst of bloom in late spring and again in late summer, and has an intense perfume that touches the air of my garden by the sea.

To do in the garden

  • May is the month of weeding. After our wet winter, the weeds know no bounds, and oxalis, scarlet pimpernel, and wild geranium abound.
  • Wait until the ground dries off a little and then mulch with small wood chips, which give the still-bare parts of the garden a manicured look and enrich the soil as they decompose.
  • With dry weather approaching, now is the time to test the irrigation system, so that everything flows smoothly when water is needed the most.

Worth growing

New Zealand tea tree Leptospermum scoparium

Ranges from a groundcover to a 10-foot shrub and has a long blooming period—here it is from late winter through June. The flowers are small but profuse. As a groundcover, the flowers are less dense and the blooming period is more erratic. It withstands ocean winds and salt air, and thrives on our wet winters and dry summers. Good drainage is a must. Good varieties are ‘Helene Strybing’ (pink), ‘Ruby Glow’ (red), and ‘Pink Pearl’ (pink buds that turn into white flowers). Hardy in USDA Zones 9-10.