A kind reader has sent me a greeting card with a clipping of my comment that deep digging, to 20 or even 36 inches, is a good thing to do when preparing a planting site for roses and many other princes of the vegetable kingdom.
"I'm still laughing," was the message.
Well, I have dug two trenches for the reception of tea roses next spring. In theory, the trenches are 24 inches deep and 30 inches wide. In fact they are 14 inches deep, a wobbly 15 inches wide.
Stakes are in place showing where the 12 plants will go, a little more than two feet apart. Three to four feet would be better.
As the gardener ages somewhat, it turns out that everything takes longer. Never mind; I have filled the trenches with horse manure, stable sweepings really. In a perfect world, the manure would have been mixed with less straw and would have quietly composted under a roof for a year. In this real world I am delighted to have the quite strawy fresh horse manure collected from a shed, protected from rain.
It will sit all winter in the trenches. The earth from the trenches is piled to the side, where it will also winter, and the freezing and thawing will turn it into good friable earth by early March. Then, God willing and the creek don't rise, I shall mix it thoroughly with the manure, and it will be a good six inches higher than the surrounding soil. I'll water it heavily and let it settle for six weeks.
If I can get it at a sane price, I'll incorporate a four-inch layer of sand. I have a great pile of wood chips that in three years has rotted to a splendid texture, and some inches of this will be added over the winter to the earth piled up from the trenches.
Meanwhile, the roses are due to arrive the end of February. As they come from a warmer climate and may have begun to leaf out (roses leaf out in February at my place anyway), they will be potted and protected from frosts. They will be turned out of the pots and into the (by now fully prepared and settled) trenches April 15. They will be carefully watered and kept weed-free.
Next winter they will have evergreen branches strewed about their stems at ground level and will be protected from the wind by burlap shields. I do not want to keep them warm -- the last thing I want is to inspire them to leaf out in January. The trick is to keep the soil from freezing too deeply and to keep wind off the bushes, without protecting them too much.
Ordinarily if a rose bush arrived in February I'd plant it directly in its permanent place, and mound earth four inches high about its stems and shield it with a few newspapers.
But tea roses are not as hardy as hybrid tea roses, and I do not want to take a chance on a severe freeze in March. Last year we had such a freeze, after weeks of almost summer weather, and it killed outright many hybrid teas.
Why, the sane gardener may ask, go to all this hoopla for tea roses, which have been supplanted in all right-thinking gardeners' plots by the hybrid teas and floribundas?
First, and most controlling, I like the flowers, I like those half-decided blends of buff and fawn and rose. I like their weak stems, I like the thin petal texture, I like the fragrance.
The very things every hybridizer raced to improve in the tea roses (and succeeded in accomplishing) are things I like in a rose. I do not for a second deny that hybrid teas have given roses stronger stems, more foliage, less sprawling plant habit, flowers more resistant to bad weather, stronger and more brilliant colors, and in many cases a stronger fragrance.
The roses of today, the hybrid teas, also have larger blooms, and I cannot imagine anybody's denying that today's roses are impressive, even magnificent.
There are those, and I'm one of them, who think the roses of gardens today are too much of a good thing. Glorious as the flowers are, magnificent as the foliage is, they are far too susceptible to black spot to suit me. They are also too stiff.
A great gardener once observed (when speaking of lilacs) that there's such a thing as breeding flowers until they are perfect in beauty, then letting well enough alone. For me, that stopping point was the group of tea and noisette roses. Improving them further led to undreamed-of grandeur and lost too much along the way.
Others do not agree, and would not have tea roses in the garden, even if they were hardy as oaks, healthy as dandelions and bloomed their heads off (as many of them do). They regard the tea roses as comparable to 18th-century plumbing or 1920 automobiles, and they consider a taste for tea roses as eccentric and probably perverse.
Well, different strokes. A gardener should grow what he likes, and I am far from saying tea roses are better or even as good as their descendants of today. Just as I would not argue that mashed potatoes are better than french fries, or olives better than bacon bits.
They are different. To me they are more beautiful, even though I am lost in wonder at the beauty of such modern roses as 'Pink Favorite,' 'Alec's Red' and 'Mister Lincoln,' among dozens of others.
And my teas would be a lot happier if that preparatory trench were 30 inches deep, and if I were growing them south of Vicksburg. Still, as Nancy Reagan once said on television trying to get the president's ear, "Tell them you're doing the best you can."