Thomas Christopher | Be-A-Better Gardener: Rustling roses is the only way to go ....

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Why order rose bushes from a catalog when you can start your own for free, and get types especially adapted to your local soil and climate into the bargain? This was a lesson I learned from the rose rustlers of central Texas — now I'm going to share it with you.

The rose rustlers were a colorful bunch, who would assemble for their periodic collecting expeditions in rose-embroidered hats and cowboy shirts and their jeans secured with rose-buckled belts. But they were practical people, too, and expert gardeners. They had tried planting roses from the catalogs, and found that, as a rule, they were unable to cope with central Texas' combination of torrid, humid summers and wet, chilly winters. But they had also noticed that there were roses flourishing without care in the older cemeteries, by abandoned homesteads and often in gardens in ethnic neighborhoods where the older gardeners shared starts of the exceptional roses that did survive.

So, the rustlers began to collect cuttings from these locally hardy roses. They'd find a rose stem about as thick as a pencil and take it with an angled cut just above a leaf node. Then they'd slice the stem up into cuttings, each about 4 to 5 inches long and with a couple of sets of leaves. They would wrap these in moist paper towels and store them in an ice chest until they got home. Once back at the ranch, they'd dip the bottoms of the cuttings in a rooting-hormone powder and then plant them out in a bed of soil enriched with peat moss or compost in a location that got bright but indirect light, such as the north side of a fence or wall. Finally, they would water the cuttings and then cover each one with a miniature greenhouse made from a clear plastic soft drink bottle — to make these, they'd cut the bottom off the bottles with a sharp knife. With any luck, six to eight weeks later, the cuttings would be rooted.

Our summers aren't as hot as those Texas scorchers, but our winters can be dauntingly cold for the average mass market rose. That's why, even though I garden in the North, I still favor collected roses. For 20 years, now I've treasured a Damask rose that came as a cutting from an old farmyard. It makes a dense, almost thornless shrub that bears ultra-fragrant, saucer-shaped pink flowers in June. I don't know its name, but it's indestructible and needs no spraying. It's proof of the superiority of "rustled" roses. I also grow a crimson-red hybrid tea rose that also flourishes without the need for sprays and blooms reliably all summer long. I've forgotten its name and so cannot order more; I'll start a couple of new bushes from cuttings this summer to share with friends.

Sharing is the heart of rose rustling. Indeed, one of the best sources of rustle-worthy roses I have found is the elderly gardeners in ethnic neighborhoods, who commonly share starts of all sorts of easy-to-grow, foolproof plants with their friends. Keep a supply of rooted cuttings on hand to return the gift, and with luck you can get your name on their list of beneficiaries. You may find yourself rustling not just roses, but all sorts of useful and hardy garden plants.

Be-a-Better-Gardener is a community service of Berkshire Botanical Garden, one of the nation's oldest botanical gardens in Stockbridge, Mass. Thomas Christopher is the co-author of Garden Revolution (Timber press, 2016) and is a volunteer at Berkshire Botanical Garden. berkshirebotanical.org.


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