Rose gardens remain a way to show off rainbow of colors

May 04, 2002|By JACQUES KELLY

MY FATHER called me yesterday morning to report he had his first blooming rose of the season. Gardeners realize the significance of this pink, springtime arrival - it was a hearty and tough Queen Elizabeth, probably planted sometime in the middle 1950s. I place it on the calendar right up there with the debut of asparagus and rhubarb.

Those of us who live in the city - and have only small backyard gardens, often shaded by nearby apartment houses and garages - consider it a matter of pride to produce some nice cut flowers. Ours endure against the odds of the city environment - perceived adversity, however, often makes for a bumper crop.

I think back to those Guilford Avenue gardens where my father regularly watches his dozen or so rose bushes that overlook a small rectangle of grass. Roses ruled those gardens - and often the people who tended them, too.

My Great Aunt Cora claimed gardening rights for many years; then, in the 1960s, my mother, her niece, caught the bug, too. Both women loved their roses and were generous in their affection and bouncy in their enthusiasm.

I think of the times we took the No. 8 streetcar to the J. Manns Co., an ancient seed firm, located next door to the old Bel Air Market in Oldtown. Manns sold rose bushes, seeds, bulbs and fertilizers, among other goods for the garden. It fell to me to carry home the bag of dehydrated cow manure for the rose beds - often on a jammed public transit vehicle.

The goal of these gardening labors was to produce some color - and enough roses for fresh bouquets for the kitchen table (an informal bunch for an old sugar jar) and a more grand arrangement for the silver bowl (a 1916 wedding gift to my grandparents from an Anne Arundel County contractor) that sat squarely on the dining room table on a rectangle of ironed linen.

The backs of those rowhouses, each separated by flimsy wire fences, contributed to a kind of rose competition. Many of our neighbors grew roses; some were highly successful, others broke the rules and still had bumper crops of color in May and June. Neglect was never a detriment to a well-established old rose.

I guess because people tended to live for many years at one address, and did not change their gardens around, there were roses that were probably planted about 1920 - and not disturbed over the years. I think of the old climbers, the ones that explode in an avalanche of color about the time school was letting out.

My neighbor to the north was the very proper Clarence Dankmeyer, a man who drove a DeSoto and - I think - was always dressed in a white shirt and tie. He may have cut a rose or two; he never gardened. And yet, there was always plenty of color in his back yard - and roses in silver stem vases around the immaculate home he shared with his wife, Mary.

To our immediate south was a rose kingdom presided over by longtime neighbor S. Stewart Hoopper, a man who lived in his perfect little green precinct. Mr. Hoopper was a master gardener before we had that title. He was patient, bought root stock from the country's best greenhouses and thought nothing of putting in 12-hour days at his labors. (His intricate cellar network of tool cabinets and potting implements would have made the English jealous.) He was an inspiration.

I learned a lot from these gardeners, but the best lesson of all was how they shared their successes. When they cut their first roses of the season, they often went across the fences as a gift. And, because it was better to give than to receive, they were made into little bouquets for our school teachers - which, like the dehydrated cow manure, you then had to carry on public transit vehicles to school for presentation. And to this day, I watch my father arrive at a function, approach his hostess and hand her a bunch of Guilford Avenue Queen Elizabeths.

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