Everything's coming up roses, even in neglected lots

May 22, 2004|By JACQUES KELLY

WHEN I CUT my first roses on Preakness Day, I feel like it's time to stretch out and enjoy Baltimore's warm-weather months. Summer may not be here officially, but after this wretched winter, I am ready for all the pink and red blooms I can snip. And after a January and February like we've just endured, is there a better scent than a bowl of roses?

And while you don't link roses with the foul-air city environment, and a wretchedly humid place like Baltimore, they prosper here. The other night I was enjoying the evening in a cozy back yard off North Avenue, and there, climbing up over an aged garage, was a splendid Don Juan. This was not a sunny hilltop setting, but the plant didn't mind in the least.

All over the city, in neglected yards and filthy lots, established roses defy the odds. I'm not sure what plants are trendy this year (sweet potato vines seem to be on the eclipse, and I've never warmed to ornamental grasses), but the rose holds its own, much like the city's old neighborhoods and homes.

As a child, there were unofficial rose competitions among my neighbors. A proper Baltimore backyard garden was often two long rows filled with pink, yellow, red and white blossoming bushes. It was not uncommon to see them cascading over old porches, the canes and thorns enjoying the challenge of knotting themselves in the planks. Where did we enjoy the roses? From the back alleys, of course. No better place.

Victorian neighborhoods like Waverly seemed to be rose havens, where the sides of cottages would be encased in a canopy.

These rose growers were not graduate gardeners. They just took their chances with new plants at the local chain grocery or hardware stores, but tended to purchase the patented-name varieties. I think every city gardener in 1960 had a Peace, Radiance or Crimson Glory.

I'm often amazed at the vacationers I know who will praise the roses they've seen in New England, maybe Nantucket, but not try their hand at cultivation in Baltimore.

My father has a bumper crop this year at our old Guilford Avenue house. The roses become members of the family. On the way to my nephew Paul's first communion, we were stopped at a roadside stand where some bushes were being sold. This reminded my father that because of some aggressive pruning, he lost his Chrysler Imperial over the hard winter. It was not the end of the world, but it was one my late mother had planted.

I thought of how Great-Aunt Cora planted one called The Doctor after her son Jimmie had graduated from medical school. A staunch GOP member, she also had a Herbert Hoover.

Then again, what about that tall Queen Elizabeth that rules over my own garden? It's not much on scent, but what a prolific bloomer. Nothing fazes it.

This year I've added a Gertrude Jekyll and am considering ripping out a patch of day lilies so I can indulge my taste for May's pastel gift.

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