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‘Madame Alfred Carriere’, an old garden rose, can take a lot of abuse when it’s grown in the right climate. A Noisette, it really doesn’t like the cold, which may reflect the fact that the Noisettes were initially hybridized in a mild climate. The first Noisette was probably created in South Carolina by John Champneys, in 1802, when he crossed a Rosa moschata with Parson’s Pink China. He gave seed to Philippe Noisette, who in turn sent some to his brother in France. Louis Noisette and his descendants developed the Noisette line—‘Blush Noisette’ was the first—and they introduced Mme Alfred in 1879.

Although ‘Mme Alfred’ is officially a repeat bloomer, the big show is in springtime; the rest of the year there’s just a smattering of blooms—soft, creamy white double blooms with a hint of a blush. Right now, my neighbors stop and ask me what it is and where they can get one. I bought mine from Heirloom Roses, which grows and sells own-root roses and ships them in four-inch containers. These slips are small and benefit from a little babying for the first year, but after that—wow! These own-root roses are tough, and you never have to worry about suckers. Any cane growing from the base of an own-root rose is the rose you planted, not root stock.

‘Mme Alfred’ can clamber up a twenty-foot wall with no problem. I grow it along my front fence, and instead of pruning it, I just take the hedge clippers to it every so often, keeping it roughly eight feet tall and letting it twine through and over the pickets for about ten feet. Almost thornless, with soft, whippy canes, it’s easy to train. I have a flowering pear tree on the other side of the front walk; one branch arches over the walk and reaches out for the white rose. Sometimes I think about letting it go up into the pear tree, the way my ‘Blush Noisette’ climbs up through another tree. And then I remember the deep disapproval of the knowledgeable man who prunes my trees. He says frostily, “Vines and roses should never be allowed to climb trees.” Thus, so far, Mme Alfred stays on the fence. One of these days though, I might “forget” to clip it back. I think those white roses among the new green pear leaves would be quite a sight.

My War with Nutgrass, Spring 2013

The other day I noticed that nutgrass (okay, okay–nutsedge) was coming up through the blacktop on my driveway. This didn’t surprise me in the slightest. I had already learned that all of that optimistic advice about organically controlling nutgrass–you know, without chemical herbicides–was not, shall we say, grounded in reality.

I had tried covering the damned stuff with black plastic sheeting to cook it to death in the heat of summer. I had tried laying down cardboard and topping it three inches of mulch to smother it. I had tried sifting my soil and removing the nuts. Do I still have nutgrass? Oh, hell yes. Coming up through the blacktop, as well as pretty much everywhere else.

Not long ago the Los Angeles Times ran an article on this bane of the Los Angeles gardeners’ existence. Local experts offered advice. And here is my favorite advice from that article, offered by Frank McDonough, botanist at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden:

“Because we don’t use chemical controls, the only method we have at our disposal is removal. The most effective control of nutgrass that has established itself in the ground is to remove the soil down to 18 inches and replace it with nutgrass-free soil. The other strategy is détente: We have a very lovely lawn in an area that, upon inspection, consists mostly of nutsedge.” You can read the whole article here.

Guess what? My “lawn” is greening up nicely. It’s almost all nutgrass. And since the damned stuff requires very little water, apparently I can have a “lawn” without guilt. I’m going to call it detente, not defeat.

Suffering for Tomatoes

This spring I had to make some tough decisions about the backyard. I need to give my tomato bed a rest—I’ve grown tomatoes in the same bed for seven years now—and that means either finding somewhere else to grow tomatoes or doing without them.
Well. Doing without homegrown tomatoes is not an option.
Something had to give. I spent a lot of time pondering possibilities for what is, basically, not a large space. I briefly considered removing a couple of roses, but before I did anything drastic, I remembered that the spot I was considering actually gets a lot of shade in July and August, prime tomato time. Whew! ‘Valencia’, ‘Heaven on Earth’ and ‘Comte de Champagne’ are safe. (Well, the truth is, I’d have kept those three and moved them to another spot, necessitating another round of tough choices.)

'Momotaro'--it's a huge, productive market tomato, and it's already twice the size of the other tomato seedlings .

‘Momotaro’–it’s a huge, productive market tomato, and it’s already twice the size of the other tomato seedlings .

When it came right down to it, there was only one option. The Teucrium fruticans—bush germander—had to go. Now, I loved that Teucrium, with its pale silvery leaves and lavender blooms. It looked fabulous with the ‘Hemstitched’ irises and ‘French Lace’ rose at the west end of the garden. But there’s no denying that it was too large for the space. I dug it out and shifted the rose and the irises, in the process taking out a couple more feet of the mown weeds I call a lawn. I figure this gives me room for three tomato plants. Plus a few disease-resistant hybrids at one end of the old tomato bed. I’ll plant the rest of the space with Zephyr squash, bush beans, cucumbers…. And to think, back when we first talked about the garden design, I vetoed raised vegetable beds. I didn’t think I’d want to grow anything but tomatoes. Fool!
After spending three weeks removing nut grass (one thing about it, germinating nut grass is easy to spot in otherwise bare dirt), I amended the new bed and planted the tomatoes. It’s true tomatoes are not lovely plants toward the end of summer, with their yellowing leaves and dying stalks, but for tomatoes, I’ll do just about anything. Including removing cherished ornamentals and putting up with an unsightly backdrop to my flower garden.
Even so, I only have room for six tomato plants (not counting the cherry tomatoes in pots). The Tomatomania seedling sale was a severe test of my will power. I came home with tried-and-true varieties: ‘Momotaro’, ‘Japanese Black Trifele’, ‘Cherokee Purple’, and a couple of experiments—‘Vorlon’ and ‘Super Sauce’. Wish me luck!

Lily Magnolia

For weeks now I’ve been admiring other people’s blooming magnolias. So pretty. And mine? Mine has been bare. True, it has that nice smooth silver gray bark. True, it has a lovely branching shape that even bare draws the eye to the end of the yard. But blossoms? Nuh-huh. Finally, however, it’s blooming. And it is absolutely worth the wait.

Magnolia soulangeana liliiflora ‘Nigra’

I love this shrub.

Assessing My Tomatomania Tomatoes

"Golden Girl," "Japanese Black Trifele," "Momotaro" and a smattering of the cherry tomato with the best name ever, "Honkin' Big Black Cherry."

The first week of August was absolutely blazing–I may hate it, but the tomatoes love it. I’ve been harvesting a basket of tomatoes a day. My friends and neighbors are happy. I’m happy.

But not all of the tomatoes are happy. I’ve seen more biotic diseases this season than in years past. I don’t know if it’s the varieties I chose or the fact that I have grown tomatoes in the same garden plot for five seasons now. Space is limited, unfortunately, and I don’t have the option of planting in a new area every season.

The least successful plant was “Pink Berkeley Tie-Dyed.” Its leaves began yellowing within a month of my planting it; I got about 10 ripe tomatoes from it before it died; they were very pretty but the flavor was not so special that I’ll repeat the experiment. I yanked the tattered remnants out of the ground at the beginning of July. “Missouri Love Apple” has never looked very healthy, and the crop it’s produced has been puny–but what delicious tomatoes!

“Big Mama”–what on earth is going on with “Big Mama”? The plant looks like it’s water-deprived and the fruit itself looks battered. Apparently the limp and curling leaves are fairly typical, judging by other growers’ comments. I thought the fruit wasn’t ripe but when I cut into it, the flesh was a deep red.

“Golden Girl” has become the new favorite of friends and neighbors. Mild in flavor, meaty, low acid–and so pretty! It’s a determinate but I’ve harvested a lot of fruit and it’s still producing.

I love “Japanese Black Trifele”. I actually put in two plants, I love it so much. I don’t know why it’s not officially a determinate–it produces a huge crop within a three-week span and then it essentially stops. For those three weeks, I am a happy, happy woman. I eat them for breakfast, for lunch and for dinner. I even share with certain discriminating friends.

Last and far from least, we have “Momotaro”. It’s a huge monster of a plant and it gives me a huge crop. It will continue to give me lovely medium-size pink fruit well into fall. When all else fails, “Momotaro” comes through.
Now the question is, will “Momotaro” be enough for fall? Or should I try a second crop? “Ace” perhaps? A greedy gardener’s decisions are never easy.

A Rose by Any Other Name

Roses get new names all the time. The same rose can have three or four names–and three or four different roses can have the same name.

Take a handsome climber I first saw clambering over a tall arbor at the Huntington years ago. It was identified as ‘Harlekin’, a Kordes hybrid. (Kordes is probably best known for ‘Iceberg’, the most widely planted rose in California.) I wanted a nice pink climber to replace one that wasn’t performing well on the front fence, so I went looking for it. I couldn’t find it–but I could find ‘Kiss of Desire’, which, it turns out, is the name it’s marketed under now. Kiss of Desire? Could a rose be afflicted with a more embarrassing name than that?

Then there’s ‘Valencia’, another Kordes rose. It’s a lovely apricot hybrid tea; I bought it five or six years ago from Arena Roses, and it’s done very well. But as I was researching it on Help Me Find–a wonderful resource for any rose gardener!–I ran across a bitter plaint from someone looking for ‘Valencia’ as it was 25 years ago, not as it is now. Evidently the ‘Valencia’ currently on the market is the third version–and in that rose fancier’s opinion, the current ‘Valencia’ is a pale copy of the original. I’d like to see that one sometime because the current ‘Valencia’ is gorgeous.

That’s the nature of hybridization. Varieties come and go, replaced on the market with something newer and possibly, though not necessarily, better. With vegetables it’s possible to save seed and grow varieties that are no longer commercially available. With roses you may be able to reproduce the one you desire vegetally, but first you have to find the variety you covet.

Sometimes, of course, you just have to find out what it’s being called now. Kiss of desire, indeed.

It's hard to imagine a prettier rose than the modern-day 'Valencia' but there are those who believe the version available 30 years ago is superior.

Name Unknown

I suspect that every garden contains at least a few mystery plants, unless you start with a completely empty lot–and imported, sterilized soil. My garden came with a number of roses, many of which were unsalvageable, but nine of them survive to line the driveway. I’ve identified some; others remain nameless.

One is a handsome, fragrant bicolor, sometimes coral, sometimes orange. For a while I thought it was ‘Brigadoon’–but then I saw a properly identified ‘Brigadoon’ and realized just how wrong I was.

This is a common rose in my neighborhood, but none of the shrubs I see has an identifying tag. I suspect that mine came from Home Depot. It's a beautiful bud but as it ages, it becomes messy and unattractive. Still, it's fragrant and prolific, and so it remains in my garden. So far.

Another of my unidentified roses is tall, fragrant and prolific. It’s also lavender. I’m not partial to lavender roses, but friends love this one, so I cut handsome bouquets of it and give them away. What’s not to like about that?

A nameless lavender rose. Pretty if you like that sort of thing.

And then there’s this bright yellow tall bearded iris. This one is embarrassing. I have no idea what it is–but I bought it and I planted it. I know it came from Greenwood Daylilies and Irises. I’m pretty sure I have a record of all the irises I bought, but can I find that list? Nope. I put it in a safe place. Maybe someday I’ll find it. If I do, I’ll let you know what this iris is called. In the meantime, I’m cutting great stalks of it for a tall vase.

I have no excuse for not knowing the name of this iris. I chose it and planted it myself.

Branching Out

I wouldn’t want you to think I only grow Austin roses. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I grow Meilland roses too.

'Abbaye de Cluny' is a modern hybrid tea, meaning it's fragrant. 'Just Joey' is one of its parents and that shows in the lovely color and shape.

'Colette', in other climes a tall shrub, is a short climber here. I have it on an arch leading into the back garden. It gives me a fabulous first flush--and then it provides an occasional blossom during the rest of the season. I guess when your growing season is 12 weeks and you get flowers for six weeks, you feel okay with what is, in effect, a once-blooming rose. When your growing season is nine months, you wonder why you waste your garden space on something that only blooms for six weeks. But it's sure pretty right now.

A Few More Austins

'Jude the Obscure', introduced by David Austin in 1995, changed my life in the garden. Before 'Jude', I thought all roses were just those thorny, dull, scentless hybrid teas that proliferated in the 1960s and 1970s (and there are still plenty of them around). I had never seen an old garden rose, and I had no idea that Austin and others were determined to combine the old rose forms and fragrance with modern disease resistance and repeat blooming. One look at 'Jude' and I was a convert. It was like seeing a Redoute come to life.

Ravishing though 'Jude the Obscure' (yes, Austin does have a certain literary bent to his names!) is, it's a bit reticent when it comes to reblooming. 'Tamora,' which is right next to it in my backyard, has no such problem. What a generous rose this is. And unlike many Austins, it doesn't turn into a space hog.

Irresistible Austin Roses

Named for the legendary English garden designer, 'Gertrude Jekyll' has been around for more than 25 years. It's only been in my garden for nine years. I love it passionately at this time of year, when it is covered in blossoms and their fragrance drifts out to the street and sweeps into the house. Ask me how I feel about it in August, when its incredibly thorny canes snag passers-by and it hasn't given me a single flower for two months. Every August I swear I'm going to take it out. Every spring I relent. But what possessed me to plant such a thorny creature right next to the gate?

David Austin, in his book on his own roses, recommends planting 'Gertrude Jekyll' in groupings of two or three. Possibly if I had acres and acres in which to plant roses, that would be feasible. As it is, serious pruning (thank you, Nina Rumely!) keeps it to a somewhat manageable eight-foot spread.