Sunday, February 27, 2011

Chickens in the Rose Garden

I grew up in a pre-war apartment building in the Bronx in the 1950s and 60s. Not the kind of place where one acquires a love of gardening and chickens. But, I spent summers in the Catskills, aka Borscht Belt, with my grandparents in a boarding house they ran along with a kosher butcher shop. My dad and I had a vegetable garden in their back yard. Next door was a poultry slaughter house. Tractor trailers loaded with chickens in crates would pull in at all hours of the day and night. Invariably, while unloading the crates, some would break and the chickens would escape into our yard. I became quite adept at catching them with a hook my grandfather made for me out of a metal coat hanger. And so I had a flock of chickens. At the end of the summer, when it was time to return to the Bronx, my grandfather taught me how to butcher them. He said if you were going to eat meat, you should know what was involved. A good lesson.

When Renate and I moved from downtown Ithaca, I couldn't wait to have a flock of chickens again. I spent hours online researching the various breeds available. I was looking for a heritage breed that was cold hardy. Seemed appropriate in keeping with what our nursery was about. I settled on Buckeyes, a large breed (8-10 lbs) developed in the 1800s by Nettie Metcalf, a farm wife from Ohio. I ordered them through the mail. We got a call from the post office the morning they arrived- in a box! They were just a couple of days old. We brought them home and set up a makeshift brooder in our basement. When they were old enough, we moved them outside to the chicken coop I built. At first, I kept them in the coop and fenced run. As they matured, I let them have free run of the property. Just in time for Japanese beetle season. They would follow me around as I weeded and pruned. I would gather a handful of Japanese beetles and call the chickens over and feed them. They gobbled them up. Soon enough, they were picking them off the roses and scratching in the mulch looking for grubs. I was thrilled... until I saw the craters they made in the rose beds digging for grubs and taking dust baths. Mulch was scattered everywhere- on the lawn and in the driveway. Ugh... About that time, I came across an essay by Suzy Verrier, of North Creek Farm. Suzy had written a book on rugosa roses and another on gallica roses. Her essay was on the advantages of the bantam breeds compared to full sized chickens in the garden. She was right.

Lucky for me, a friend, Norm Johnson, a theater professor at Ithaca College, had flock of chickens- both standard and bantam. He also raises rare color forms of peacocks. Norm was working on a new color pattern in bantam cochins called Mille Fleur (thousand flowers). Seemed appropriate. And so I started with a little rooster and three hens. They weigh about 2 lbs a piece. My feed bill dropped to next to nothing. The chicken coop was so much cleaner. I wasn't hauling as much water- a great advantage in the winter. They were as voracious for Japanese beetles as the buckeyes, but did not make the mess in my roses that the Buckeyes did. Last summer, the Cochin hens went broody and hatched out some chicks. We selected the ones with the best Mille Fleur coloring and sold the rest at an auction along with most of the Buckeye flock. We now have the cutest flock of banties- two roosters (father and son) and five hens and just two buckeye hens. Our chickens decimated the Japanese beetle population over the past two years, so we had little damage done by the beetles. If your zoning allows it, give chickens a try- but start with bantams.

As William Carlos Williams says

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Catenaries in the rose garden?

I bet most of you are wondering, what is a catenary? Is that a good or a bad thing to have in my garden? I wouldn't grow climbers and ramblers without them. They will transform your garden, bringing magic and drama to the landscape.

According to Wikipedia, a catenary is "the curve that an idealised hanging chain or cable assumes when supported at its ends and acted on only by its own weight." In a garden, it is formed by a series of posts at regular intervals with chains or ropes hanging between them. They are sometimes referred to as swags. Climbing roses and ramblers are typically planted on the posts and trained down the chains hanging from the posts.

While this might be typical practice, I don't think it is best practice. When the growing tip of a plant is lower than the top of the top of the plant, vigor is diminished. That is the opposite effect you would want to achieve. There is a time and place for that, but not here. This scheme limits the number of roses you can grow on a catenary and doesn't capitalize on the growth habits of climbers and ramblers. It makes the use of catenaries more of a challenge for cold climate gardeners, as more of the plant is suspended high in the air.

How to create a catenary in 4 simple steps

1. Set posts firmly in the ground 10-12 feet apart. The posts should extend out of the ground 8-10 feet. I used steel army surplus posts. They were cheap, plentiful and army green in color, so they blended right in. I wish they were taller. Do not set posts in cement. Doing this is unnecessary, shortens the life of the post and does not let you plant the roses close to the post. You may use black locust, pressure treated wood or heavy steel posts. Set them 2-3 feet in the ground. There will be a lot of weight pulling on them.

2. Suspend chain or heavy rope from the top of one post to the top of the next and so on. I keep the bottom of the curve of the catenary about 2 feet off the ground. Most catenaries are made with the bottom of the curve 4-6 feet above the ground. Rope will rot over time. I used one continuous length of chain. That allowed me to play with the curve created between arches until I got it just right. I wish it was rusty and not so shiny.

3. Plant a climbing rose at the base of each post or on either side of the posts. This is an ideal position for smaller climbers or pillar type roses. Some roses tend to have a more upright form like 'Antike 89' or 'Eden.' This is the ideal spot for them. Do not try to grow those types of roses fanned out on trellises. Do not fight the nature of the plant.

4. Plant vigorous climbers or ramblers with flexible canes at the bottom of each catenary, centered between the posts. This keeps the chain close to the base of the rose. The canes are easily trained from there, covering the chains from the bottom of the curve going up and encouraging vigorous growth. As the roses grow, wind the canes around the chains in both directions.

Training roses on a catenary

Throughout the growing season, I am always winding rose canes (both basal canes and lateral branches) around the posts or the chains. The canes are most flexible when they are growing. Trying to wind a thick cane around a post or chain can result in it snapping. It takes practice, lots of practice. You will get a feel for it in your hands. This was something I learned over the past 30 years when wiring and training bonsai. You increase the flowering potential of any climber or rambler by training the canes in a more horizontal position. This is most obvious on the chains, but also occurs every time you wind a cane around a post.

Pruning roses on a catenary

I prune at least three times a year - after the first flush of flowering is over, towards the end of the fall bloom, and when the forsythia buds swell in the spring. I shorten some of the less vigorous flowering shoots to 4-6 buds. This thins out the volume of canes twined around the chains or posts and increases flowering wood. Do not cut out too much old wood on climbers. Over time, you might have to cut some old canes back that have become unproductive. When doing that, always cut just above a new side branch that is growing in the direction you'd like the plant to grow.

Ramblers require more aggessive pruning as they send out many basal shoots throughout the growing season. The old practice was to flush cut all the old wood to the base after the rambler was done blooming and wind the new wood in place. I thin out between 1/3 to 1/2 of the old wood. This approach leaves a fuller, more natural look.

In pruning and training, sometimes you have to unwind the canes from the posts and chains. Yes, it sounds like a lot of work. But it looks so good when you are done. And the more time you spend working in your rose garden, the more you will notice.

One warning - dress appropriately. I wear a heavy duty long sleeved shirt or canvas jacket. Find a pair of gloves that protect your hands, but give you freedom of movement. Sometimes, I wear a glove only on my left hand. I try to do the bulk of positioning of canes with that hand, saving my right hand for manipulating smaller shoots and holding the pruning shears. Wear a close fitting cap on your head, as well. It keeps the canes from snagging on your head or ears.

Please post questions in the comment section. For those of you who learn best by seeing, feel free to come by when I am working in my garden. For those of you who learn by doing, you can even help.

I hope to start twittering in April so you will know what I am up to in the garden as soon as it happens. I wil also be posting more frequently on Facebook as the pace picks up in spring. My wife, Renate Schmitt, and good friend, Alex Solla, ( will be taking lots of pictures that will be posted on upcoming galleries on the Der Rosenmeister website (, as well as on the Der Rosenmeister Facebook page.

In a future blog, I will talk more about the nuts and bolts of pruning, including what tools I recommend.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

New Web Site Test Run- Take it for a drive.

I have talked about creating a new online presence for Der Rosenmeister Nursery for a long, long time. There were always good reasons as to why I wasn't able to get to that. But, last spring, the universe gave me a strong kick in butt. I was diagnosised with prostate cancer in May. My father died of stomach cancer in June. My wife had hip replacement surgery 3 days after his death. I had a radical prostatectomy 8 weeks later in August.

Fortunately, my wife and I are doing well now. My mom is rebuilding her life without my dad. We miss him so much. I have had time to reflect on what is really important to me and to start to adjust my life accordingly. I try not to sweat the small stuff. I try to cherish those I care for and who care for me. This coming gardening season, I will take more time to smell the roses. And I want to share my passion for life and roses with you more than ever.

So, this winter, I've been working with Alex Solla, an amazing artist, photographer and web site consultant to get my blog up and running and to create a new look for the Der Rosenmeister web site. We are currently in beta testing of the new web site. Alex and I hope to have it live in March. Here's a link, if you would like to look at it as it stands right now.

I'd love to hear your comments. If you find anything that I've missed, please let me know. And this coming June, make some time to come smell the roses with me. Thanks.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Favorite Rose Hybridizers

When I first started growing roses, I found myself drawn to particular colors. As time went on, I developed a fondness for the roses of particular hybridizers, and set out to collect their "works." Reading about their lives, and understanding what they set out to accomplish added to my appreciation of the roses I grow.

The first rose I ever grew was hybridized by and named after Dr. Walter Van Fleet (June 18, 1857 - January 26, 1922). He set out to create what he called "dooryard roses" - cold hardy, disease resistant climbers and ramblers with beautiful flowers and lush foliage that would look good even when out of bloom. He was born in Piermont, NY, where my younger sister, another rose fanatic lives. Van Fleet started out as a medical doctor. He was a man of ideals and passions- a man after my own heart. In the 1890s he was a part of the Ruskin Commonwealth Association, a utopian socialist colony in Tennessee. After the collapse of the Association, Van Fleet worked for the USDA, not as a doctor, but as a plant hybridizer, creating new varieties of small fruits, vegetables and ornamental flowers. Van Fleet was a major force in the American Rose Society, spreading the gospel of a rose for every yard. He crossed R. wichurana, R. setigera, and R. rugosa with old garden roses. New Dawn, one of the most influential climbing rose of the 20th century, was a sport of his rose, Dr. Van Fleet. Often forgotten because they are once bloomers, Van Fleet's climbers and ramblers can still be found growing around old homes and in cemeteries across the country. They would be wonderful additions to your garden.

Early on in my rose collecting, my younger sister, Cheri, gave me a plant of Rosarium Uetersen. She had grown it in her garden but hated the color, a salmon pink. I was wowed by the continuity, mass of bloom and flower form- it has between 100 and 140 petals! And so, I was exposed to another hybridizer, Wilhelm Kordes II (March 30, 1891 - November 11, 1976). Like Van Fleet, Kordes was a major force in the development of climbing roses in the 20th century. Born in Elmshorn, Germany, he learned his trade working in Germany, Switzerland, France and England. Like Van Fleet and the ARS, Kordes became influential in the German Rose Society. He established a nursery that is still in existence, run by his descendants. Kordes used what would later be called R. kordesii, a seedling of Max Graf (a R. rugosa and R. wichurana cross) to create his line of climbers. Cold hardy and disease resistant, these roses took the world by storm in the 1950s. R. kordesii was as invaluable as New Dawn in the development of 20th century climbers.

To see the range of roses developed by these two seminal hybridizers, go to and type in their names. If you have a favorite rose and want to find out more about the person who hybridized it and other roses they developed, go to and type in the name of the roses. Please consider becoming a contributing member of Helpmefind. It is the best site, bar none, for information about roses.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Winter Views, Rosy Outlooks

While I love reading, there's only so much of that I can do and then I need to get moving. Winter is a great time for me to wander around the garden, and have a look see at what I have done and what needs to be tweaked. There is no color to distract my eye. Both the overall layout, and the bones of my garden are more apparent with a cover of white snow. When I use the term bones, I am referring to the hardscaping- paths, fences, railings, terraces, urns, stairs, arbors, pergolas, swags, arches, stone walls, trees, shrubs, and driveway. These elements, when placed correctly, lead my eye through the garden, allowing me to move through the landscape without moving a foot. I try to create spots that invite me to pause, to let my eyes wander and to explore.

One of the early inspirations for the layout of my garden was the book, The Garden at Highgrove by the Prince of Wales and Candida Lycett Green. I loved the vistas, the contrast of formality and playfulness, the punctuation points in the landscape, the textures created by contrasting materials, and the different destinations woven together.

I once read that a good garden is described with adverbs- over, under, around, through, alongside, between, among,... Our site had plenty of opportunities to use those words and more. The challenge of our site was the steep hillside, with hardly a level spot on the entire three acres. It was part of an old farm field. We fell in love with the distant views of hills, bottomland, farms, city, woods, and universities. It took a long time to site our house. It is set at an angle on the hillside. The driveway was installed to allow the tractor trailer to deliver our house, a modular, to the foundation without too steep of a grade.

It has been seven years, since we moved to this once empty hillside. Most of the major elements are in place. While others are in progress, some are still in the dream state. Come take a look in winter and tell me what you think. If I am not at school, you might find me inside, reading. Then again, I might be outside wandering around, dreaming up this summer's projects. And if the snow is just right, bring your sled. I might be out there just having a good time.