I recently posted photos of the deeply discounted roses, plucked from the half-dead shelf at the hardware store, that I planted last year. When my sister saw the images, she remarked “It’s like a fairytale.”

As much as I dislike the modern concept of fairytale, I know what she means. There’s something sublime about a bouquet of roses spilling over a gravel path. The eternal and ephemeral intertwine in a tale as old as time yet as fresh as spring.

Roses, after all, are both an ancient species and a timeless classic in any garden. Fossil evidence for plants in the rose family date back at least 35 million years. And human cultivation of roses for pleasure has been ongoing for at least 5000 years.

Today, over 150 species of roses are in cultivation for planting, cutting, and rose oil. Thousands of new hybrid varieties have been coaxed into existence for pleasure and profit.

Despite market saturation, in both bouquet sales and prêt-à-planter shrubbery, roses are still so “hot” that they’ve become an $11 billion industry. And even though they are incredibly common, an air of pomp and circumstance still swirls around the fragrant, silky petals of this pretty plant family.

Relating to Roses

Once upon a time, though, I used to despise roses. They seemed too elitist and troublesome for my earthy ideals.

Plus, frankly, the environmental impact related to rose production has a pretty thorny history. Between growing them in hot houses, flying them around the world for manufactured holidays, and the excessive use of pesticides — roses used to be ecologically unconscionable.

Thankfully, today, there are lovely alternatives to the old unsustainable model of rose production.

  • You can grow disease-resistant cultivars organically at home.
  • Locally grown flower businesses are booming.
  • And if you must have a bouquet of roses in February, you can now buy them from fair trade certified, sustainable sources and actually have a positive financial impact on developing countries.

Wild Roses

For me though, it wasn’t the awareness of new alternatives that put me on a path lined with roses. Instead, it was a small, weedy patch of mini-pink roses growing in our otherwise barren front yard.

Since the soil was in such bad shape, it seemed like a miracle that the roses bloomed. So, I took them as an optimistic omen and let them stay.

Then, as our ducks began to do their organically beneficial business in the area, those rambling roses responded by becoming a thorned thicket so massive even a fairytale prince could not cut a path through!

So, when I finally began terracing, planning, and planting what would eventually become my fancy front yard garden, I had a choice to make.

Start a war of the roses or make peace
with these pretty plants already in place?

As the author of Weed-Free Gardening, I made the sensible choice. I made those easy to grow roses part of the plan rather than treating them as a problem.

I trained those previously unruly brambles over posts cut from another weedy plant — a coppiced Princess Tree (Paulownia tomentosa). Then I rescued some large flowered cultivars from the plant discount rack to complement their country cousins. And the result has been stunning!

Not a Fairytale

Full disclosure, lest you think I’ve gone too cultivated in my tastes, my rose garden is hardly the vision of a manicured French Manoir or royal garden. These rose beds back up to a wild patch.

The gravel terrace they grace the edges of is a drainage device made with local crusher run from the quarry down the road.

Also, as with all my cultivated garden areas, this is an edible landscape, surrounded by apples on one side, quinces on another, hops to the back, and grapes in between.

Vegetable beds line the paths for easy harvest. And come and cut French culinary mint is my ground cover, working to wick away moisture and secure organic matter in our wetter-than-roses-like-it climate.

This space may look like a fairytale in photos and feels like one when I’m sitting in it sipping tea surrounded by blooming roses. But it is grounded in the reality of gardening on a mountain slope, in heavy clay in Northwestern North Carolina.

These plants are also part of an organically managed ecosystem wherein these thorny thickets offer safe haven for all sorts of wildlife.

“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

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