Saturday, June 29, 2013 11 comments

Amateur hybridizer blooms at Biltmore International Trials

Athyfalaa stole the show at Biltmore
A part-time hybridizer made history last month when one of his creations won Best in Show at the first Biltmore International Rose Trials competition held in Asheville, North Carolina.

Mike Athy of Gisborne, New Zealand entered his climbing/groundcover rose (temporarily known as Athyfalaa) in 2011 and after eight rounds of judging over two years it was declared the winner in five of eleven categories. Another of his roses was the second highest scorer in the trial.

David Austin's Darcey Bussell won Best Shrub
As mandated by International Rose Trial guidelines, the entire bush is taken into consideration, not just the flowers. Roses are judged by a distinguished panel on growth habit, vigor, disease resistance, repeat bloom, fragrance and flowers. Any entry that displays disease over 25% of the bush is removed from the competition.

The breeders of the various roses are not revealed until after the awards are presented. Mike Athy’s rivals in the trial featured luminaries of the rose world including David Austin, Kordes of Germany, Meilland of France and Bill Radler of Knock Out fame.

Not too shabby an achievement for a self-proclaimed backyard breeder.

Hooked on roses since boyhood

Mike has been hybridizing roses in his spare time for over 20 years. He has no formal horticultural training, but his parents were keen gardeners and encouraged his interest in plants.

The second highest scorer
As a young boy he tried to sow some rose seeds and was discouraged when they didn’t develop into multi-petaled beauties with fabulous fragrance.

Despite disappointment, the hybridizing bug had bitten.

Today he makes crosses from October through January that will produce about 75,000 seeds. After being chilled in the refrigerator for a few months, the seeds are planted and resulting flowers are evaluated. Ones that show promise are planted and five years later, fewer than 20 varieties meet his high standards.

In the meantime he does things we’re all told NOT to do, like watering roses in late afternoon.

“I want to give disease the best opportunity to show itself. If a plant proves susceptible, I pick it out and burn it.” That way he remains true to his goal of producing trouble-free garden plants that anyone can grow and enjoy.

A 120-year love affair with roses

The setting for this first-ever East Coast International Rose Trial couldn’t have been more inspiring. It was held in the shadow of the Vanderbilt’s famed Biltmore House on the grounds planned by Frederick Law Olmsted in 1895.

Known as the father of American landscape architecture, Olmsted had previously designed a number of legendary projects including Central Park and the grounds of the U.S. Capitol Building.

 Biltmore and its thousands of acres would be his last landscape.

Olmsted’s plans featured several formal gardens including one of the largest walled gardens in America. Now the lower half of that 4-acre garden features 250 rose cultivars ranging from heirlooms grown at the end of the 18th century to modern day favorites.

George and Edith Vanderbilt took great interest in the Rose Garden, so much so that it eventually doubled in size from the original design.

Daughter Cornelia had a platform built there for a special gala in 1931 that included orchestral music, dancing, a late night supper and fireworks. One partygoer recalled the Rose Garden as a place where “the lighting made it look more like a fairyland than anything I have ever seen.”

A feast for the senses

Today, Biltmore Rosarian Lucas Jacks and his team lovingly maintain Mr. Vanderbilt’s garden and have worked to make it a rose lover’s paradise.

All who stroll near the area are greeted by the intoxicating perfume of 2500 roses.

A riot of color beckons the admirer to come closer. And visitors pause to have their picture taken by the Maypole or double arches smothered by blooms.

Inside the walled garden not far from the Conservatory, you can see the impressive rose called Athyfalaa.

Its performance at the International Trial may make it possible for the part-time hybridizer to pursue his passion full time ( Paul Zimmerman Roses is acting as Mike Athy’s American agent.)

It was historic first win at a historic first event, hosted by historic, beloved Biltmore.

That’s the stuff dreams are made of.

Saturday, June 15, 2013 12 comments

Return to rose paradise

Last year I wrote about my visit to Doug and Shari's majestic mountaintop rose garden. If you missed "What you didn't see in Southern Living", you can read the article here.

Last week I was invited back, and I must say the garden is more spectacular than ever. 

Words cannot describe the beauty. 

Words are not necessary. 

So sit back and enjoy your personal mini tour. 

Sunday, June 2, 2013 11 comments

Here be dragons

While I'm patiently waiting for my roses to bloom in the North Carolina mountains, I thought I'd revisit a cautionary tale concerning my old garden in Maryland.

You see, it’s only human nature, but every time I thumb through a magazine I start imagining  the fabulous perennials pictured on the pages in my very own garden.

Sometimes these daydreams work well – I love my catmints, lavenders and centhransus.

Other times they turn into nightmares.

At the beginning, artemesia 'Powis Castle' seemed to be a great addition to my little riverside cottage garden.

As a fairly new gardener way back when, I was knowledgeable about roses, but didn’t have a clue about perennial plant companions.

The artemesia was described as attractive, carefree and well-behaved.

Brochure copy promised “The lovely silvery filigree will spread like a carpet beneath your roses and serve as a perfect backdrop for any color bloom.”

At first artemesia and Cottage Rose were a pretty pair

The plant according to legend also had the power to protect me from the Evil Eye, plagues and the bite of a sea dragon.

So what’s not to like?

Initially 'Powis Castle' lived up to its billing. Then I discovered it spreads by underground rhizomes and can grow 6 to 10 feet in diameter.

While away on a month-long trip to England, the plants took over the garden, swallowing my miniature roses and hardy geraniums. The stems were covered with some sort of fungus disease and the floppy limbs were just plain ugly.

I attacked with pruning shears and the Artemesias still looked just plain ugly. (Plus the “pleasantly fragrant” leaves in my opinion were stinky.)

So I yanked them all out.

Then, who doesn’t love Monarda?

I saw a pretty red one at the garden center and thought it would look lovely between my Climbing Souvenir de la Malmaison and the David Austin beauty, The Dark Lady.

The tag proclaimed it was a wonderful choice for attracting butterflies, hummingbirds and “helpful” bees.

What the tag didn’t say is that Bee Balm is a member of the mint family and has a tendency to become invasive. Before long it was everywhere – the single plant traveled so far it practically opened the door and came inside the house.

Plus it was covered in powdery mildew that may have affected my roses.
Bee-loved by many, bee balm is no longer welcomed in my garden

It took three entire days on my hands and knees to dig it out. Despite all my efforts, some Bee Balm came back the following year, but eventually I was rid of the miserable thing.

Today, photos of lush perennials continue to turn my head. And I do order unfamiliar plants from time to time.

I also keep a dried sprig of lacy artemesia foliage in my pocket at all times.

After all, who knows when I might need protection from the bite of a sea dragon.