Peter Lekkas’s rose-coloured memories

Rosarian Peter Lekkas on how certain rose varieties stand out not just for scent or colour but for the memories they elicit.

Credit: Flickr / e3000

When you have more than 70 varieties of roses, it’s difficult to choose just one favourite.

Peter Lekkas has been a member of the Vancouver Rose Society for 15 years, with six of these spent on the executive. And like many gardening aficionados, Lekkas finds that certain varieties stand out not just for scent or colour but for the memories they elicit. 

What does your garden look like?

Right now, a semi-organized, jam-packed display. Aside from roses (70 varieties including some species), I have peonies and a variety of shrubs, self-sown annuals and perennials, lots of raspberries (yellow and red), rhubarb, fruit trees, including figs, persimmon and quince. I also have 14 palm trees (not sure if they all survived last winter). I also try to find room for some vegetables.

How much time do you spend gardening?

Depending on the time of year, I can spend most evenings and weekends gardening. I have a 60 x 120 ft lot on a slope and two solariums.

Which came to you first – love of gardening or love of roses?

Love of gardening. I remember starting my first little garden on a windowsill in Belgium where I grew up, being coached by an aunt who had lived in the Belgian Congo and then settled back in a farmhouse in Belgium.
The wild hedgerow roses there are beautiful and hold a strong memory for me.

Which roses stand out for you because of their scent?

I like ‘Climbing Etoile de Hollande’ in particular because it was the first I grew from a cutting. I was growing it to save the rose from an abandoned house in Vancouver, where it had survived years of neglect and continuous renovations.

Why do you favour the Old Garden Roses (OGRs)?

The look, the smell, their names and disease resistance. Some only bloom once, but it is worth it for the show they put on. Most have long arching branches due to the weight of so many flowers. Many old roses also have hips in the fall, which adds another season of interest and feeds the birds.

But maybe most of all, OGRs stand out for having the most amazing scents.

So a rose by any name doesn’t smell as sweet?

OGRs tend to have a more intense scent. When hybrid teas came along, breeders tended to ignore scent in favour of breeding for appearance, so that was lost. Also, disease resistance was lost, and pesticide and fungicide use became common and acceptable.

There are so many varieties to choose from now, so why not have fragrant ones? Most of the Old Garden Roses are very fragrant.

Are OGRs easier to grow?

OGRs are easier because they are tougher. That is why you still find a lot of them over 100 years after their introductions. Some have survived for years on their own, in old cemeteries, for example, or abandoned homesteads, and have been rediscovered. They are survivors.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received about roses?

“Shovel prune” the ones that are not performing (i.e. dig them up and throw them in the garbage). There are plenty of good to excellent roses available, so there’s no need to fuss or spray.
Give them four to six hours of sun, good soil, some compost as mulch every year and, of course, water.

There are many different types of roses out there. Which varieties are best for beginners?

Most Hybrid Musks are fragrant, tolerate some shade, repeat bloom and can grow to be large shrub or short climbers on the West Coast. They are shrub roses that were bred in the early 1900s by Reverend Pemberton, amongst others. Among the best Hybrid Musks are Buff Beauty, Felicia, Nur Mahal, Penelope, Vanity…

Rugosas are tough as nails, fragrant, healthy and most repeat bloom. They also make a nice hedge nesting ground for birds and will provide them with food in the winter. The leaves turn colour in the fall and the various colours, sizes and shapes of the hips add interest in the winter garden too. Great examples of hearty Rugosas include Blanc Double de Coubert, Roseraie de l’Hay and Scabrosa.

Some of the Hybrid Musks and Rugosas are available at Select Roses; all are available at Brentwood Bay Nurseries.

Any other advice?

Join a Rose Society and visit the open gardens of the members.

Buy from a local rose nursery, like Select Roses in Langley. They carry the ones that do well here, on the proper rootstock. Some will be on their own roots. You’ll also get great advice too.

On Vancouver Island, try Brentwood Bay Nurseries, which carries a large selection of OGRs.

How do you acquire hard-to-find varieties?

A lot of roses can be ordered by mail, including from England, something that Janet Wood, rosarian, and long-time member of the VRS, has done for years for our members. Janet’s garden is on the tour during the World Rose Convention.

What are you most looking forward to at the World Rose Festival (June 19–21, 2009)?

The size of the show. The displays and lectures. And, of course, the camaraderie.