Seedling Heaven

By William A. Grant

Bill Grant and Kleine Lettunich have been gardening friends for many years. Their rose gardens were started about the same time.

If you grow enough roses, you may be the happy gardener who is creating new ones no one else has. With the birds and bees and even wind as helpers, the roses may be producing families that find your garden congenial.

That is what happened to Kleine Lettunich in her hillside garden in Corralitos, California. Twenty years ago, when she first became fascinated with species and old roses, she planted them much as most of us do, for cut flowers and ornaments. But over the years her purpose changed. As a lover of animals (she has a large collection of tortoises, dogs, cats, parrots, goats), she began creating a habitat for the native wild creatures. Now there are skunk, raccoon, dove, hawk, squirrel, possum, salamander, garden snakes as well as many kinds of birds, including resident hummers.

Working in animal rescue for several years taught her that many of our native creatures are at risk with the urban sprawl. She has nursed back to health any number of animals.

But what does all this have to do with roses and seedlings?
When I first saw what she was doing, I said, "Kleine, when are you going to clean up that pile of brush?" There were long piles of twigs, branches, cuttings from her garden strewn along the edge of her property. Looking much like funeral pyres. Her neighbors were less charitable when they saw the mess.

In the fall and winter she started planting species, climbers, ramblers and other roses around the piles. If we fast-forward to this year, you would see huge mounds of greenery, flaunting their blooms. The roses have completely covered the piles, and the ground underneath is now the home of wild animals. Just last week I saw a chipmunk emerge from a new mound and sit atop the rosy bower. Birds' nests are safe here as their enemies, the worst are the scrub bluejays, are fooled by the camouflage.

Now, as a result of planting so many kinds of roses, and having the birds and bees aid in the birth, Kleine finds and increasing number of seedlings each year. Some parentage is easy to identify. For instance, her `Mutabilis' seedling has all the earmarks of the parent except that `Mateo's Silk Butterflies' (1992) never changes from its medium pink color. One of her favorite roses, `Francis E. Lester', that marvelous Rambler, is certainly one of the parents of `Lyda Rose' (1994). Both of these shrubs are named after her son and daughter.

Most of her seedlings are not in commerce. But John and Louise Clements have been in her garden several times and marveled at these roses. So cuttings were taken and now the nursery says the two roses mentioned above are among the top sellers every year.

Mention must be made of the hillside garden. When she first attempted to tame the horrible soil, she almost gave up. There were grasses and native roses that came up everywhere. Water ran off the property, and the soil was like concrete. However, with patience and mountains of mulch (my envy here is deep), she has transformed the soil. Today she can grow vegetables, iris, a large collection of clematis, ornamental grasses, salvias, Australian natives, and plants grown from seed she has collected in the wild.

Robert Florin has built a series of structures that dot the hillside. On these she has trained climbers and clematis. She has had problems with gophers, but now she says there is enough in her garden for everyone. I don't share this optimism about the horrid gophers.

The climate is very warm in spring, summer, and autumn, and the winters can produce some frosts and infrequently such freezes that set records in California several years ago. The hill is exposed to sunlight most of the day. For new plants, water-drip systems have been used and then abandoned when the plants are established. One of the nicest aspects of the garden is the line of shrub roses that reach their natural size and are not pruned. As Graham Thomas says, shrub roses should be treated this way (if one has the room, which Kleine does).

She rarely fertilizes, though the animals, hers and nature's, help. In December the display of hips is magnificent. So many people do not realize that some species roses offer not only blooms but hips and wonderful autumn foliage.

The labels on most of the roses are now gone, so it is a guessing game to identify them. When Peter Beales spent a day there recently, he noticed that she had some that only he grows. That is true: until our own heritage rose nurseries started, we had to order the rarer kinds from England. Beales, by the way, is issuing a new book on gardens around the world that he thinks important enough to record their roses and the growers. Kleine's garden will be one of them.