When Field Roebuck walks through his garden, what he sees aren’t just roses: He sees memories of his life. Memories that begin back in his hometown of Graham, where he grew up as a sixth-generation Texan.
“These are Mama’s roses,” Roebuck says, suddenly laughing and pointing out a 1904 hybrid tea and a 1901 white climber that only blooms once a year. “I still have scars on my legs where I ran by too close. When my mother died and we sold the house, she had three roses left. So I took cuttings and two of them are growing in our garden today.”
To Dallas gardeners-in-the-know, Roebuck’s name has become synonymous with the gentle art of growing roses. He’s a frequent contributor to the Dallas Morning News garden section and author of “The Foolproof Guide to Growing Roses.” He also provides most of the educational materials to the First Men’s Garden Club of Dallas, a group with a number of Preston Hollow members.
“What he’s done (for rose growers) is just remarkable,” says John Hunt, president of the club. “There’s a company called Back to Earth that makes cotton-bur compost from the high plains out in Lubbock. Field formulated a rose compost for them, but you won’t see his name on it, and he doesn’t get any money for it. That’s just the way he is.
“Field isn’t just a rosarian. He’s an engineer and a geologist. He’s very knowledgeable about many aspects of gardening.”
In his typical unassuming fashion, Roebuck shrugs off this pedigree.
“Look it up in the dictionary…’rosarian’ is just a fancy term for anyone who loves roses.”
While Roebuck may have inherited his love of roses from his mother, it wasn’t until his daughter Sue was born in 1959 that he planted his first rose bush. In the years since, he and wife Joan – whom he calls his “partner in roses” – have made space in their Preston Hollow garden for quite a few more rose varieties.
“We really don’t have that many now,” Roebuck says. “I haven’t counted lately, but probably not more than 90.”
He’s kidding, right? Not at all.
“There’s lots of gardens around here that have 200 to 300 plants,” he says.
But he cautions that local gardeners shouldn’t let a wealth of options seduce them into planting just any variety of rose. Plant the wrong rose in the wrong location, and be prepared for a tragically short life span of perhaps a year or two.
But the right rose in the right place?
“There’s a rose in Europe, if you can believe the story, that has been there since the time of Charlemagne,” he says, which translates into roughly 742-814 A.D. “One of his priests planted it. We find roses around the state in some of the old cemeteries that have easily been here 150 years.”
The neighborhood rose guru says it’s that kind of longevity that attracts gardeners to many of the antique rose varieties.
“They’re all survivors like that, just growing on their own until somebody re-discovered them and re-identified them. The noisettes, the Chinas, the teas – those three types of antique roses do quite well in our climate.”
If the antiques are the easiest varieties to grow around here, what are the most difficult?
“The modern hybrid teas, for the most part,” Roebuck says. “There are some exceptions. And there’s a whole class called Bourbons that just don’t do at all here like the books will tout them. Hybrid perpetuals too, with few exceptions, will live here but only bloom in the spring.”
When asked to pick his own favorites, Roebuck displays some of the same reluctance as a parent aked to single out one child over another. But he admits to special affection for a Blush Noisette in his garden.
“If I was stranded on a desert island with only one rose, that’s the one I’d take with me. I have one that’s already blooming (in mid-February), and it will be continually in bloom until the first hard freeze.”
The rosarian also gives a nod to his Old Blush shrub – “one of the most famous of the China roses” – and says the evergreen 5-by-4-foot bush is so healthy, “it’s never been sprayed.”
He hesitates to speak for wife Joan but does reveal her latest studied selection: a recently planted William R. Smith, an antique tea rose bush with multi-colored blossoms that will grow up to eight feet tall.
And whatever happened to that bush he planted 43 years ago when he became a dad?
“It’s still sitting there blooming,” he smiles.
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