Tucked between the busy thoroughfares of Beltline Boulevard and Trenholm Road in Columbia, Pinemont Drive is a quiet residential street. Well-kept homes, some brick, some clapboard, are fronted by green lawns accented with beds filled with azaleas, boxwoods, pittosporum, and other plants that can tolerate Columbia’s hot, humid summers.
Those lovely yards, as well as a notable lack of traffic, have made Pinemont Drive a popular destination for walkers, who, more often than not, find themselves pausing to take in a small but perfect rose garden that’s set so close to the road it almost seems as though the plot’s owner created it as a gift to passersby.
It turns out that was exactly the plan. “I enjoy roses and thought the neighbors would as well, so I positioned the garden where we could both see it,” says Bob Seibels, who added the rose garden to the landscape soon after moving into the home in 1976 and has kept it thriving ever since. Unfortunately, though, his gift for growing has created an unintended problem: the other plants in the yard have grown so large that Bob can no longer see his beloved roses from his window. “I should have kept my eye on that sasanqua,” he says with a laugh as he looks up at the massive shrub. “I had to plant a second rose garden because I missed looking at the first one.”
Bob’s Pinemont Drive rose garden wasn’t his first experience with the beautiful but often infuriatingly fickle rose. He grew up watching his father tend to roses; in 1971, when Bob rented his first home, a tiny bungalow on State Street in Cayce, he added a bed to the landscape. “I’d buy my roses at Taylor’s Garden Center, which was located in the old Forest Lake Shopping Center near Trenholm Road and Forest Drive,” he says. “They bought bare root roses in bulk and sold them from big bins filled with wet sawdust. They were $2.95 per plant, and you could choose your own. I remember pulling them out and inspecting each one to make sure I was getting one with big, healthy roots.”
A Columbia native whose family arrived in what became Richland County in the 1700s, Bob graduated with a psychology degree from Sewanee: the University of the South, in 1971 with a plan to spend the summer in his hometown before heading off to the University of Tennessee for grad school. However, the U.S. Army came calling with an offer he literally couldn’t refuse: a draft notice. Three years later, making a living seemed more important than a graduate degree, so the young former officer interviewed at the not-quite-open Riverbanks Zoo for a position as a primate keeper. “My degree had an emphasis on animal behavior, so it was a good fit,” says Bob. “Since the zoo wasn’t yet open, the plan was that I would work in arboriculture until the animals arrived.”
Though Bob eventually became the zoo’s bird curator — a position he held for 33 years — his interest in plants never wavered, and his love of gardening deepened. So, while many young people would have shied away from a house with a yard that was not just a mess but oversized, Bob saw a challenge he couldn’t wait to take on.
After clearing overgrown shrubbery, taking down trees, installing an irrigation system, and basically rebuilding the entire yard, Bob began planting. In addition to the rose garden, one of his early successes was a row of gardenias that, nearly 50 years later, are tall, thick, and so healthy that the deep green leaves look almost fake. But what really excited Bob were the specimens that he was able to gather from the zoo’s gorgeous collection of perennials, many of which were unavailable to the average gardener. “The zoo had access to colors and varieties of plants years before you’d see them in a commercial nursery,” says Bob. “A snip here and a snip there, I’d root them in a glass of water and before long my garden was filled with unique plants.” Later, as the zoo began to expand, staff members were invited to take shrubs and trees that were going to be dug up to make room for a new building or display. “It’s really cool now because some of these species were completely removed from the zoo and, over the years, have become very rare,” he says.
One example is a ‘Margaret Douglas’ Back Acres azalea, which Bob first noticed outside of his office window at the zoo. “It was a beautiful plant, so when I found out it was going to be removed, I dug it up myself and planted it in the yard,” he says.
Bob was so taken with the unique salmon-edged flowers that covered the plant each spring that he purchased a variety of Back Acres azaleas in different color combinations from a specialty nursery in Maryland. Many of those plants continue to both thrive and delight their owner, who recently learned that a number of Back Acres varietals are considered “lost” by azalea aficionados. “If the squirrels haven’t eaten my markers, I’m looking forward to going through my collection and, I hope, uncovering a varietal no one has been able to find,” says Bob.
A walking tour of the Seibels yard reveals the diversity of plants that thrive in the Midlands, including interesting varieties of common plants, such as pink-blooming Confederate jasmine, red-blooming honeysuckle, and a tea olive that will send out coral-hued blossoms. A mandarin orange tree looks delighted with its location in a sunny, protected corner, as does a mountain laurel that Bob dug up in the woods and replanted in his yard. There are pretty fringes of maidenhair ferns, vine-draped walls and, behind his workshop, a vegetable garden. Bob still marvels at a 15-foot-tall ‘Lady Clare’ camellia that rose from the dead after being completely frozen in 1984. “I thought it was dead,” he says, smiling at the towering shrub. “It’s now swallowed a rhododendron. I really need to prune it back.”
Bob’s touch with plants may seem like luck, but he insists that it’s really a matter of observation and the hard work of watering, weeding, feeding, and supplementing the soil with mulch. To help keep diseases and insects from decimating their target plants, he keeps a detailed record from year to year of when they show up. “That way,” he says, “I can spray for what’s coming before it has a chance to take hold.” Since roses will develop black spot if the leaves get wet, he has installed an irrigation system that drips water to the roots slowly and evenly.
Of course, not everything grows as planned. Keeping deer and squirrels from shearing tender shoots down to ground level is a constant battle as are certain diseases that seem to come out of nowhere. Recently, Bob had to remove a gorgeous climbing rose that had become a victim of Rose Rosette Disease, a fatal, mite-borne condition that made its way from the Rocky Mountains to the Carolinas in the 1990s. “I came out one morning, and my beautiful bush had an inordinate number of thorns as well as a huge cane coming out of it,” says Bob. “It was my first experience with Rose Rosette, but I knew immediately what it was and that I had to get rid of the infected plant fast. I dug up every root, got rid of it several blocks away from the house, then bleached the shovel so I wouldn’t inadvertently spread it further.”
Though gardening isn’t Bob’s only hobby — he’s a talented woodworker and this fall is training a golden retriever puppy — it’s one of his favorite ways to spend his time. “There’s always something new to learn,” he says. “I’ve just started cultivating Gerbera daisies and hybridizing them with a paintbrush. You never know when you’re going to end up with something that’s just gorgeous.”
Bob Seibels’ Tips for a Novice
Location, location, location — Roses require 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight daily. No rose will grow or bloom properly in filtered light (like under tall pine trees). Do your homework and make sure your bed will receive sufficient light.
Bed preparation — You only get one chance to prepare your bed, so do it right! Thoroughly till and loosen the soil to a depth of at least 16 inches. Remove all competing roots from shrubs and trees. Add plenty of amendments like peat moss and compost. Roses thrive on good, rich soil and organic or chemical fertilizer.
Spacing — Roses need room to grow. Bare-rooted, pruned bushes are pretty spindly when they are planted in February, but don’t be tempted to plant them too close together. Minimum separation should be at least 4 feet in all directions. Air circulation is critical here.
Methodical and diligent care — Hybrid tea roses are not as labor intensive and demanding as most people think. Lots of newer, highly effective products are available on the internet to control most common insects and diseases. Clemson University’s HGIC website has an informative and useful area devoted to growing roses and rose care. Keep a detailed calendar from year to year so you will know when and what to spray. “Combination” rose care products sold in the big box stores are not recommended because better products are available to prevent or treat specific problems. For instance, if you want to control a common fungus like black spot, why would you apply a product containing an insecticide and possibly a miticide that will impact non-targeted beneficial insects like bees and ladybugs?
Be patient — Bare-rooted roses require at least two years to become well-established. Over the years I have discovered certain named varieties, mostly through trial and error, that generally perform well here in the Midlands. Even so, a surprising amount of variability exists among specimens of the same rose. As far as selection goes, literally hundreds of named roses and types are out there: heirlooms, English, hybrid teas, floribundas, grandifloras, and more. The choice is yours!