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Heavenly roses: Jim Bassler tends gardens at Cathedral

Jim Bassler takes time to stop and smell the roses he had planted at Cathedral of St. Peter in Belleville. He likes the challenge of the temperamental plants.
Jim Bassler takes time to stop and smell the roses he had planted at Cathedral of St. Peter in Belleville. He likes the challenge of the temperamental plants. News-Democrat

If you spend any time at Cathedral of St. Peter in Belleville, you likely have seen Jim Bassler.

“The rose man” is the friendly guy taking care of the 200 to 250 American Rose Society bushes just beginning to bloom. He already has a deep summer tan.

“I call it my cathedral tan,” said Jim, 60, a sturdy guy with a buzz cut. “I have it in February already. There’s so much work that needs to be done in the wintertime.”

Tuesday afternoon, he pulled gardening tools from the trunk of his mustard yellow PT Cruiser tucked in the shadows of the cathedral. Sure, he already had worked a full day (“I’m the dairy and frozen food guy at Shop N Save on Carlyle. I’ve been there 20 years almost.”), but his afternoon task was a labor of love. Spraying roses, watering, pulling weeds and chopping down a magnolia tree that shaded some rosebushes.

“Right now, I have everything in place for the year. In two weeks’ time, they double, triple their size. It’s amazing how they take off, and how the weeds take off.”

Roses aren’t the only plant Jim tends. The day before, he had planted 10 hibiscus bushes along with petunias in pots that sit in front of church archways. Baby petunia plants, just coming up, lined up against a wall. He plans to repot and give them away. And the holly bushes, hugging the side of the church, need trimming.

“They get the most beautiful red berries in the fall,” Jim said. “We put them in vases.”

Sometimes, Jim digs up a little of the cathedral’s past.

“There’s so much history here,” he said. “It makes you think. In 1912 when it burned down, the roof (collapsed). I planted the holly bushes and found ashes and pieces of metal from that fire. It’s the largest cathedral in the state of Illinois. A lot of tour buses come through in summer. We are on the visit list of things to see. A lot of those will walk through the rose garden as well.”

Jim spends about 40 hours a week on his volunteer job, something he has been doing for about 12 years.

“Jim is so dedicated to the roses,” said Monsignor John Myler, Cathedral pastor, “and he does it with great joy.”

“How it all started was I was here on a Sunday night working on music with the youth group,” said Jim, standing in the midst of his garden. “The grounds looked kind of rough. They needed some help. It was when Monsignor Buerster was here. I just put in a few. I put them here and there. Every year, I kind of added to it until it became a monstrosity.”

A monstrosity?

“If you take care of it, it’s a monstrosity.”

Jim doesn’t let chronic back problems keep him down.

“I like to be active. I can’t watch TV for too long. I have to have my hands busy.”

Rosebushes, their roots deep into mulch, border the east side of the church grounds, and a lower area or ramp entrance.

“I used to have one row, then I doubled it,” Jim said. “I find if roses in one row aren’t in bloom, the other might be. I like to make a rainbow look, a red, a yellow, a white, an apricot. Some almost look like maroon leather.”

He reached down and pulled up a single green blade, poking through mulch.

“Nut sage,” he said. “The more you pull, the more it comes.”

Jim’s roots

Jim, a ’73 Althoff grad, grew up in a large family on South 33rd Street.

“I always did like plant life, even as a kid,” he said. “I saved up my money to buy a peach tree, a little bitty dwarf. I liked watching things grow. My family had a vegetable garden. We had 11 kids. That’s another reason I like helping the church. The church helped us. Dad cut hair. There wasn’t much money in that, especially when you have 11 of them.”

In 1986, he bought a clubhouse on the Kaskaskia River.

“I fixed it up so nice I moved into it. It’s 900 square feet. It’s almost an hour away, coming and going. I come here usually from work since I am in town. I am single. I have a little time to spend on this kind of stuff.”

A brother got him interested in roses.

“I used to help my brother Greg who is a year younger. I started taking care of what he started. To this day, I go to his house and take care of the few he had. If you don’t take care of them, they become ugly. If you want the plant to look good, you need the foliage to look good.”

Jim grew roses at his house.

“I live in a clubhouse at Evansville on the Kaskaskia. It’s all shady. The ground down there is not the best. They did alright.”

How could they not with Jim’s attention to fertilizing, watering, spraying and deadheading the temperamental plants?

“That’s the reason I like it. It’s a little challenging, not something you plant and walk away from. Someone will say, ‘How come my roses don’t do good?’ Because you don’t spray them. If you miss one day, black spot disease (comes) in and spreads like wildfire. I spray religiously.”

Rose fan club

Jim’s roses serve as a backdrop for graduation and wedding pictures.

“Parishioners, pilgrims, visitors, brides and grooms notice them,” said Myler. “This evening we will have Cathedral school graduation.”

Another photo op for the roses.

“It’s appropriate that the church, especially the Cathedral, has a rose garden,” Myler said. “That symbol of Christ as a rose comes to us even from the Old Testament. ... Every rose — yellow, white, hundreds of blooms — is a symbol of Christ himself.”

Occasionally, Bishop Edward Braxton admires his work.

“Our bishop loves roses,” said Jim, who counts the bishop as a friend. “He’s a nature nut. He comes here in his baseball cap and cuts them. He likes to decorate his house. It’s nice to see they get used.”

About the roses

Each little rosebush has a name tag, its name bestowed on it by the American Rose Society. They arrive by mail with no leaves, just wrapped so the roots stay damp. They cost about $25 or $30 each.

“These are what you call American Rose Society winners,” said Jim. “See the name tag? That’s the actual name. These are like my kids, I know all their names”

There is the white Pope Rose, named after John Paul II.

“He picked white for purity ... Nancy Reagan is like an apricot. There’s even a Ladybird Johnson. It’s orange-red. ... JFK is not open yet. Elle, that’s a beautiful pink. Radiant Perfume, an awesome yellow. Olympiad, an old rose that is red. Folklore, that’s pretty much orange. There aren’t very many oranges in the rose catalog. I have some repeats because I need the color scheme.

Jim looked down the church driveway on a quiet Tuesday afternoon, roses dancing in the breeze.

“When this is all blooming and I drive up here,” he said, “that’s the big payoff.”

If you’d like to help with the roses, Jim suggests writing “flower fund” on an envelope and dropping it in the collection basket during Mass.

Jim Bassler on roses

When they bloom: “Generally, they start May 2. Winter was brutal. This year, they are just starting now.”

When to deadhead: Almost daily. “That keeps roses coming in. Otherwise, all the energy goes to making seed if you don’t cut that head off.”

Life of a rosebush: “As long as you water and fertilize, they can last 30 to 40 years.”

Biggest blooms: The first roses of the year are the biggest. In the fall, that repeats again.

Knockout roses: “They are nice, but are a shrub rose, not for cutting.

Sunshine: They Need six to eight hours of sun.

Too much heat: “When it’s hot, it’s almost better to cut the flowers, take inside and get them into the air conditioning. If you cut off low enough, you might get three next time.”

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