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Roses get a bad rap as fussy divas needing extra care

  • Nanette Londeree
  • Roses get a bad rap. They're the alleged finicky, fussy, hussies of the garden, needing all kinds of extra care to keep them producing. Buy expensive plants, add a gazillion things to their planting site, pump them up with loads of fertilizer while dousing them with oodles of chemicals and buckets of water - all to get a stingy bloom or two. Right? Not!

    Somewhere along the line, our national flower has developed the undeserved reputation of being hard to grow and an environmental hog. In my experience, that's not the case, and I grow hundreds of them. If these purported divas of the garden were such a pain to take care of, you wouldn't see them blooming their hearts out along the highway, down median strips or next to the scorching pavement in shopping mall parking lots.

    Considered ornamental woody shrubs, roses don't require a lot more care than other popular flowering shrubs such as camellias and rhododendrons, hydrangeas or buddleias (butterfly bush). And, roses perform for more than six months of the year versus their counterparts that bloom for a month or two. I mulch heavily with organic compost each spring, everything is on an automated, low-water use irrigation system and I don't use pesticides or synthetic fertilizer, so the main work to keep the plants flowering and looking great is annual pruning and removing faded blossoms. I'm rewarded with armloads of rose blooms from late March through early December.

    If you're interested in protecting our precious resources and being good environmental stewards, you can still grow amazing roses by employing sustainable gardening methods.

    "Sustainable rose gardening is managing our gardens with minimal effects on the environment," renowned rosarian and author Robert B. Martin Jr., recently wrote. "A sustainable rose garden is one that is adapted to and managed without extraordinary demand for chemicals and care while maintaining a healthy balance and emphasis on healthy soil."

    You can take some big steps to reduce the use of chemicals, conserve water, reduce waste and energy use, protect the environment and still enjoy magnificent roses.

    The bad rap roses get primarily relates to their purported, insatiable appetite for fertilizer and the need for constant spraying with pesticides to keep them looking their best. Neither is true. While you can produce out-sized blossoms with lots of fertilizer, the plant doesn't need it; in fact, too much fertilizer creates a lot of lush growth that is an attractant to aphids and other plant-juice sucking insects. Providing a consistent diet of nutrition through healthy soil and the routine addition of organic matter should be plenty.

    There are many gorgeous disease-resistant varieties that don't require the use of fungicides. Visit your neighbor's garden, nurseries or public gardens to get ideas for healthy roses. The Marin Rose Society has a free public garden at the Marin Art & Garden Center in Ross that's brimming with blooms, all grown simply and organically, with no pesticides. Plants are labeled with their names, so you can jot down your favorites as you stroll through the prolific and fragrant garden.

    Creating a healthy balance in the garden, one that provides a habitat for birds, bats, frogs, toads and other insectivores and encourages beneficial insects can keep pests to a tolerable level. If you do need to deal with pests, utilize an integrated pest management system that relies on physical, mechanical and biological methods of control before chemical methods.

    When planting, add compost or other organic amendments to improve soil structure; it feeds the soil and the plant and encourages earthworms. If you fertilize, use natural materials such has composted manures rather than synthetic, man-made products.

    Another myth is that roses consume copious amounts of water. They, like all plants, need water to grow and bloom. Some varieties, such as EarthKind Roses, landscape and shrub roses, old garden roses and rugosas, generally require less water. Drip irrigation systems provide slow, even watering that penetrates deep into the soil.

    Watering deeply and less frequently, when your plant needs it, not according to a fixed schedule, promotes development of healthy root systems that are better able to withstand bouts of intense heat. Also, irrigating early in the day minimizes evaporation as does mulching around plants (the mulch also reduces weeds).

    Learn more about roses at the Marin Rose Society's annual free Spring Rose Show on May 8 at Northgate mall. Thirty-minute educational programs will be rotate continuously through the day, and consulting rosarians will be available to answer questions.


    - What: Marin Rose Society's annual spring rose show

    - When: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. May 8

    - Where: Northgate mall, San Rafael

    - Admission: Free

    - Information: www.marinrose.org

    The University of California Marin Master Gardeners are sponsored by UC Cooperative Extension. For questions about gardening, plant pests or diseases, call 499-4204 from 9 a.m. to noon, and 1 to 4 p.m. weekdays, or bring in samples or pictures to 1682 Novato Blvd., Suite 150B, Novato.