Capitol Hill Garden Club In Washington, D.C., Since 1952

A Few Observations from an Organic Rose Grower, Carol Edwards

January 15, 2016 7:09 PM | Anonymous member

A Few Observations from an Organic Rose Grower

When I began growing roses in my Washington D.C. garden, I decided not to use synthetic chemicals to battle diseases and pests, a real challenge in a hot, humid climate that attracts pests and diseases from both the northeast and southeast. Over the past sixteen years I have learned a few things about organic rose growing. It’s not that difficult if you are curious, observant, ruthless, open to experimentation, and patient. Of course these are useful attributes for all gardeners.

One key practice is selecting the right roses to grow. With careful selection, organic rose growers can help their chances for success, spend their rose budget wisely, and learn about many fine roses, especially those hidden gems. My selection criteria include the usual—appearance of the blooms and foliage, growth habit, mature size, fragrance, zone hardiness—but most importantly, evidence of disease and pest resistance. “Shovel pruning,” the practice of giving away or discarding poor performers, is an accepted expectation of organic rose growing, but my goal is to minimize the amount to close to zero. I realize that with the tens of thousands of roses in active cultivation, a large number of new hybrids added to the market annually, and the temptation buy impulsively, that this goal is one of those impossible dreams, but I am trying my best.

Here is how. The information I want, an accurate prediction of how a rose will perform in my garden, is wishful thinking, but I practice a little leg and Internet work to make myself a smarter consumer.

The Leg Work—We are fortunate in the Washington area to have a couple public gardens that grow roses without the use of synthetic chemicals. The U.S. Botanic Garden is a primary source for me on how organically grown roses perform in our local growing conditions. I visit this garden several times through each growing season to note which roses do well over several years. The rose garden has both antique and modern roses. Go there with a notebook and a camera and find a rose you would like to add to your garden. For example, the hybrid rugosas perform well season after season.

Another area public rose garden features old garden roses. The U.S. National Arboretum rose garden’s care practices include minimal spraying with synthetic chemicals. The limited staff can give the beds only periodic weeding and deadheading. The garden, which is under renovation, has been replanted during the last few years with albas, damasks, bourbons, gallicas, chinas, noisettes, mosses, species roses, Bermudas, teas, portlands, hybrid perpetuals, rugosas and polyanthas. I visited this garden twice in the late summer of 2016, after a wet spring and long spell of dry hot weather. It was interesting to see that the roses in fairly good shape were the tea (e.g. General Schabliki, Spice, Archiduc Joseph), tea-noisette (Rêve d’Or, Alistellar Gray, Elie Beauvilain) and china (Napoleon, Louis Phillippe, Mutabilis) roses. They had good leaf retention, little black spot, and some blooms. Others were pretty sad looking, including the bourbons, noisettes, albas, portlands, gallicas, polyanthas, and several species roses. The moss and Bermuda roses were somewhere in between. I returned to the garden three weeks later after a few days of rain, and the noisettes (particularly Natchitoches) had perked up, and the tea and tea-noisette rose were lovely. These rose varieties are available through mail order.

When you visit any rose garden, ask garden staff whether they use synthetic chemicals and if they have a trial bed where chemicals are not used. For example, although it is not located in the mid-Atlantic, the New York Botanical Garden has beds with organic roses, some of which will grow well here. Take a notebook and camera with you. Photograph the roses you like and their labels. Look to see if the roses you covet are well established or newly planted because you want those roses that have performed acceptably over multiple years.

The Internet Work—The Internet is a useful tool for identifying roses that grow well without synthetic chemicals. Unfortunately, most of the available information is not specific to our growing region, and roses that grow beautifully in Sacramento, for example, may be feeble in the District of Columbia. Internet data may be less reliable than first hand observation, so triangulate and look for “preponderance of evidence” (lots of people independently reaching the same conclusion). Note the source of information. Data from research institutions or non-profit affinity groups sites like rose societies is more likely to be reliable than information from vendors.

Another tip is to look for rose breeders located in countries like Germany with long existing stringent laws regulating the use of pesticides and fungicides. Their roses may perform better under organic growing conditions than those bred in nations with less regulation. Again the proof of performance can only occur in your garden. I have had to shovel prune roses with a solid reputations for disease resistance.

Finally, in my experience, the most important practice in organic rose growing is to build the quality of your soil—constantly! I work to know what is in my soil and how I should amend it. I observe how the amendments affect my roses. These practices are now habitual. I never skip a year of building good soil. I add organic matter to my beds semi-annually. The specifics of soil quality and amendments are another article, though, so I’ll close with two requests.

First, if you volunteer with a local public garden that grows roses, please encourage the director to establish a bed or two of roses that are grown without synthetic chemicals. As more casual gardeners commit to actively protecting the environment, locally gathered data on how specific roses perform with organic practices will be of increasing interest to visitors.

Second, as you grow roses with organic practices, please record and share your observations with other rose growers interested in organic practices. You can start by posting to the garden club’s Members’ Discussion Forum. Over time, perhaps we can gather enough information to eliminate shovel pruning. Of course should we succeed, we will have less fun when those annual rose catalogs arrive!


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