Let Roses Provide the Romance This Valentines Day – by Tom Spencer / Soul of the Garden

Few plants evoke the romance of the garden as much as the rose. The image of a rose blossom is, for many, the perfect symbol of sensual delight, a Valentine's Day prize worth seeking at any price. However, for many Central Texans, the rose also stands as an emblem of gardening disaster, an unattainable ideal marred by plagues of aphids, spider mites, powdery mildew, and black spot. For others, the price of romance comes too high, after all, what is the value of a blossom laden with toxic pesticides and fungicides?

Fortunately, a new wave of organic rose growers is showing us the way to harvest bouquets of these precious blooms without having to condemn our backyards to chemical warfare. The key comes in selecting the right plants, making sure that they are planted correctly, and providing a little gentle intervention when problems arise.

Choosing the right rose is not an easy task, there are so many tempting options.
I have found that impulse buying usually results in disappointment, so be sure to do a little research before hand, or you will end up being dazzled by the descriptions provided by the nurseries and catalogs. Also, ask yourself exactly what you are hoping for from your plant. Do you want the picture perfect blossoms of a hybrid tea rose, just like what you would expect from a florist? Or, would you be happy with a smaller flower that may provide more fragrance?

Hybrid tea roses have suffered over ten years of bad publicity, scorned as disease prone garden wards. However, I have found that there are many vigorous hybrid tea cultivars to choose from. In fact, of all the roses I have ever grown, the most disease resistant plant I have ever encountered is a red hybrid tea called "Olympiad." A friend gave me this plant back in the mid-eighties, and it is still producing blooms year after year. It lacks the fragrance that I treasure from other roses, but you quickly discover that, with these plants, each has strengths and weaknesses. Other hybrid teas to consider are the renowned pink and yellow "Peace", the deep red "Mister Lincoln", and "Tropicana" for those who prefer orange tones. The Austin Rose Society, which sponsors a rose pruning demonstration in the Zilker Botanical Gardens every February, is the best source for tips on other proven hybrid teas for our area.

If hybrid teas have been getting a bum rap, the old fashioned roses have enjoyed ten years of breathless hype. They are touted as being nearly bullet proof, requiring little if any care. My reaction to that is to say, "buyers beware!"
Sure, there are many incredibly tough and rewarding old fashioned roses, the true old homestead and cemetery survivors of lore. However, in my experience, I have found that many old fashioned roses are just as susceptible to black spot and aphids as the hybrid teas. Again, a little research can save you lots of time and money. The toughest ones I have encountered are the happy go-lucky "Martha Gonzales," the petite and sweetly fragrant "Marie Pavie," the irrepressible "Mutabalis" (also known as the butterfly rose,) and "Cecile Brunner," which sports small pink blooms.

After choosing the type of rose that most appeals to you, the most important consideration is the condition of the plant itself. You can often tell if a plant will be a vigorous producer, or if it's on the fast track to the compost heap, just by looking at it. Are the canes thick and green, the foliage untainted? Has it been cared for and properly pruned, or has it been crowded into a shady nursery bed? Never select a plant that is already in evident need of rescue.

The biggest mistake that folks make when it comes to roses is planting them in a place where the soil hasn't been adequately prepared and there isn't enough sun. Even though roses love water they need excellent drainage, they cannot remain water logged. So, don't plunk yours down in Central Texas clay and expect it to thrive. Work in some organic matter, such as manure compost and bone meal, and add granite sand for additional drainage. Raised bends with specially blended rose soils are the ideal. Also, make sure that your roses will get at least six hours of full sunlight.

You can control most pests and diseases with three non-toxic substances: baking soda, soap, and BT (a.k.a. bacillus thuringiensis or "bio-worm killer.") To control black spot and powdery mildew, use a mix of four heaping teaspoons of baking soda in a gallon of water with just a drop or two of liquid soap. When applied with a pump sprayer, this gives effective control. For aphids and spider mites simply use about four to five tablespoons of liquid soap per gallon of water and spray the critters down. This soapy solution suffocates the insects. Use the BT for the chewing worms and caterpillars of early spring.

All of this may sound daunting, but if you take the plunge with your eyes wide open, your Valentine's Day investment this year will provide romance and roses for years to come.

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