Organic Rose Gardening
Bucking Conventional Wisdom and Doing the Impossible
A lot of folks have expressed an interest in converting their garden over to a more organic approach to user fewer pesticides or other chemicals. I’ve been doing this for some time now and have learned a few lessons--the hard and very expensive way--so I thought it might be worthwhile to share.
My main focus here is on roses, but most of the hints are also useful to all kinds of gardens, including vegetable gardens.
Why grow roses organically? There are a lot of reasons. My own included the following:
- Our well, which supplies the water we drink, is right dead center in the garden. I don’t particularly want to drink the stuff folks spray on roses.
- We are an official National Wildlife Federation Habitat which means we provide food, water and shelter for birds and small animals. I don’t want to endanger the wildlife nesting in our roses by spraying them right in the middle of breeding and nesting season (spring/early summer).
- I travel for work so I’m frequently gone for a week at a time and don’t have a lot of time to spend spraying.
- Our dogs have been known to eat our roses. In the fall, they eat the hips they can reach. I’d rather not poison them, if I can help it.
- We occasionally eat the roses and hips. Rose hip jelly tastes a lot like apple jelly and is a good source of vitamin C. I also like sugared rose petals on yellow cake, or rose petals sprinkled in a salad made of fresh spinach leaves, mandarin oranges, toasted almonds, spring onions and a red wine vinaigrette dressing. Mmmmm, tasty.
So now that you know a few excuses (other than I’m lazy and don’t feel like spraying) let’s discuss how to actually accomplish this and still have a fairly nice garden. This is possible, despite black spot and our hot, humid summers in the south-eastern-most tip of North Carolina, but it does take a little compromise.
Step 1: Buy Liz Druitt’s book, The Organic Rose Garden. It is written for southern gardeners and is one of the best resources I’ve found on organic rose gardening. It is a superb little book.
Step 2: Your roses will need a really good home if they are to survive organically. This means lots of water, a decent bed rich with organics, plenty of mulch, at least six hours of sunshine a day, and no root competition.
The number one reason why organic rose gardens fail is that the roses are simply not given a good home. They are struggling in the shade of some huge tree, competing for water and food, and don’t get enough sun. If you correct this situation, a lot of roses (and other sun loving plants like veggies) can be grown organically and will shrug off black spot as if it is nothing.
Step 3: Don’t plan on growing a lot of Hybrid Teas. You are lucky to be living today when we have David Austin’s beautiful English (shrub) roses which are remontant (reblooming) and can easily take the place of the Hybrid Tea roses. There are also the Old Garden Roses, some of which cannot be sprayed or they will not do well.
There is a list of roses at the end of this article which I have successfully grown organically in this area.
Now for the nitty-gritty...
Going organic doesn’t necessarily mean not spraying at all. If you have roses that suffer black spot, you can reduce it using organic methods.
Organic methods will not provide a cure for black spot, so get over the idea.
What you can do is try to prevent it, or reduce it.
Here are the basic steps to take to reduce black spot.
- Remove all leaf litter from the roses in the winter (this should include infected leaves which dropped last summer.)
- Spray with a dormant oil. Yes. This is considered “legal” if you are doing organic gardening.
- Provide a thick layer of mulch.
- During the growing season, pluck badly infected leaves off the roses to remove the source(s) of infection.
- Provide enough water. Water, water, water. Make sure the water is on the ground, not on the rose’s leaves if you water in the evening.
- Spray with a mixture of 1Tbsp Baking Soda per gallon of water, plus horticultural oil. In the summer, you can spray with just the 1Tbsp Baking Soda per gallon of water, but do it in the morning. This mixture will kill new spores, which will help prevent infection, but won’t kill existing infection.
- Keep the bed heavily mulched. We use pine straw. Anything, including grass clipping, will work. Just note that if you add grass clipping, you will need to add a source of nitrogen because decomposition will temporarily rob your roses of nitrogen while the clippings decay.
· Dig a hole twice as wide and twice as deep as the container of the plant you are planting. For most roses, dig a hole 36 inches wide and 20 inches deep.
· Mix the dirt as follows
This “recipe” is built around our soil which is gray clay, acidic, and lacks almost all nutrients. We basically have to build the soil. I prefer to create the bed with this stuff in December/January, let it sit for a month or two, and then plant roses in it during February.
o 1/3 - 1/2 of the top dirt dug from the hole (move the bottom-most dirt aside)
o Several cups of Gypsum
o 1-2 cups of Lime (I need this, you may not, depending upon the acidity of your soil)
o 1/2 cup Epson Salts
o 3-4 cups of Cotton Seed Meal (Alfalfa Meal is better, but occasionally hard to get)
o 1 bag of soil amendment (looks like finely shredded bark)
o 1 bag of mushroom compost
o 2 cups sharp sandYou can add any other soil conditioners you need. Ones I like to include occasionally are: Kelp Meal, Bone Meal, Blood Meal, etc. If you have a source for horse manure, marry them or at least get heavily involved so that you can get a constant supply. If all else fails, pay the guy to deliver in the fall and spring. Or start raising dwarf horses.
Now that you are ready...
Once you have prepared your beds for your roses and are ready to take the plunge, you will need to purchase some roses, or at least acquire some which stand a good chance of survival.
Personally, I prefer own-root roses, so I buy almost exclusively from two sources: Roses Unlimited and Chamblee’s. Chamblee’s in particular is my first choice since they are about half the price of everyone else.
I’ve never had a rose from either of these sources die on me. They are sent in large pots and the roses are always in good shape.
Here are varieties I have had very good success with and seem to have very little problem with disease. I have focuses mostly on remontant varieties, rather than listing the once blooming Old Garden Roses.
Souvenir de la Malmaison
This rose stays short-3’ tall, never needs to be trimmed, blooms constantly, and has exquisite blooms in pale pink. Very fragrant. It is particularly disease-resistant.
This is a HUGE rose, so be warned. It is a good climber. It will take over any support unless you keep it trimmed back. Beautiful pale, buffy yellow flowers. Blooms constantly. Very disease-resistant.
Marie Van Houtte
Very large shrub (6’x6’) with beautiful creamy white flowers that age to pink. Blooms constantly. Very disease-resistant.
Duchesse de Brabant
This rose stays fairly compact-4’ tall, never needs to be trimmed, blooms constantly, and has exquisite blooms in medium pink. The flowers are shaped rather like a tulip. Very disease resistant. This was one of Teddy Roosevelt’s favorite roses and he often wore one on his lapel.
Small, tidy bush. Stays about 3’ tall and never needs to be trimmed. Gorgeous deep magenta flowers. Blooms constantly. This is a wonderful rose paired with Souvenir de la Malmaison.
Coral blend, loosely double flowers. Blooms constantly. The form stays short, but it “weeps”. If you have the room for it to sprawl, it is lovely left as a loose fountain shape. Otherwise, you can trim back the flexible shoots.
This rose stays short-3’ tall, never needs to be trimmed, blooms constantly, and has exquisite blooms in pale pink. Very fragrant. It is very similar to Souvenir de la Malmaison, except the flowers are smaller.
Small, tidy bush. Stays about 3’ tall and never needs to be trimmed. Gorgeous magenta-red flowers. Blooms constantly.
Pale pink globular flowers. Blooms constantly. The form stays medium height, but it “weeps”. If you have the room for it to sprawl, it is lovely left as a loose fountain shape. Otherwise, you can trim back the flexible shoots.
Single blooms in fire-engine red with a white center. Glossy green leaves. Large clusters of blooms. Blooms continuously. Extremely disease-resistant.
And of course, the Gallica as well as many others of the Old Garden Rose classes do not require spraying and are resistant to black spot. My favorite Gallica is currently sold as ‘
’ and looks exactly
like a crumpled piece of deep magenta-purple velvet. Sissinghurst
Good luck and I hope you have success with your rose garden in the coming year.
And of course, I have to mention that in my Regency mystery, A Rose Before Dying, Ariadne grows all her roses organically.