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Roses Won't Grow in Florida!

Hey, everybody knows that! Trying to grow roses in Florida is like hitting your thumb with a hammer...it feels so good when you stop. We've tried them "bare root" mail order or bought them in pots at garden shops on various root stocks, we've nuked them with every spray and powder imaginable, tried elaborate pruning methods and still ended up with tragic looking sickly sticks. How dare we think we'd end up with beautiful bouquets?!

But there is a whole other approach, one that 19th century Floridians relied on long before all those pesticides and root stocks were conjured up. Back then countless gardens overflowed with the grace and fragrant beauty of "own root" (vs. grafted) roses belonging to three classes of subtropical varieties called Chinas, Noisettes and Teas (nope, not modern Hybrid Teas). And since 1989 I have been creating low care gardens for my Florida clients using this time-tested non-toxic approach. And here in Tampa nearly all my 150 or so roses are "own root" roses but the organic approach works fine for roses budded onto the Fortuniana rootstock if you already have some. But do invite these three classes of lovely heirlooms into your garden this year and every year. Life is too short and I am way too busy to dedicate my days and life to growing utterly perfect roses to win blue ribbons with....I just want a garden full of blooms and bouquets for my dinner table. You too?

Roses of all kinds love full sun, rich moist mulched soil and like you and me a good meal. 'Menhaden Fish Meal' from a feed store sprinkled all over the rose garden as heavily as you'd put parmesan cheese on spaghetti if you were very fond of parmesan supplies all known plant nutrients. Don't worry; the fishy smell fades in a week or so. Many rose folks also give their rose garden a generous sprinkling of dolomitic limestone each spring to insure the soil doesn't get too acid, (coastal soils are often alkaline so get your soil tested if you live by the beach as cottonseed meal from a feed store is a great natural acidifier) plus toss 1-2 cups of Epsom salts around the root zone of each bush to encourage plump red new "basal" shoots to form for denser growth.

Other folks swear by the simplicity of using "Mills Magic Rose Mix" due to its complete nutrition and all-organic nature...don't look for it in nurseries....call 1-800-845-2325. Florida soil is very low in potassium so I also give each rose a generous handful of a cheap natural mineral supplement sold as livestock feed at feed stores called "DynaMate". Loaded with potassium it also provides magnesium and sulfur and thus lets me skip the Epsom salts I used for many years. DynaMate adds those minerals whether one uses fish meal or the "Mills Magic Rose Mix".

We've all been told that rose pruning is an exacting painstaking chore that will consume a whole weekend, the each cut must be at a precise angle, that we must hold our mouth just so, but I have 150 roses and NO time or inclination to turn pruning into a discipline akin to training a bonsai tree! Studies in England confirm that a quick "whacking" of rose bushes with electric shears or ordinary pruning shears works just fine. Don't be nervous....well fed roses are tough shrubs so do your spring pruning after a hard day at work and fighting traffic... put that rage to work in the rose garden! Chopping them back to about knee height is fine, though the Old Teas and Chinas like to be pruned back by about one third. Toss the branches into the compost to decay and wait for that lovely red new growth to appear in a few weeks on each now-happy bush. Ideally one does this pruning in March or so but sometimes I get lazy and finish up in May.

I value the great many beneficial insects and fungi and other critters in my gardens too much to kill them off with pesticides and make my rose petals so toxic I would never dream of brewing herb tea from them. Once a balanced ecosystem is established in my own gardens and my clients' gardens we have only an occasional cosmetic issue of powdery mildew in winter and blackspot in summer. A strong blast of water from a garden nozzle will blow off any aphids, with ladybugs and lacewings and birds eating many of the rest. That same daily water spray does wonders to discourage powdery mildew. And many rosarians are noticing that in a healthy organic rose garden "blackspot" attacks mainly older "senescent" leaves the rose bush was close to shedding anyway. Plus who has the time for weekly spray regimens requiring we wear breathing masks and gloves...pretty scary to this old hippie gardener!

For emergencies, aphids and powdery mildew and blackspot can be easily controlled with an old fashioned lye soap spray. For 25 years I've used and advocated 'Octagon All Purpose Soap", but Colgate recently moved production to Mexico where the recipe changed radically. This icon of southern culture long used to fight garden pests and poison ivy and cussing children and collar stains is thus brand new and unrecognizable and so I no longer use it. But other lye soaps work fine too. "Kirk's Castile" has been around for over 150 years, is free of animal fats and not tested on animals and is also very effective as a garden spray. To make a large batch of soap spray concentrate just set the bar in a wide mouth gallon container and fill it with hot tap water. Let it sit for a week, run it through your blender to dissolve any lumps, then pour the thick soapy gunk back into that one gallon container for storage where it will thicken. One cup of this soap concentrate dissolved in 1 gallon of warm water in your garden sprayer will let you quickly and effectively kill aphids and powdery mildew on new growth, and suppress black spot fungus on older leaves once the weather gets all hot and humid again. It is a non-burning spray so feel free to experiment with stronger or weaker solutions. Just be sure to spray each bush till it is dripping and when you won't be watering for a few days. Blackspot lives on the undersides of the leaves so aim the spray up at them. But I rarely resort to even soap spray my garden is so teeming with beneficials.

Curl up with a good book like Peter Beales' 'Classic Roses', or the 'ReferenceGuide' sold by The Antique Emporium for $10 and get lost in the lovely photos filling the chapters about those grand old lovely yet tough Teas and Noisettes and Chinas that love Florida, not tolerate it. My favorites? Oh my...let's see...

all come to mind. Grow these and your landscape will be an inviting avalanche of fragrant climbers and shrubs heralding the very best of gardening in Florida.

So put away that hammer, and pick up the phone and your shovel!

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