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For Valentine's romance, a gardener's fancy turns to roses

I have a new Valentine. (Shh — don't tell my old Valentine.)

I met Abraham Darby a year ago, and oh my gosh, total stud. He's been on my mind ever since. Last weekend, I finally broke down and brought him home. I introduced him to my friend and she caved immediately. Now we both have Abraham Darby in our back yards and guess what? It's not a bit awkward.

Abraham is an antique rose, my favorite kind. Antiques are so easy to grow, and the variety of blooms is endless. Some flowers are enormous, poofy things, as big across as a lunch plate. Some, like Abraham, have so many petals, each bloom is like a kaleidoscope; as new layers unfurl, the color, texture and shape of the flower changes.

Once they're established, and yes, that can take months of disciplined watering, they're drought-tolerant. They man up to freezes and, if they're grafted onto fortuniana rootstock — important — nematodes won't take them down.

They also don't need all the spraying for fungus that hybrid teas and other higher-maintenance roses require. Love? I've fallen.

This time of year, I have roses on the brain, and not just because Valentine's Day is around the corner. (By the way, if you're planning to send flowers, I'm no fan of those long-stemmed crimson boxed buds. Boring! Send me a bouquet of super fragrant, double-D Dolly Parton floribunda blooms, or the ruffled lavender lingerie that is Angel Face floribunda. Better yet, give me the whole darned bush.)

Actually, I'm all about roses now because it's rose-tending time. Now is when I whack back my bushes — yes, even if they're sporting all kinds of new growth. It hurts. I know. But, I promise, you'll be so glad you did. For big bushes, cut back to pants-pocket height, says John Hardin of Hardin's Nursery in South Tampa.

It's also the time of year I pour on the love with generous doses of organic soil amendments and fertilizer loaded with essential minor elements, like zinc, copper and magnesium. (Minors are major!)

I've learned to follow John's simple rose care instructions because they work. He, his wife, Karen, and his sister, Amy Stracke, are the proprietors of Tampa's iconic rose nursery, started 51 years ago by John and Amy's parents, Richard and Winona Hardin. If you know roses, you know Hardin's. If you're new to roses, you need to know Hardin's.

Quick backstory: Richard Hardin loved roses. He opened Hardin's Nursery, 6011 S Dale Mabry Highway, because there was nowhere else in the area to buy his favorite plant. Winona was a schoolteacher and spent Saturdays helping at the nursery — while raising six kids.

Richard wasn't out to make a fortune, and he didn't. He wanted to make a living sharing his passion. He and Winona became beloved among gardeners in Tampa and well beyond.

Winona passed away in 2006. John and Amy, who'd grown up helping in the nursery, and Karen, daughter-in-law extraordinaire, stepped up to lend a hand to their aging dad. In 2008, they lost Richard. John, tired and retired, sent an email to customers: "Hardin's Nursery is closing."

He got more than 2,500 replies: "NO!"

So they stayed open. But the nursery is a labor of love, a nonprofit noncharity. John works there full-time. Karen and Amy have 9-to-5 (and more) Monday-through-Friday careers and give Hardin's their Saturdays, the only day the nursery is open. None of them gets paid. They aim to break even — what with taxes, licensing fees, hiring part-time help, etc. Their labor is homage to Richard and Winona and to the devoted customers who come to them from all over Florida.

I'm a sucker for a great story, and the Hardins' story is one. John, Karen, Amy and Schultz, their effervescent border collie, provide a gardener's theme park. Some customers bring lawn chairs so they can relax and study the roses for hours before choosing. Some bring picnic lunches. In the 51 years Hardin's has been open, they've never advertised. And yet we find them.

If you've got roses on the brain but didn't think you could grow your own in Florida, think again. I have a sunny, sandy yard with Knock Outs (a newer, easy-to-grow variety), Belinda's Dream (another fairly new, easy variety), Louis Philippe and Souvenir de la Malmaison (my fave), both antiques. All bloom prolifically year-round.

I buy Hardin's planting mix to give them a good start, and Richard's secret-recipe top dressing, sold only from about February to April, for an annual pick-me-up. I also feed mine granular fertilizer with essential minor elements once a month. Besides dead-heading and pulling off leaves with black spot — "nature's mildew," as John calls it — that's it.

Yes, I spend about $100 every time I visit Hardin's. The roses are all $25 each, but I always buy so many more — which is why I visit just once a year. Heck, if it buys me a studmuffin for the garden, and just about everything I need for a year's worth of roses? Worth it!

Just don't tell the one I married, because I plan to keep him, too. He cooks. Abraham Darby doesn't. I have a big heart. But I've got an appetite, too.

Penny Carnathan can be reached at penlyn1@tampabay.rr.com. Join the local garden chat at www.facebook.com/digginfladirt. Or read more about Florida gardening at Penny's blog, www.digginfladirt.com.

>> fast facts

John Hardin's rose-growing tips

• Buy only roses on fortuniana rootstock. In Florida, it's the only rootstock nematodes won't attack. (Nematodes are soil-dwelling, root-attacking pests that are a problem only in the Southeast. All of Hardin's roses are grown on fortuniana rootstock.)

• Because we're having a mild winter, now is a good time to cut back your roses — even if they look supremely happy. Generally, recommended whack-back time is end of February to mid April. (If you just bought your rose, don't cut it back now.) And this rule doesn't apply to climbers.

• Easiest to most difficult roses: bush roses (antiques); floribunda (bush crossed with hybrid teas, require some spraying); hybrid teas (more spraying); grandiflora; long-stems. For fungicide sprays, look for Banner Max or Honor Guard at your local nursery — most big-box garden centers aren't licensed to sell them.

• Fertilize monthly with a mix that includes boron, manganese, iron and other essential minor elements. Most garden center fertilizers do not include these, but they're essential for roses and great for many flowering plants. Vigoro Rose Plant Food and Osmocote Plus are the only ones I've found at the big-boxes. They cost a bit more.

• Even the easiest, lowest maintenance rose may take up to a year to develop the robust root systems that can withstand a dry spell. Be patient. You may have to water, water, water, but once they're established, some can get along just on rain.

For Valentine's romance, a gardener's fancy turns to roses 02/09/12 [Last modified: Thursday, February 9, 2012 3:30am]

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