Three kinds of rose growers garden in Florida: those who dedicate their days and lives to growing and exhibiting perfect blooms, those who want the beauty of hassle-free rose blooms in their landscapes and on their dinner tables, and those who've given up.
I'm the middle guy. My goal is to grow roses organically by rejuvenating and feeding the soil and cutting back the overgrown roses in late winter or early spring. Nearly all my roses are "own root" roses, but the organic approach works fine for roses budded onto Fortuniana rootstock.
Roses of all kinds love full sun, rich, moist mulched soil and a good meal. Menhaden Fish Meal (sold at feed stores) sprinkled over the roses will supply important plant nutrients; the fishy smell it leaves behind fades in a week or so.
Many rose folks also give their rose garden a generous sprinkling of dolomitic limestone each spring to make sure the soil doesn't get too acid, plus 1-2 cups of Epsom salts around the root zone of each bush to encourage plump new "basal" shoots for denser growth. (Coastal soils are often alkaline, so get your soil tested if you live near the beach.)
Other folks swear by the simplicity of Mills Magic Rose Mix because of its nutrition and all-organic composition (for information, call toll-free 1-800-845-2325). Florida soil is low in potassium, so I give each rose a generous handful of a natural mineral supplement sold at feed stores called DynaMate. It is loaded with potassium and provides magnesium and sulfur.
We've all been told that rose pruning is a painstaking chore that can take an entire weekend and that each cut must be at a precise angle. 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 pruning with electric or ordinary pruning shears works just fine.
Don't be nervous. Well-fed roses are tough shrubs. Chopping them back to about knee height is fine, although the Old Teas and Chinas like to be pruned back by about one third.
Many rose exhibitors find tedious weekly spray regimens of insecticides and fungicides and miticides necessary. But I value the beneficial insects, fungi and critters in my gardens too much to kill them.
Beneficial bacteria and fungi can work together to dramatically control the diseases we associate with roses. But in gardens where spraying takes place, these allies are continually wiped out, leaving the roses open to reinfestation.
For emergencies, aphids, powdery mildew and blackspot can be controlled with an old-fashioned lye soap spray. One that works fine is Kirk's Castile. It has been around for more than 150 years, is free of animal fats and is not tested on animals.
To make a large batch of soap spray concentrate, place the soap in a gallon container and fill it with hot water. Let it sit for a week, make sure all the lumps have dissolved, then let the mixture thicken. One cup of this soap concentrate in your garden sprayer lets you quickly and effectively kill aphids and powdery mildew on new growth and suppress blackspot fungus on older leaves.
This is a nonburning spray, so you can experiment with stronger or weaker solutions. Be sure to spray each bush until it is dripping and do it at a time when you won't be watering for a few days. Blackspot lives on the undersides of the leaves, so aim the spray there.
I want my gardens of roses and other plants to be sources of respite and renewal, not endless chores and worry. I want to have a place where I can stop for a few moments and count my blessings as I cut a lovely bouquet.
John A. Starnes Jr., born in Key West, is an avid organic gardener and rosarian who studies, collects, cultivates and hybridizes roses for the diverse regions of Florida and Colorado. He can be reached at his new e-mail address: JohnAStarnesaol.com.