Like most folks, I grew up believing that the only good bug was a squashed bug. The sheer abundance of insects around my childhood Florida home made any attempt at eradication impractical, though, so I spent my young years in an uneasy truce with the world of six- and eight-leggers.
After I'd grown up, moved to Virginia, and planted a good-sized rose garden, however, I resolved to go on the offensive. In an almost frantic struggle to protect my blooms, I marked anything remotely resembling an insect for immediate elimination. Every week I'd don a mask, gloves, and goggles . . . and set out, carrying an arsenal of pesticides, to wage war on the enemies of roses.
My chemical efforts were successful, too, but — in the course of zapping the bad bugs — I also killed the beneficial insects and drove away the birds I'd labored to attract to my garden. It wasn't long before I noticed that our woodpeckers had ceased work on their oak tree condominium and that the fireflies were failing to appear for their twilight show. I'd thought that a pest-free rose garden would be wonderful . . . but I found that I wasn't willing to sacrifice the area's wildlife to have one. So I decided to look for a better way.
Well, I found a solution to my dilemma — after a great deal of research and consultation with fellow gardeners — in the form of a host of time-tested natural remedies and deterrents for insect pests. I've discovered that those of us who grow ornamental flowers can, by employing commonsense planting techniques and a diligent program of garden care, achieve beautiful blooms without resorting to harmful poisons.
Preparing Your Garden
In almost all kinds of gardening, the road to success begins long before the first plant is set out. In the case of roses, a grower who's striving for perfect blooms must first devote some time to developing a rich, healthy rose bed. Properly balanced soil will allow the plants to absorb the amount of air and water they need to resist insect invasions. Soil testing services are available in most areas through the county agricultural extension office, and it makes good sense to have your intended rose bed analyzed in order to correct its soil chemistry before you plant.
Once you're certain the bed is as rich and healthy as you can make it, treat yourself to all the roses the growing space (and your pocketbook) can handle. Temper your decisions, however, with the following bits of knowledge: Light-colored blooms are often tastier to bugs than are those of darker hues and roses that are classified as "disease resistant" are usually reliable choices.
Varieties such as Double Delight, Queen Elizabeth and Peace are insect tolerant and hardy, and are thus good selections for beginners. Rose catalogs (some of which are mentioned in the sidebar accompanying this article), garden centers, and area "rosarians" (that is, rose fanciers) can all provide valuable advice about the varieties that should flourish in your region. Be sure to inquire about climate considerations: Some roses will have trouble surviving in extremely hot or cold sections of the country, and a tender bush that's struggling in an unfavorable environment will be an easy mark for hungry bugs.
Practicing Garden Discipline
Once you've planted your ornamentals according to the directions on their packaging, you'll be ready to begin a routine maintenance regimen to keep the new bushes healthy. I mulch heavily with leaves, straw, pine needles, or bark to discourage weeds and preserve moisture for the roots. Also, check the plants regularly in order to remove any diseased leaves and canes.
It's also a good idea to fertilize the plants monthly during the growing season. You can use a commercial preparation, or you can concoct your own combination of supplements. I simply mix up some fish emulsion in water and feed it to my roses once a month, according to the directions on the label. I also combine bone meal and dried cow manure (about a third of a one-pound coffee can of each per rose bush) and scratch the mix into the soil.
In addition, be sure to provide the equivalent of one inch of water per week . . . and try to finish your watering early in the day, allowing the leaves time to dry by nightfall.
Although these chores probably sound a tad tiresome, they'll go quickly enough if you keep reminding yourself that a well-nourished and watered rose bush is its own best protection from pests and disease. Then, for extra assistance, you can encourage the presence of birds, toads, and other bug enemies by providing appropriate food and shelter near the rose garden. I've found that a population of birds can polish off hundreds of Japanese beetles, ants, and leaf hoppers each day while toads will handle such ground-level menaces as slugs and caterpillars. Spiders, lizards and ducks can also prove to be valuable garden allies.
Enlist the "good bugs" in your defense plans, too. Whenever you tour your growing area, watch for — and do not disturb — such friendly inhabitants as the praying mantis, ladybug, and dragonfly (many gardeners enlarge their populations of these beneficial insects by purchasing mantis egg cases or cartons of ladybugs to set loose in their plots). And, of course, you can help your pest-policing buddies by handpicking any bothersome insects whenever concentrations are on the rise.
Two old-fashioned — but still very effective — weapons for combating rose pests are companion plantings and nontoxic sprays. It seems that most insects despise the scent of members of the onion family and of some other pungent herbs . . . and I've successfully headed off trouble by scattering garlic, chives, oregano and tansy plants throughout my garden. Marigolds (be sure to get the Tagetes minuta or Calendula officinalis species rather than one of the new no-scent hybrids) can provide attractive borders while keeping the destructive nematode (a microscopic root-attacking worm) at bay. Tomatoes, petunias, lavender and chrysanthemums can also serve as effective pest repellents in the rose garden.
You can concoct a homegrown insect deterrent by mixing ground onions, garlic, and hot peppers — in just about any proportion you have on hand — in a gallon of water. Let the smelly solution steep overnight . . . strain the liquid . . . and spray the brew over your rosebushes. And forceful streams of just plain water will help to break up invasions of spider mites. For serious insect infestations, however, you may need to apply a product whose sole active ingredient is natural pyrethrum (an insecticide made from the dried flowers of Chrysanthemum cinerariaefolium).
Of course, both scientists and flower hobbyists are continuously working to make the rose problems of the future less thorny. For example, the recently developed milky spore disease shows great promise in combating damaging Japanese beetles. And, as of this writing, researchers have successfully begun to isolate specific fatty acids (such as those contained in soap) that are toxic to harmful insects but have little or no effect on beneficial ladybugs and bees.
One such product is Safer Agro-Chem Insecticidal Soap, which is said to be effective against spider mites, aphids, white flies, mealybugs, soft scale, and other pests. This soap is now available at many large department stores and gardening centers. (EDITOR'S NOTE: MOTHER has not tested this product, and-although reports do seem promising-we advise that it be used with the same care that you'd employ when applying any other organic or artificial insecticide.)
Scientists are also investigating groups of fatty acids that may be effective against root rot and fungi.
A Healthy Rose Garden
At this point many would-be rosarians may well be wondering whether a flower garden can be worth the time and effort that must be spent in its upkeep. Well, let me assure you that there is always a potential crisis or tragedy lurking in the rose garden! Rose fanciers who persevere rather than throw up their hands in despair, however, find the struggle to produce beautiful blooms both exciting and challenging.
And if you exercise care in bed preparation, in choosing your varieties, in tending your garden, and in employing safe and natural insect deterrents . . . the magnificent "Queen of Flowers" will reward you beyond your imagining.
Understanding Common Ailments of Rose Species
The genus Rosa includes more than 200 individual species and so many hybrids that the mind boggles. Some ancient varieties, such as Gallicas and Damasks (examples of which perfumed the garden of the Empress Josephine), are still available today, as are descendants of the "modern" hybrid tea rose introduced in 1867. But although many rosarians do enjoy finding and cultivating the flowers of yesteryear, most contemporary growers choose from the six major classes that dominate present commerce. And an understanding of these categories will help you select the proper plants for your landscaping needs.
Hybrid tea. This is the classic rose . . . producing single blooms on long stems (although, on some occasions, hybrid teas may cluster or produce "candelabras"). Bush height ranges from 1 to 6 feet. Almost every conceivable color is available and most of the blooms are fragrant.
Floribunda. As its name implies, the floribunda rose flowers freely and heavily. Unlike the hybrid tea, most floribundas produce blooms in clusters, on compact 2- to 4-foot plants. This class is excellent for use in borders and mass plantings.
Grandiflora. These roses are per-feet selections for use as tall hedges and backgrounds. The blooms are similar to those of the hybrid tea, but they generally occur in sprays of five to seven flowers. Some grandifloras reach heights of 8 to 10 feet.
Shrub roses. Though shrubs lack the bloom form and colors of their more elegant cousins, they are tough and disease resistant, and a well-placed shrub rose can perk up any landscape.
Climbers. In spite of their name, climbers (also called ramblers) can't climb by themselves. They must be trained by being tied to a strong support to assume the desired shape. The bloom form and production vary on these 6- to 2O-foot bushes: Some plants flower only once a year, while others blossom all season.
Miniatures. These Lilliputian delights are simply scaled-down versions of their larger relatives. Colors and varieties abound to suit most tastes (there are even climbing miniatures), and the midget bushes usually grow to only 12 inches in height. In spite of their fragile appearance, however, the minis are tough and hardy . . . and make fine borders, ground covers, and hanging baskets. Miniatures will even thrive on sunny windowsills during the winter months.