A Sense of Place
The Last Roses of Summer
by Tim Steury | © Washington State University
Steve Smith has good news for those of us who like to satisfy more than one sense at a time. The domestic rose, bred too long for form and color only, to the detriment of scent, is regaining its fragrance. Smith '76, the head rose gardener at Manito Park in Spokane, is showing us his charges, which in late September are still in full bloom, and we spend much of our time sniffing.
A visit to Smith's All-American Rose Selection (AARS) display garden gives a portrait of things to come. Each year, Manito and the other 130 such gardens across the country display the new award winners that will be offered for sale to the public the next year.
In the "modern" rose garden, Smith has about 150 varieties. Over the hill are another 100 varieties of older-style roses, the old-fashioned shrub roses, the miniatures, the David Austin or English roses. In all, Smith tends about 1,700 plants.
As diverse as the garden is, Manito's collection represents but a fraction of those in existence. Smith estimates that named roses currently propagated total between 10 and 15 thousand.
Although roses have been hybridized since the dawn of gardening, breeders did not understand the mechanics of hybridization until Gregor Mendel conducted his heredity experiments in the 1860s. Following his revelations, the breeding of new rose varieties exploded. The resulting genetic complexity ioffers much potential. One writer reports that any modern rose crossed with any other modern rose will produce one of 17 million results.
Rose breeders have exploited that genetic abundance to offer the world even more variety of late. Although people tend to think of hybrid teas, says Smith, many recent award winners have been what are called shrub roses. Besides their beauty and more prevalent aroma, another advantage of the shrub roses is their hardiness. Many of the new award winners are resistant to diseases such as powdery mildew and black spot, the thorns of Smith's existence.
He purposely keeps a few nonresistant roses as indicators. When symptoms show up, it's time to spray. One such rose is the beautiful, but vulnerable, Christian Dior. "All you have to do is walk by it and mention powdery mildew," says Smith.
But overall, Spokane is a very good area for roses, he says. Roses love the abundant sunshine, and the low humidity means relatively low disease pressure.
Tending roses is a year-round job. As fall approaches, Smith and his assistant clip spent blooms, leaving the hips, helping the plants to begin redirecting their energy into next year's growth. With the first hard frost, Manito hosts a public cutting. Smith will then prune for winter, opening up the center of the plant, making it easier to hill it up. If time allows, they will strip off the remaining leaves, so disease spores can't overwinter.
Although he notes wryly that there are many ways to garden-he is often advised on his methods by well-meaning visitors-Smith advocates hilling soil from around each plant, mounding it up around its crown, but taking care not to dig too deep and disturb the roots. After the plants are mounded, the park department hauls in loads of pine needles for mulch.
Winter is the time for meetings and seminars, for keeping up on pesticide registration. Then in mid-March, Smith and his assistant start removing the pine needles. Later in the month, they begin pruning. "We prune hard," he says. They cut back all the black canes, pruning down until the center of each cane is green, sometimes down to three or four inches. Then, in mid-April, they gently move the mounded soil away from the rose crowns.
"It does my heart good in spring," he says, "when I see that red new growth."
Even after 10 years as head rose gardener, Smith does not understand boredom. "Every year, I learn something new," he says.
"If you look closely, there's disease here and there. What can I do to improve on that? Sometimes the blooms tend to tip over. What can I do to improve their appearance?"
Immersed as he is in roses, does he have a favorite?
Smith leads us over to one aptly named "Double Delight." The rose's double blooms are creamy white edged with red. Its fragrance is exquisite.
"I like the bicolors," he says. He names a few more favorites. Paradise. Gemini. And Full Sail, which is loaded with luscious white blossoms. But it is clear that Smith's favoritism is not exclusive. Every rose elicits his admiration, even the disease-prone Christian Dior.
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