Since I grew up in the desert, a lot gardening didn’t happen in our yard beyond the standard cacti and palm trees. My mother, however, being genetically predisposed to being a rose gardener, did have quite the collection of roses in the area surrounding our pool. Most of these were from cuttings scavenged from my grandfather, who was the consummate rose gardener (think the sunken rose garden, found in Los Angeles).
And we had bugs!
My mother was constantly ready to go on the offensive. In an almost frantic struggle to protect her blooms, she marked anything remotely resembling an insect for immediate elimination. Every week she’d don a mask, gloves, and goggles and set out, carrying an arsenal of pesticides, to wage war on the enemies of roses.
Her chemical efforts were successful, too, but — in the course of zapping the bad bugs — she also killed the beneficial insects and drove away the birds she had labored to attract to her garden.
As an adult, and before I’d been able to develop any kind of “garden consciousness”, 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.
The solution for me came in the form of a wizened old German man in Malibu, Otto, who gifted me with his own time-honored and 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.
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 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, garden centers, and area “rosarians” (that is, rose fanciers) can all provide valuable advice about the varieties that should flourish our Rogue Valley area. Some roses will have trouble surviving in extremely hot or cold sections of our region, and a tender bush that’s struggling in an unfavorable environment will be an easy mark for hungry bugs.
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. While there are tons of commercial and chemical/salt based fertilizers on the market, organic compost – among others – is always best. You can even 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.