Rose people are CRAZY



But then, so are many serious hobbyists. In my early gardening days, I dreamed of having a real rose garden, filled with old-fashioned, blowsy antique varieties—perhaps trained up a stone wall—and providing me with bouquets throughout the summer.

It never happened. I ordered the wrong varieties from the wrong places, and I learned the hard way what it took to keep roses free from disease and insects. The second or third time I caught sight of myself wearing a gas mask, I thought “the hell with this,” and gave up on the whole fungicide/insecticide routine. Such an attitude would be unthinkable if you were one of the competitive rose growers depicted in Otherwise Normal People: Inside the Thorny World of Competitive Rose Gardening, a book by Aurelia C. Scott that I mentioned a few weeks ago (Algonquin, 2007). Scott spends most of the book following the rosarians around as they tend their plants and get ready for the ARS Spring National Show in San Diego. One of them, Clarence Rhodes of Portland, Maine, shakes his head sadly about people who won’t spray their roses, dismissing them as people who will have to grow “floribundas and shrubs and stuff.” In his view, they’d never be able to maintain what he has: 250 hybrid teas, many overwintered in protective structures or in his garage.

Rhodes and most of his fellow obsessives use any means necessary to keep their plants flawless. That includes compost and other organic methods, but it also means a chemical regime that goes something like this: week 1: orthene, copass, funginex, response; week 2: avid , compass, funginex, response; week 3: avid, compass funginex, response; week 4: compass, funginex, response … well, you get the idea. Old school gardeners like Clarence don’t even bother with gloves while applying this stuff, but others go so far as to wear a white hazmat suit as they drag their big spraying systems around the yard. When Rhodes finds an effective product he orders it by the case, “because they’re always finding out that this stuff can be dangerous and then they stop making it.”

To answer a question that came up the first time I brought up this book: only hybrid teas can win the big prizes: the Queen and her royal court. Old garden roses are limited to lesser prizes, so that’s why many competitors don’t bother. It makes sense: if you’re in it, you may as well aim at the pinnacle. (There’s no money, just crystal bowls and plaques.)

I enoyed this book. The competitors are likable and Scott opens a window on a very interesting niche in the gardening world. It inspires me to start checking in on the rosarian forums on Gardenweb (mentioned here as well as a bunch of intriguing-sounding websites), which I used to follow for all the arguments about which chemicals to use and which roses deserved to be “shovel-pruned.” In Otherwise Normal People, underperforming roses are threatened by leaving a sharp-edged shovel lying suggestively on the ground besides them. They swear it works.

If hardcore control-freak gardening freaks you out too much, then this isn’t the book for you. But I found it a fun and interesting read.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. Hybrid teas are only the pinnacle if you don’t care at all what a plant looks like in the garden.

    Nothing, in my humble opinion, is more beautiful in bloom than the old European roses.

  2. Roses :
    A few nice flowers along with a heaping full of black spot, mildew, rust, canker, and so much more hideous maleficent afflictions.
    Why bother when there are so many other horticultural wonders that won’t drive a gardener to chemical warfare ?
    Put your health in second or third place so your flowers can take first place ?
    That is simply retarded.
    It is my only hope that all competitive rose growers have full medical health coverage, because they are going to need it .

  3. Michele, I mean the pinnacle in terms of these competitions, where you’re judging a cut flower. This is really a subculture with rules all its own. For example, a lot of them focus on miniatures, which I don’t get at all.

    I’m betting that because of all the chemicals they use, and the constant tending, their bushes probably look a lot better than the average hybrid tea would in my garden.

  4. I just finished watching cake decorating championships this weekend on the Food Network and kept thinking it could easily be the next mocumentary that Christopher Guest tackles. But you know, maybe he should take a look at competitive rose growers! Catherine O’Hara would look great as she threatened the roses with a shovel…

  5. I hear spraying all that gook and my heart starts beating fast. Maybe its just me, but wearing all that protective equipment to spray a natural thing with synthesized gunk is wrong.

    Though I can see why rose competitors get carried away.

  6. I’m not surprised that Clarence in Maine has to do all that spraying to keep his hybrid teas performing. I understand that a lot of rose hybridization is done here in southern California. I never spray. Rust– yeah, I’ve seen it a couple of times. Black spot– I think I saw it once, but what’s the big deal, a few black spots? Mildew– only in very wet winters… I should be so lucky! My worst rose disease has always been the mosaic virus that too often comes with grafted plants.

    I prefer the landscape roses. It’s got to look right in the garden or it’s no go.

  7. Because I have a collection of hardy roses, rugosas, albas, ‘farmgirls’ etc., a friend gave me this book. While I shudder at all the chemical treatments, it is always fun to see the lengths people go to in pursuing any passion and obsession. We celebrate our roses with our Annual Rose Viewing the last Sunday in June. Their season is short, but so beautiful and fragrant.

  8. I have approx. 150 rose bushes-everything from hybrid teas, chinas, to ramblers. I do it all organic and I can tell you my bushes are not always black spot & rust free, but the blooms still come. Roses are simply amazing plants, more amazing than any other species in my garden. There has been NOTHING more rewarding for me than to care for these plants and be rewarded with the most spectacular blooms of all the flower world. Even with a few leaves of black spot, they win my heart in the vase. It just adds character- and makes you respect it all the more. It seems to be saying ‘ha! you see what I can do even with my diseases?’

  9. I have 30 antique and species roses (I like to make rose hip jam). I don’t spray at all and I have the most beautiful flowers in late May/early June and wonderful hips in the fall. I’ve also made “wet” potpouri to keep the scent with me all year round.

    I adore my roses and if I had more space, I’d have even more Gallicas.

  10. I agree with Michelle,I have some old roses,nothing hybridized or fussy,use no chemicals on them and ignore the few afflictions that do befall them.I do amend soil with mulch and manure tea.I do feed them with bananapeels and even the occasional leftover cold coffe (they like the acid)other than that they are on their own and thriving for years now.Chemical regimes that are a pre requisite to grow certain plants simply means those plants are not for me.

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