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.