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Greenmantle Nursery
3010 Ettersburg Road
Garberville CA 95542
(707) 986-7504

(How) Can a gardener grow roses organically ? This is an engaging multiple-choice question. There really isn't a single solution, only a range of strategies - based on the principle "First, do no harm..." The truest defense against the ills which can assail the Rose is radiant health, and the best 'cure' is the horticultural practice which creates this happy state.

"Though there are principles ( in gardening ), there are no rules."

- Yuan Ye (Garden Tempering) 3 Vol. Treatise by Ji Cheng, 1634 (Ming Dynasty)

Naturally, the organic garden is affected by a sweep of variables. Flexibility is a primary tenet - so it's not very meaningful to attempt rigid prescriptions. Each garden and its conditions will determine the tactics; your own observation and experience must shape all the gardening decisions. There is always experiment involved, and some seasons are kinder and better than others. Hand labor and personal attention to your roses are necessary, and necessarily demanding.

If you don't wish to spend the time (or more likely, don't have much time) consider scaling your garden to precisely what is most desired, to just what can be lavished with care. A handful of roses cultivated to organic perfection will radiate happiness, and give contentment. Cultivate light-heartedness........


Organic horticulture is not merely a philosophy of shunning various nefarious substances. It is more a matter of what is actively sought: vibrant well-being expressed through the matrix of the garden. Unless the individual plants are thriving in a balanced way, they can fall prey to a wide range of pests and disease organisms. Nutrition is key: a vast natural cornucopia can feed your garden. And it is important to think in terms of feeding your garden SOIL - cultivating its lifeforce - so it will be able to support the life cycle of your roses.

"I suppose the pleasure of country life lies really in the eternally renewing evidence of the determination to live - if you have a taste for such things, no amount of repetition can stale them....."

- Vita Sackville-West ( 1892 - 1962)

Utilize the pantry of natural organic fertilizers - manures and compost, fish emulsion, seabird and bat guano products, blood meal, rock powders for minerals, and seaweed preparations such as Maxi-crop to supply essential trace elements. Liquefied seaweed is especially beneficial when applied as a foliar spray, being readily absorbed by leaves. However, it is essential not to force-feed or hype your plants. Too much nitrogen can produce rapid, but disease-susceptible growth; this can be especially dicey toward Autumn. MULCH with organic materials, which will slowly and steadily enrich your soil's structure. Think in terms of encouraging healthy biological systems - rather than just relying on 'systemics'.

The good turn of the earthworm.... Drawing by
Jean-Baptiste-Michel Papillon, 1750's

As the fundamental ingredient of life - water gives our planet its blue color and green mantle. Living creatures have an undeniable thirst - and Rosa is no exception. Though mature bushes of certain rose classes can survive with minimal moisture, superlative blossoms will definitely require timely watering. All but the most gigantic rose specimens appreciate occasional deep soakings. Water is most beneficial applied to the ground - and not onto the plant. If you feel an uncontrollable urge to refresh your roses by a quick rinse, feel it in the morning - damp leaves overnight can cause a fungi field day. Garden soil must be both moisture-retentive and well-drained: Humus is the only solution to this paradox. Good roses spring from good tilth.

* * * * * * * * * *

In Horticulture, as in so much else , three things are important:
location, location, location.


The first consideration is typically not negotiable. Once committed to gardening in a particular area, one must deal with the climate pattern - and all the "record-breaking" aberrations which seem to occur annually. Humid weather, rain, and fog can make rose diseases far more troublesome. Pushing the envelope on rose hardiness is always tricky, and entails a lot of extra work. If you are gardening in a difficult climate (and they all are in their own way) - a basic need to "come to terms" must be balanced against the thrill of daring gestures. When shaping garden dreams, play to your strengths....

Dream Girl

Here in Ettersburg we usually luxuriate in a long warm DRY season. This simple fact makes it much easier to control black spot, rust, and mildew. The downside is obsession with watering. Granted the essential ability to irrigate - and fairly moderate winters - even tender or delicate roses become a delightful option. In direct coastal areas of California , frequent fog will definitely complicate the equation: Rugosa roses are a splendid healthy type which can make themselves at home near the beach - their bold vigor is an extremely appealing trait.

" The Norwegians have a pretty and significant word
"Opelske" - which they use in speaking of the care of flowers.
It means literally "loving up" or cherishing them
into health and vigor."

An Island Garden - Celia Thaxter (1836- 1894)

Rosa rugosa, from Flora Japonica 1835

Inland, the intensity of California's blazing sunlight and parched air may literally crisp rose blooms - no matter the extravagant amounts of water being lavished on their roots. A little passing shade during the afternoon can often be a boon during the height of summer's heat. The accelerating build-up of trapped heat in the earth's atmosphere gives new meaning to the cliché "Full Sun". Keep in mind that your roses aren't wearing sunblock and they ARE stuck out there. See that their feet are kept cool and wet under a nourishing mulch of organic matter. We use leftover alfalfa hay - for its rich nutrient content, relished by roses. (Most gardeners will find alfalfa pellets or cubes to be neater and easier to handle....)


Of course, wherever you may be gardening, plant placement is crucial. In cloudier climes, adequate sunlight and free air circulation become the paramount consideration. Overcrowded, densely planted beds send an invitation to a host of pathogens. This is an absolutely vital consideration in climates that receive moisture -laden air during the summer. Tight spacing can lead to dankness, and dankness promotes disease. Notice the shifting patterns of atmosphere in your garden: figure out the micro-climates - the stagnant spots, the cold pockets , and sun traps. Every effort should be made to provide your roses with a clean, well-lit place in which to unfold leaf and blossom.

Pink Roses - Court of Golconda, India c.1650

Always keep the rose garden as free as possible of damaged or dead wood and debris. Prune repeat-bloomers in winter; prune to shape once-blooming types after they flower.... but assess your roses in every season for moribund canes, shriveled twigs, or funky foliage. In particular, any lower leaves showing marked signs of fungus spores should be instantly removed; encourage fresh new growth by judicious feeding. It is truly important not to let rose fungus get entrenched......


Unfortunately, plant disease is not the only enemy. Insect pests must be kept under control by vigilant hands-on intervention... Disrupt their lifecycle before they digest your roses. Spring Mornings are the moment. Colonies of aphis can be easily dispatched with a strong stream of water from the garden hose. An organically managed garden should be teeming with beneficial insect predators. Take care of your Lady Bugs and Praying Mantids, and they will take care of your roses. Encourage birds to view your garden as a safe haven. Be aware that even 'natural' plant-based insecticides may spoil a garden's ecological balance. Use sparingly, if at all. Instead, make a meditative habit of visiting and grooming your roses. Especially when young, they're depending on you.

" You would think it a pleasant magic if you could flush your flowers into brighter bloom by a kind look upon them: nay, more if your look had the power not only to cheer - but to guard."

- Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962)

Design your rose garden wisely. Research the historical categories and get a sense of their individual characters; there is a wealth of information and opinion to be considered. Understand the rose's immense range of qualities - natural vigor and ease of cultivation do vary dramatically. A gardener's quest for untroubled beauty begins with astute choices regarding which - and how many - roses to grow. Even one rose bush will offer loveliness and fragrance, serving as a lodestar for rejuvenation through the passage of seasons.

"Dawn comes, the wind falls. From yesterday's rain in the shade, a new perfume is born: or is it I who am once again going to discover the world and apply new senses to it?"

Naissance du Jour, Colette (1873-1954)

It is true that the species roses and the oldest rose forms are inherently more durable than their modern successors. Almost all of the old-fashioned types manifest themselves as exuberant natural SHRUBS. While their blooms are spectacular and will grace any home, these old roses excel as ornaments in the landscape. They exhibit a robustness which stems from their origin in wilder and less technological eras: they're all survivors. Most of the real old-timers possess steadfast durability when they are well-sited, -suited, and -settled. Our own garden struggle has shown us just how much stress the classic roses can handle..... Given even modest amounts of time and care, they are absolutely amazing.

Golden Arctic

As far as GARDENING ATTITUDE goes: let's face it - modern society's toxic effluvium is now found in the fat of Polar bears. Yet, a garden is always meant to be a sanctuary. With organic cultivation, your rose petals and rose hips will be edible - and usable for potpourri, scented waters, perfumed oils, delicious jams and healing teas. Roses are the companion plant par excellence, so let them accompany you purely....


 Once upon a time, all roses flourished and flaunted their charms by the grace of nothing more noxious than natural manure.


Fruit Collection
- Rose Collection

All original text and images © Greenmantle Nursery 2005 -2012