Bloom’s Off the Roses at First Blush

By all barometers of public interest--increased sales, enlarged society memberships and larger shows--a rose is a rose is a rose quietly blooming as Southern California’s favorite weekend pastime.

“My educated guess is that our rose sales are up 30% over last year,” noted Tim Thurston, manager of Armstrong Garden Centers in Sherman Oaks. “Last weekend was a fever that became a free-for-all. We sold out of Amber Queen, Touch of Class and Iceberg. We’re getting low on Voodoo. Queen Elizabeth has gone.”

Last weekend, volunteers from the Pasadena Rose Society (“membership has doubled since September, from 80 to 200,” membership chairman Francie Cowley said) took their clippers to the Rose Bowl and pruned the arena’s 3,500 bushes.

Today, the demonstration scene swings to the Sepulveda Garden Center where rosarian Janet Snyder presents her snips and tips for pruning and planting.


Why the budding? There’s a gentleness abroad, the experts agree, that has embraced rose growing as it has accepted winemaking and woks as antidotes for career frenetics.

Further, said Vic Crowley, president of the Pasadena Rose Society and husband of Francie, there seems to be an influx of new fanciers stemming from a long overdue dilution of the mystique and intimidation of the hobby.

Societies are getting younger, he said, and are no longer bastions of octogenarians in Panama hats. More people are growing for pleasure before display, Crowley added, happy in the realization that “roses are easy to grow badly.”

True. As a 40-bush grower, I’ve had roses survive a rampaging dog, floods, wrong exposure, nicked taproots and the sizzling of an electrified fence raised to contain the aforementioned rampaging dog. I once revived a pink hybrid tea (now nicknamed Barrymore) five days after it had been dug up and tossed into a dumpster as part of a Hollywood Boulevard demolition.


A rose requires no more watering than a geranium and no heftier cleanup than an azalea. And may aphids enter the ears of purists who preach that the only way to cultivate perfect roses is by measured (to the nearest grain) and regular portions (to the minute) of exotic foods by Bandini, Ortho or Kelloggs.

About four years ago I went against complex chemical feeding in favor of my mother’s rule of green thumb. She had no time for commercial fertilizers. She simply mulched her roses with a compost of potato peelings, tea leaves, egg shells and whatever kitchen leftovers the cat refused. Plus, her secret weapon.

My experiment passed on the compost (there’s something pretty icky about breaking open dead tea bags, and cat George eats everything else) and went straight for the secret weapon.

It wasn’t an easy search. Most natural supplies, certainly on the wholesale level, are being diverted for commercial purposes. But finally, in Burbank, I found what I was looking for.

I piled it around the base of one bush, Pristine, a new and somewhat struggling rose.

That year, Pristine grew blooms that would have won the Chelsea Flower Show. Petals of rich cream kissed by a pink blush. Tight blooms on the longest of stems. Leaves of Burmese jade.

Pristine remains the champion of my yard. Aphids may crawl on Cara Mia, mildew might dust First Prize, but Pristine remains impervious to disease. Snails do not nibble her nor rust defile her and she owes it all to my mother’s old-fashioned secret sauce: horse manure.

That, you may sniff, is an old widow’s tale at best.


Or my Pristine must be a horticultural freak, an accident of grafting that produced one disease-resistant tough guy among a million store-bought wimps.

So I asked the Cowleys. Are we talking fact here? Or horse feathers? What have they used?

“Cougar poop from the Wildlife Way-station in Little Tujunga,” Francie Cowley said. “And cricket guano from Texas.” Cricket guano? “Sure . . . ideal for miniature roses.”

Janet Snyder on rose pruning and planting, Sepulveda Garden Center, 16633 Magnolia Blvd., Encino. Today, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. (818) 784-5180.