Things Are Looking Rosy for Show at Huntington Garden

Rules about the care and feeding of roses abound:

Don't let spray from the hose wet the foliage (and, for heaven's sake, don't water with a sprinkler)--you'll get mildew. Prune your bushes down to a few sticks each winter, otherwise, the roots won't be strong. Spray, spray, spray for bugs--the aphids will be the death of your plants. When you do water, do it before noon--no real reason, just do it.

The list could go on and on.

The only problem with these rules is that they aren't necessarily valid, especially considering the forgiving growing conditions found in Southern California.

The Huntington Botanical Gardens' biennial rose show, today and Sunday in San Marino, is a good place to see gorgeous roses that have been cared for in ways rather different from what old wives might recommend.

Lots of Water

To begin with, these roses--many of which are decades old--are watered. Really watered, using big, old-fashioned overhead sprinklers.

"Water is really important for roses," says Clair Martin, curator of roses for the Huntington. "They need it continuously; we just don't ever let them go dry."

Martin suggests flooding your roses until you see runoff, then checking with a screwdriver to see how deeply the watering has soaked in. You want 5 to 6 inches of soil to be wet; if the soil is dry a couple of inches down, water again thoroughly.

In the cool, gray weather typical of May and June, you'll probably only need to water once a week, but every other day might not be often enough when summer's heat hits full force.

To help avoid mildew, water by midday if possible to give the rose bush's leaves a chance to dry before nightfall, Martin says, but there is one big exception to this rule: "If you get home from work at 8 p.m. and you notice that your roses are dry, water them. They're just like people--they want a drink when they're thirsty. No matter what, don't let them stay dry."

Dealing With Mildew

And if you are really worried about mildew, use a product such as Ortho's Funginex before you ever see any of the telltale furry patches on your shrub's leaves, Martin recommends. Once mildew gets a good toehold, it's tough to eradicate, but take heart. Its season typically ends by July 4, as June's fog rolls out for good.

"I don't worry about a little mildew," Martin says. "If it really bothers you, try to pick varieties that aren't as susceptible--and keep your plants healthy by making sure they get enough water and fertilizer."

Martin uses a slow-release fertilizer on the roses at the Huntington twice a year--in March and mid-July--primarily because the size of his garden makes it tough to fertilize more frequently.

"You don't need special food; just follow the directions on any good fertilizer and pick something with reasonably high nitrogen," he says.

As with most flowering plants, dead-heading, or removing spent blossoms, is important for roses.

"We prune as we dead-head to maintain the shape of our bushes," Martin says. "Cut back to the first or second full set of leaflets. The classic rule was to prune back to the first five-leaf set, but some bushes don't have sets of five."

Pruning and Pesticides

Martin says his crew doesn't allow rose hips--the bulging seed pods that swell at the end of the stem after blooms fade--to set, because they diffuse the bush's energy. But because the Huntington wants maximum color from its rose bushes, gardeners wait until the blossoms are completely falling apart before pruning.

Martin is not a big fan of insecticides. He feels that aphids are a fact of life in Southern California; if possible, he gets rid of them by hosing the bushes off with a powerful stream of water. "We spray (with insecticide) only when we have to," he says.

He also advocates a less severe pruning than many gardeners are used to.

"We prune in January or early February and take off less than half of the growth on some of our bushes," he says. He recommends leaving tea roses at 3 feet or more--substantially taller than the more familiar 6- to 8-inch canes.

A thick layer of mulch under your roses helps keep them moist; Martin especially likes a fragrant undergrowth of thyme or a pretty carpet of violets. You also can chip the organic material from your garden and pile it on two or three inches thick.

'Old' Roses Featured

The Huntington's rose show will be open today and Sunday from 1 to 4:30 p.m. The non-judged show will feature a great number of roses from the Huntington's gardens, with an emphasis on pre-1950 "old" roses, which are rapidly regaining popularity. A plant sale from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. both days will offer more than 100 varieties of roses; many have been propagated from the Huntington's collection and are quite unusual.

A video on the care of roses will be run throughout the two-day show, and volunteers will be available to help answer your questions about growing this beautiful plant.

Admission to the Huntington is free, although a $2 donation is suggested. If you're from Los Angeles County, you'll need reservations if you want to attend on Sunday; call this afternoon to make them. No reservations are required for attendance today.

The Huntington is at 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino. For Sunday reservations, call (818) 405-2141. (If anyone in your party is from outside L.A. County, you won't need reservations.)

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