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Breaking the Barrier to Organic Rose Growing
by Jack Shoultz

Originally published in the newsletter of the Los Angeles County Rose Society, The Rose Parade, in October 2007.

Organic Gardening has become a movement that is rapidly picking up steam. It used to be the only place to get products that are actually organic were independent nurseries. Now, you can find even large chain stores are bringing in organic products. But I still support those who were first in line to not only make the change to organics, but to promote it. They are better able to order what you want. When these few made the initial move to promote and carry organic products, it was a real commitment with a lot of uncertainty.

monarch butterfly
Monarch butterfly

But, uncertainty also was with those who have grown roses for several years and decide to make the change to an all natural yard and garden. When I made the decision to make the move to organics, I had very little information on where to start. To find what and where to get ingredients to make my own mixes to feed my roses I found some feed stores that sold large quantities of organic products such as alfalfa, blood meal, and cottonseed meal. For pests and fungal controls I found formulas such as the baking soda for fungus and water blasting for pests. Since that time, I have used many variations of teas and formulas, including horticultural oil. (I wrote an article over 10 years ago about why I shifted to organic rose care called Kicking The Chemicals). Moving on to make the change requires a modicum of perseverance as you will encounter some problems that will take determination and perhaps some will power to push through. The process of moving to the organic approach from chemicals will take a toil on your patience as it is not something that happens overnight. The time for the soil to get back in balance depends on what has been used as a fertilizer and how long. So many fertilizers have salts and acids in them and they really affect the quality of biological activity in your soil. Over the years, after many different trials, I believe the bottom line to good rose growing is in the soil. If you approach your garden with that idea, then your results will increase with the intensity you pursue it. As an example, say that you had an area that was not very workable and you decided to start with this area. To accelerate the process, you could find a product that has yucca as an ingredient. Sapponin, the part of yucca that is a natural wetting agent improves soil penetration. (Sapponin has other important attributes that helps your soil). This would make this step a lot easier. There are new products coming out soon that will make this part of the process easier and quicker. If you have the chance to build raised beds then building your soil from the top down can be a great way to jump start the activity in the soil below. Including a nutrient rich mix will allow the biology in your soil to improve. You can either incorporate it into the soil for quicker results, and therefore eliminate the need for raised beds, or just layer good organics on top. A product with humic acid will also move in the microbes so that your soil is more alive. Increasing the activity in your soil is a goal readily achievable. The more activity in your soil the faster the nutrients will be broken down for the roots to be available in a usable form. Compost and/or worm castings are some of the best amendments you can use. (You can control what goes in your compost pile and what you feed your worms.)

If your roses are already established then moving to organic methods will help bring this activity back to your soil. If you have been using chemical fertilizers, especially systemic type then it will take some time to bring it back in balance. Luckily with chemical fertilizers if you discontinue their use and deep water then they will be washed out of the soil over a period of time. One of the best ways to start is by putting down organic fertilizers and cover with a good quality mulch. This will most likely be where the activity will begin. I use a mulch that has nutrients added, for example, worm castings, bat guano plus several more. (Always check the ingredients by reading the labels on any products.) The activity in the soil accelerates the warmer the soil is. It should be kept moist which is what the roses like anyway.

One of the differences between feeding organic products and chemical products is the results in how the nutrients become available to the rose. The organic fertilizers become an integral part of the soil as it attaches to the particles of soil and is therefore available at any time or as needed. Most chemical fertilizers when watered in will be available for the roses, but as you continue watering, what can not be utilized will be washed out. Therefore, when first applied there will be plenty available, but as you water less and less nutrients will be available. Depending on the fertilizer it can dissipate rapidly leaving a period of time between fertilizations where there is nothing available. If fed a high nitrogen fertilizer the growth will be fast and the cell structure is elongated, therefore softer. With organics the growth is steady and the cell structure is closer and stronger. With a stronger cell structure the rose is more able to withstand disease and pests damage.

To combat disease and pest, the first defense is using water for washing off pests and foliage. Mildew does not adhere to a wet leaf, so wash the foliage off early in the morning and, as you are doing that, blast off pests with a strong spray on both the top and bottom of the leaves. Early in the morning is best, as that lets the soil around the roses dry out during the day. There are organic insecticides and pesticide products that can be used, but basically your garden will take care of itself if you let it get back in balance. (There is an article in the Aug/Sept ARS Magazine on how to let your garden control itself - "Bugging Your Garden".) If you spray non-selective insecticides they will kill the good bugs as well as the bad bugs and the bad bugs will be back without any natural controls.

Returning to or starting an all natural or organic garden does not happen over night, but with patience and utilizing some of the multitude of organic products available, it will expedite the reintegration of biological activity into the soil. The activity in the soil helps break down the nutrients so that they will be taken up by the roses roots. So the more activity the quicker whatever you use will be available. (Check the website for my calendar and fertilization schedule.) I recommend some products, but there are many available that will make your soil rich with life and nutrients. (Always check the ingredients.) Pursuing a program of natural rose care can be as fast or as slow as you want, and making the decision will be the easiest part of the process, but seeing the results of that process will be the most rewarding.

Photo by Kenneth Dwain Harrelson, courtesy of Wikipedia

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