Real Gardens

Should Public Rose Gardens Showcase Toxic Perfection?

Folger_rose_gardenLet's pay a visit to the Folger Rose Garden, the visual centerpiece at the front of the Smithsonian Institution's Arts and Industries Building in Washington, D.C., right on the Mall.  I decided to check it out because a friend who works nearby had told me "It's sprayed so much, it glows at night." 

It's a Victorian-style garden comprised mainly of hybrid tea roses, which, particularly in this hot and humid climate, require the regular spraying of fungicides and pesticides to perform as required. After all, they're here to do a job – to enhance the aesthetics of this wonderful building using historically compatible plants and style.  But a mere 9 years after it was created, to my eyes the garden is already an anachronism because we've turned a corner (finally) in the U.S., and toxic landscaping practices are no longer acceptable.

Here's another good photo, showing a larger view.

Rosegarden350 Next, I spoke with Shelley Gaskins, the horticultural curator in charge of making those gardens perform their job duties.  Very nice person.  She confirmed the regular schedule of spraying for these roses, even the 'Knockouts' now included in the collection, and the reason for it: in such a high-traffic area, it's not acceptable to let the plants defoliate (lose their leaves and look crappy).

So of course I asked the obvious question: Has any thought been given at the Smithsonian to switching to plants that don't need such a toxic diet, like the new easy-care roses?  The answer: People don't have the same emotional reaction to shrub roses as they do to hybrid teas, which we associate with our grandmothers.  In other words, the Smithsonian believes or maybe even knows that this is what tourists want.  I have to say I think that's probably true, but should tourists get what they want in this case?  How about transitioning to a garden that would showcase a different kind of beauty, one that not only looks more natural, but IS more natural.  Not to mention toxin-free.

I didn't say all that, I just asked the final question:  What would it take to get the decision-makers to plant something different?  Lobbying.  I should have guessed, this being Washington.

Now just 3 blocks away is a very different kind of rose garden – an organic one.  It'sRosegarden2web a feature in the new National Garden, next door to the U.S. Botanic Garden.  Because most of the space is devoted to the sparse, ultra-native Regional Garden, which we hope will fill out and lose its sparseness in due time, the very formally-styled First Ladies Water Garden and  Rose Garden look a bit out of place here.  And the weird mix of styles probably reflects the various funding sources but hey, at least the roses don't get sprayed.  Margaret Atwell, the rosarian for this garden, tells me that unsuccessful plants ARE being ripped out.  That's the kind of tough love I give almost all of my plants. 

Both gardens – the National Garden's organic rose garden and the Smithsonian's stinky chemical garden – have plant labels, which is a good thing.  But if the chemically addicted roses are going to stay there, how about adding a sign telling the public the kind of care required for them to look so good?  At least educate.

Now can we please revisit the notion that our grandmothers grew hybrid teas?  I remember the Iowa garden of my own grandmother as a riotous mix of colorful plants that included roses of some kind, but what impressed me no end was the swarming mass of pollinators it attracted, especially hummingbirds. And the childhood memory that I DO have of hybrid tea roses is of a neighbor's large rose garden, which was always infested with Japanese beetles.  We kids loved grabbing them and dunking them in the many nearby insect traps.  Helping to protect this man's plants from insects was a mission we totally bought into.  So, is that the kind of old-fashioned gardening we still want to teach?

Credit for top photo. Others are mine.

Posted by on November 27, 2007 at 4:27 am, in the category Real Gardens.
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13 Responses to “Should Public Rose Gardens Showcase Toxic Perfection?”

  1. Is anything in the entire world of horticulture uglier than the formal American rose garden?

    I’d rather sit in a patch of crabgrass than spend ten minutes in one of those hideous hybrid-tea-filled places for unpleasant old ladies.

    That said, I love roses in a mixed bed. If you can control the Japanese beetles, the once-blooming old European roses are absurdly beautiful.

    No new “easy care” rose can, in my opinion, hold a candle to Empress Josephine or Madame Plantier. And I find that the older varieties uniformly do better for me even than the highly touted newer ones.

    I’ve just planted ‘Alba Maxima’ a white semi-double that’s supposed to reach ten feet in my front bed. Will report back.

  2. sandra says:

    I agree with you about formal rose gardens, Michele, except for the “unpleasant old ladies” bit – it is probably unpleasant old men behind the toxic spray production.
    The only thing worse than a formal rose garden is a mass of giant gladioli and dalias well staked and bursting with steriods courtesy of…. well, you know who.

  3. susan harris says:

    Sandra, we DO know who, but nobody wants to get sued, now do we?

  4. Amy Stewart says:

    Hmmmm…so the leadership vacuum in DC extends to the rose gardens too, eh?

    Rather than just pander to what they think the American people want, why not get out in front and be a leader? Why not show us a better vision and convince us that it will work? Why not influence and inspire us?

  5. eliz says:

    I think the old roses, as well as some of the new David Austin roses do very well under a no-spraying program, and they’re much more interesting, both to the eye and the nose.

    I hate hybrid teas. I have posted images at
    of my neighbor’s garden–they have all old and Austin and they spray nothing. Look how huge these climbers and shrubs are too–this is a 3-year-old garden!

  6. jodi says:

    Brilliant post, Susan! One observation: My grandmothers never grew roses. One was too busy raising 5 children, operating a store and gas pumps with her husband, and doing subsistance farming to bother with plants that didn’t feed the family. The other had lupins, poppies, and other hardy resilient plants that didn’t need eighty-seven pounds of chemicals on them to have them look beautiful.
    I’m with Susan on the tough-love approach to plants, including roses. And I’m a fan of the old-fashioned gallicas, and other species roses that can handle a Bay of Fundy climate, including rugosas (which WERE grown around old farmsteads in this province, along with albas and such), Explorers, Buck roses, and some of the shrub roses grown on their own roots. This playing with roses on grafts just asks for headaches in my neck of the woods.

  7. Digging just a bit I find: >>The Kathrine Dulin Folger Rose Garden, made possible by a generous gift from Mr. and Mrs. Lee M. Folger and the Folger Fund.<< I’m betting that the Folgers specifically gave that money for a formal rose garden on the Mall and that THEY would not be too pleased to come by and see black spot and Jap beetles infesting them.
    Seeing as how DC’s official flower is the American Beauty rose – I’d say they should definitely be present and on show on our National Mall.
    The symbolism and love for roses in our culture is nothing to fight. I do see tons of tourists in that garden snapping pics with the roses, at the fountain and on the Victorian iron banches.
    What I DO think they should do is put out signs whenever and for the duration that they spray to alert the public with a list of specifics chemicals used – esp. for the wee ones who stick their full faces in the blooms and take a deep inhale. This would promote the truth of what it takes to maintain a formal rose garden like this and be educational in its own right.

  8. Amy (Lockport gardener) says:

    Almost 20 years ago, I began rose gardening with miniatures, then later moving into hybrid teas and floribundas. After blackspot destroyed them all I gave up.

    Until I discovered old garden roses. Then I got my first “grandma’s” rose from a neighbor – a sucker of “Petite de Hollande”. That one old rose now includes 11 others that come from the “ancient 4″ (alba, gallica, damask, centifolia) through hybrid musks – all on their own roots. I have a couple of modern ones that were “strays,” but they’re put through the same rigors as the old ones. No molly-coddling here! And no chemicals! I used to be a priestess of Ortho, but that didn’t save my hybrid teas from blackspot now, did it? I’ve gone organic, and found that picking off bugs and diseased leaves is just fine if the plant can stand it.

    There’s just no comparison with the old roses (summer-only blooming aside). The Very Rev. S. Reynolds Hole, in his classic “A Book on Roses,” wrote of his idea of a perfect rose garden which contained “those bowers and meandering walks – many a pleasant nook, where the aged might rest, young men and maidens sigh their love, and happy children play”.

    That should be the goal of a national rose garden. A place of discovery, rest and repose. A place safe for everyone from dangerous chemicals, where an anxious parent should never have to worry about anything more serious that an accidental prick by a thorn.

    We old rose enthusiasts and organic gardeners have to take it upon ourselves to educate the public if we’re going to stop gardens like the Folger from being perpetuated by well-meaning horticulturalists. We have to show that all roses don’t look like what you get from a florist, and all rose gardens are not stale, staid and univiting chemical dumps.

  9. Tibs says:

    Since our lovely USDA introduced a virus or soemthing to kill off the horrible nondestructable (farmers tried dynamite) multifora rose which they introduced decades ago as a “living fence”, my good old formerly undistructable Dr. W. Van Fleet is now history. “Oh, it won’t spread to cultivated roses” they said. Nothing on the market works toxic or organic. No rose is safe.

  10. Tibs, thanks for the tip. That is worth investigating for a post.

  11. Brooke says:

    It’s true, it’s called RRD, rosa rugosa disease, I think.

  12. Bogie says:

    RRD – Rose rosette disease

  13. Tim Wood says:

    The question should also be asked why does the All Ammerican Rose Selections (AARS) spray it’s test plots?

    I use to be an AARS rose judge and have also managed several rose gardens – and I know that if you want have a rose garden as opposed to a stick garden – Most all roses need to be sprayed if you hope to have leaves my mid-summer. But if you are going to name All American Selections then live in the real world – the AARS needs to lead the way and stop spraying – because no one else want’s to spray roses.

    The fact is – many roses breeders are making great advances in disease resistance but until lately their roses have gotten little recognition becaue they are not roses that fit the typical rose idea in the mind of the American Gardener.

    Gardening Magazines are still showing pretty pictures of Califonia Rose gardens – were you can grow any rose without problem.

    Flower Carpet Roses, Knockout Roses, OSO EASY roses and the Home Run rose are all great rose that have very little black spot problems but they don’t look like tea roses or grandifloras, but they have all knocked the rose industry on their butt and many are growers are plowing their Teas into the ground because no one wants them. Duh!

    So the American public is having a change of heart and the sales of these roses tell us that the American consumer is voting for no spray roses.

    As far as the Smithsonian – I think the should keep growing Teas and Grandifloras – after all these plant belong in a historical museum with other old relics and not in the garden.

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