Monday, April 21, 2014

It's Almost Time for Roses - Share your Knowledge with New Gardeners at Your Local Garden Center

If you enjoy talking about roses and sharing your knowledge and love of roses with others, you might consider volunteering at a local garden center this spring when people will be shopping for roses to plant in their gardens.

I am amazed at the number of people who won't even consider planting roses because they are convinced that roses are labor intensive, for expert gardeners only, and uncommonly hard to grow.  I've heard every complaint.  "They're too finicky."  "They never do well for me no matter what I do. "  "They're just too much work and too hard for the average person to grow."

Probably the most pervasive misconception is that growing roses is labor intensive. "You need to be out there taking care of them constantly, don't you? I mean, they have to be fed, sprayed, deadheaded every day! Why do you think only retired people grow roses?  No one else has the time."  Of course, none of that is true and these same people are out there weeding and deadheading their petunias and peonies without giving it a second thought.

We live in New England on the northernmost coast of Massachusetts.  We are zoned 6b "officially" but that is based in part on averages.  The reality is that despite an overall tendency toward milder weather during the winter months, winters here can range from zone 8 warm to zone 5 harsh.  We usually see more ice storms than snow, which would be protective of the garden, providing moisture and insulation from harsh drying winds.  Gale force winds and nor'easters are frequent and can be hard on any garden plant, not just roses.  Summers bring heat and humidity, droughts, 90+ degree heat waves with 90+ percent humidity, downy mildew, Japanese Beetles, and the dreaded blackspot.  No question: there are much easier climates in which to grow roses.  There are also literally hundreds of roses that not only survive here, they thrive here, often despite a fair amount of benign neglect.

When I am able to get to the bottom of what it is that has given someone such a negative impression of roses, what I almost uniformly learn is that the wrong rose was planted the wrong way in the wrong spot (for that rose, in that yard).  And if I take the time to explain how a rose should be planted in New England (much different from how it would planted in California) and help them to choose the right kind of rose for the location where they intend to plant it, they are not just going to be successful at growing roses, they often will become avid rose enthusiasts. Who couldn't learn to love a rose?

In the spring, my husband and I volunteer in the rose yard at local garden centers to answer questions and give advice about choosing and growing roses.  We ask the customers what kind of rose they're looking for (a shrub, a climber, or something to grow a particular way in a particular area), what colors they prefer, whether or not fragrance is important to them, and what the area where the rose will be planted is like (sunny, shady, inner city, on the beach, under pines).   We take the time to educate them about the different rose classes, basic rose care, and what kinds of roses will grow best for them, based on how they describe their yard and what they tell us they are looking for.

Knockouts and Joseph's Coat blooming under pines in moderate shade
We will walk through the rose yard with them, showing them options, answering their questions and asking many of our own. This helps us to know how comfortable they are in the garden in general and how much guidance they may need to get started.

Sometimes, no matter what we say, someone is determined to try a rose that probably wouldn't work as well for them as another variety or worse, may be totally inappropriate for their yard.   After we explain our concerns about that particular rose in that location, we do our best to suggest ways that they can mitigate the negatives and support the rose so they can be successful.  Sometimes you have to think out of the box (literally).  But there are roses that will grow in the shade near pines if their cultivation needs are met.

One they've selected a rose, we show them how to position the graft when they plant it and how to prune it.  We also teach them how to care for it through all four of our seasons.  We have a recipe for a totally natural spray that we share for those who want a chemical free garden.  If they prefer, we recommend products available in the garden shop or hardware store that are effective and environmentally friendly.  We also give them information about the local rose society.  We encourage them to join the group but even if they decide not to, our local rose society will respond to questions from any gardener about growing roses and a rosarian will make a house call to help them with their rose problems, whether they are members of the organization or not.  

Often, people will come to buy a rose without having prepared a bed (usually without the first idea about how to do that) or even knowing precisely where they want to put it.  Once we have a sense of what their yard is like we can help them think through the best place to plant.  Then we explain what roses require,  soil amendments they will likely need, and how to get the area ready for planting. 

We have found that when an inexperienced gardener purchases a rose before they have decided on and prepared a place to plant it, there is an extraordinarily high risk of failure so we encourage them to prepare the area before they actually purchase the rose.
If there is no existing flower bed for the rose, and especially if this is a first time homeowner putting in a flower bed for the first time, they tend to significantly underestimate how much time and effort goes into creating a place where any plants, not just roses, will thrive.  And if they are busy building a flower bed, chasing toddlers, and working full time, it's easy to forget to water their new plants.  If the rose is left sitting in a "nice sunny spot" without water, by the time the bed is ready, the rose and any companion plants they might have also purchased are dead.  So if we are working with someone who is very new to gardening, we encourage them to prepare the location first and come back the next day or even the next week for the rose.  We write down the names of the available roses that they liked and that we thought would do well for them so that when they return, they know what to ask for.

The Hybrid Wichurana, large-flowered climber, New Dawn, with clematis
We try to get to the rose yard well before the garden center opens its gates to the public not only to familiarize ourselves with the available rose stock but also to scout out companion plants.  We will usually grab a couple of large garden carts and load them with a variety of our favorites and have them on hand to show people how they will look together.

Many people who are gardening for the first time don't know the names of a lot of annuals and perennials, so rattling off a list of plants is of no value.   We show them the cart and chat about what plants work well together and why.   We have a printed list of suggestions for good companions in the garden that they can take with them as they shop.  They are welcome to take plants off the cart or meander through the nursery, list in hand, to select their own. 

Sometimes people will show up in the rose yard with a leaf or blossom in a baggie, hoping to get advice about a problem they're having.  Last spring, this area saw a larger than usual infestation of the rose sawfly.  We were able to reassure people that their roses would be okay and we gave them easy instructions for battling this nuisance naturally with things in their kitchen pantry.  If we can't identify a problem, we refer them to a more experienced rosarian or suggest that they request to have someone come out from the rose society to diagnose the problem on site and explain the options for dealing with it.

Rose food companies will often give sample food packets to give out when people purchase new roses and we distribute those along with advice for when and how often to feed. We don't recommend one brand over another;  actually, except for one commercial feeding in the spring, we "feed" our roses composted manure.  But to each his own and we share information about different methods and products for plant feeding.

Occasionally we participate in special "Rose Days" sponsored through our local rose society, but since those usually happen only once a season and not at every garden center, most of the time we work out a schedule directly with the nursery manager at a nursery close to our home.  We try to be available for several hours on multiple days during the months of May and June and sometimes even into early July if the gardening season has been delayed by weather.   We really enjoy it when someone who was dead set against even considering a rose leaves with one or three or more.  And when they come back to share their success, it's even more rewarding for us.

When we volunteer, we generally dress in 19th or early 20th century period attire.  Since we are vintage dancers, our period costumes serve double duty.  The nursery workers and customers get a kick out of it and it makes it easy to find us.  The staff need only point in the direction of the rose yard and tell them that "You can't miss them - they are the ones wearing funny clothes."

Of course, to be able to give advice, you need to know your roses.   We currently grow 280 in our home garden but over the years, we've grown a majority of the most popular ones and many of the less well known ones at one time or another.  We read rose catalogs and rose and gardening books all winter, visit rose and botanical gardens extensively - it's our favorite way to spend a free weekend - and attend educational programs that appeal to us as well.   We also prepare for our volunteer stint by asking for the nursery's rose list ahead of time so that we can read up on any new rose that that we're not familiar with and check with our rose friends to get feedback on their experience with it.

One of the things that frustrated us the most both as consumers and especially when we first started volunteering was that too often, the "best" roses for many of the issues we have to deal with in our local climate were not available at the local garden centers.   As seasoned gardeners looking for very specific shrubs, we usually acquire roses through mail order companies.  Even this early in the season, the most sought after and hard to find roses are often sold out of the on-line nurseries so we typically order in fall or early winter for a spring shipment.

Someone who is shy on gardening experience will go first to their local garden center or to the local big-box home improvement center, trusting that the roses offered for sale are appropriate for this area but that isn't always the case. 
Mauve and lavender roses often have a strong citrus fragrance.
This is a problem we have experienced as consumers as well as volunteers.   The roses sold here are typically ordered through regional  distributors who are located far south of here and then trucked in from several hours (and several hardiness zones) away.  Many of the roses that can be grown on Cape Cod, New York and New Jersey, or farther south into the mid-Atlantic states are not going to do well where we are on the on the north Atlantic coast.

"Sterling Silver" is a classic example.  The first true lavender rose and one of my long time favorites, they are simply not hardy in our micro-climate.  I can't resist it but I've learned to grow it as an annual and cheer if I get a second year out of it.  There are newer, hardier, and more disease resistant mauve and lavender roses out there, Blue Ribbon (my favorite lavender next to Sterling Silver), Kordes' Silver Star, Fragrant Plum, Wild Blue Yonder, and Angel Face being but a few.  All are star performers this far north but are rarely available in local garden centers.     

I'm not a sales person and when I volunteer, I'm there not so much to "sell" roses but to "share" my knowledge and enthusiasm for growing them.  I don't feel comfortable recommending roses that I personally have not had a lot of success with or that I am not confident will do well in our particular micro-climate.  So if I look over the stock and see that most of the available roses are zoned for zone 7 or higher or they have failed multiple times in my garden, my day is off to a bad start.  I don't feel compelled to push a rose I am certain will not do well and I will give the customer a list of roses that I am confident they can be successful with.

A few years ago, I mentioned this conundrum to a rose manager and when it was time to reorder for the current season as well as for the following spring, he gave me the list of roses available through his main distributor and asked me to make recommendations.  I marked each rose on the list as either first choice (will do well in our geographic area and climate and will out-perform
others in the same category), second choice (reasonable alternatives if the first choice is out of stock already), or don't buy (they aren't going to do well and please don't ask me to encourage people to buy them).  I also jotted a note explaining why I ranked it the way I did - it's strengths, weaknesses, and particular attributes or problems.  Yes, it was time consuming - it took me an entire weekend - but it was time well spent.  I was delighted to see that he took my recommendations to heart when he ordered roses after that.

Most of the nurseries that I and my fellow rose society volunteers work with value our gift of time and expertise to their customers and will go out of their way to make us feel welcome and appreciated.  When we arrive, they usually have already moved lawn furniture and umbrellas into the rose yard and we're greeted warmly by all the staff, since our recommendations for companion plants (which we also share with the staff handling annuals and perennials) help them enormously.  They generally offer not just volunteers but all of the members of the local rose society and local garden clubs a discount on plants and merchandise, and we leave planting instructions, rose care guidelines, and brochures for the rose society for them to distribute when we aren't there.  They know that their customers have access to expert advice through our group on an ongoing basis.

Working closely with a garden center manager has another advantage in that they are often willing to take orders from those of us who volunteer when they're sending in their end of summer rose orders for the next growing season.  We are able to get roses that they may not wish to stock but that are available through their distributor.  Sometimes they even take a cue from our choices and add them to their regular inventory.  In this way, we have been able to acquire roses that we have had considerable difficulty obtaining even on-line.

But for us, the best benefit is less tangible.  By demystifying roses for the less experienced gardener, we have provided innumerable new gardeners with options and advice that comes from our many decades of experience and failed efforts.  To see a customer enthusiastically embrace adding roses to their garden is exceedingly gratifying and when they happily report back the following year that their plants have thrived, well, that makes all the time spent that much more worthwhile for us.

If you decide to share your love of roses: 

1.  Call early in the spring (April, here), before planting time, and arrange to meet the nursery manager and the person who is in charge of roses.  Describe your garden (or better yet bring pictures) and your experience.  Talk roses with them.  They have to know that you know what you're talking about if they are going to entrust their customers to you.

2.  Encourage the manager to post on their web site and hang signs at the garden center letting customers know when "The Rose People" will be there to answer questions and give advice.

3. Work out a reasonable schedule to volunteer.  We try to visit one to two weekends a month in May, June, and early July.  That still gives us plenty of time in our own garden.

4. Weekend mornings work best for everyone in that we capture the majority of new customers without tying up our entire weekend.  We like to get there at least fifteen minutes before the garden center opens so we can get a quick look at the available stock and we stay through the lunch hour, usually until 1-2 PM.  We try to keep the day relatively open so that we can stay longer if the rose yard is crowded with costumers.   

5.  Be prepared to be flexible though.  The garden centers will usually call you early in the day if there is a rain-out so they can post on their web site and at the shop if they opt to postpone due to inclement weather.   However, rain does not always deter the customers!  After cancelling because we were having relentless downpours, I got a call mid-morning that quite a number of people had shown up anyway, just for the rose talk.  My husband was off running errands but a friend (not even a gardener!) had come by to visit so we drove over to the garden center.  They brought some roses and folding chairs into a greenhouse and despite the weather, we had one of our best and most fun days talking roses.

6.  Invite other rosarians from your local rose or garden club to join you.  It can get busy, especially if it was advertised that you are going to be available on a certain date and time, and as word gets around that you're there on a periodic basis.  We almost always plan to be there two days in a row.  It's amazing how many people will come and speak to us, take our information, thank us, and leave without buying a rose, and then come back the next day to make their purchase.  We make a point of telling customers that we'll be there the next day as well, and many will return with neighbors, friends, and family who also have questions or want to know more about growing roses.   

7.  Wear (or at least bring) a hat and comfortable shoes and dress in layers.  Don't forget to pack sunscreen and bottled water or your favorite hot weather beverage.  At the nurseries where we regularly volunteer, they set up an umbrella table and chairs in the rose yard.  One garden center will sometimes bring a cart of gardening books, rose food, pruners, gloves, and garden sprays to the area since their sales staff is readily available to process sales of plants and gardening accessories in the yard.  People enjoy sitting down and chatting about their gardens.  Being able to show them what a by-pass pruner is and having the products that they need readily available benefits everyone.

8.  Have lists of available roses ahead of time so you can know what's in stock and be able to read up on anything new that you aren't familiar with.  Have a current rose guide tucked in your bag (or a smart phone) so you can look something up on the fly. 

9.  We developed handouts showing techniques for planting and pruning, and general rose care that is specific to our area.  Many of the roses sold locally are tagged with instructions for growing them in much warmer climates.  Be sure to explain this to the customer.  Don't be afraid to say, "I don't know but I'll have someone who does get in touch with you."

10.  Know the best and most readily available companion plants in your area.  If the garden center allows it, bring some into the rose area for novice gardeners to see and choose from.  

11.  Get permission from the garden center first, but if it hasn't already been done before you get there, organize the shrubs by rose class.  If help is available, either a staff person assigned to the area or other volunteers, we also try to organize by color and fragrance as well.  There is nothing more frustrating than knowing you saw the rose the are asking for around there "somewhere". 

12.  Bring your own garden pruners and rose gloves.  Be prepared to deadhead and "pretty up" the stock both when there is a lull in the foot traffic and when you're actually demonstrating proper pruning techniques to a customer.  Sanitize your tools before you bring them to a garden center and also before you use them in your own garden again after you have volunteered.  We typically sanitize with either rubbing alcohol or a dilute bleach solution.  Alcohol has the advantage of evaporating and drying quickly.

13.  And finally, engage the rose yard staff in the process.  Include them in discussions with customers.  When there are lulls, chat about their favorite roses or experience with roses and rose problems.  Many are intimidated to have someone with so much knowledge there for the day and they may be shy about asking questions.  But they will be the resource people for the customers when you aren't there, so leaving them with your gardening pearls as well as extra handouts will make their job easier all week long.