ARS Feature Article:
Responsible Organic Rose Gardening

Responsible, Organic, Simple, Earth-Friendly.
by Paulette Mouchet • 3947 Sourdough Rd. • Acton, CA 93510
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There's a revolution sweeping the United States. You may be a shovel-waving member, or you might be standing on the sidelines considering the cause.

One hundred and twenty years ago, everyone was an organic gardener. Farmers used manure for fertilizer and hoed or pulled weeds by hand. Pioneer wives kept chickens around their gardens both for fertilizer and because the chickens ate the bugs.

Native Americans used the Three Sisters method of companion planting for squash, maize and climbing beans. Maize was planted first, sometimes with rotten fish or eel as fertilizer. When the maize was about 6 inches tall, climbing beans and squash were planted around it. The maize provided a frame for the beans to climb up. The beans provided nitrogen to the soil. The squash acted like living mulch to deter weeds. It also created a microclimate to retain moisture in the soil, and the prickly hairs deterred pests.

Things began to change when, in approximately 1918, Haber-Bosch developed an easy way to make ammonium nitrate – the first chemical fertilizer. Chemical pesticides soon followed, with DuPont being a leader in their production. In 1935, DuPont adopted the slogan, "Better Things for Better Living Through Chemistry."

The Green Revolution, which began in 1945, is a project to spread technologies, including chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizer, to non-industrialized nations to help these nations feed their growing populations. Mexico was the first Green Revolution success. In 1943, Mexico imported half their wheat; in 1956, the Green Revolution had made Mexico self-sufficient; and by 1964, they were exporting a half a million tons of wheat.

By the mid-1960s, the Green Revolution was in full swing. In 1965, DuPont registered chlorpyrifos (aka dursban and lorsban), which according to the EPA is one of the most widely used organophosphate insecticides in the United States. Agent Orange, another DuPont wonder, was introduced to Vietnam in 1961.

Not everyone jumped on the "better living through chemistry" bandwagon. Jerome Irving Rodale, who founded Organic Gardening magazine in 1942, is a notable exception, as is Sir Albert Howard. Rodale believed that agriculture and health were inseparable. He said that eating plants grown in composted soil that was free of poisonous pesticides and artificial fertilizers would help humans stay healthier.

Sir Albert Howard was a British botanist and organic farming pioneer. He is often referred to as the father of modern organic agriculture and the father of modern composting. He originally went to India as an agricultural advisor to teach them about Western agricultural techniques. He discovered that the Indian people could, in fact, teach him more. In particular, he noticed the connection between healthy soil and the villages' healthy populations, livestock and crops. In 1940, he published An Agricultural Testament, which is considered a classic in organic farming.

Unfortunately, during their heydays, Rodale and Howard were viewed by mainstream agriculture as backwards radicals.

At some point in the last 10-20 years, the "better living through chemistry" movement faltered. People began to realize that the mindless use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides had consequences – bad consequences that they did not want to live with. The concepts of global stewardship and responsibility in gardening and agriculture were born.

Integrated Pest Management, or IPM, may have been the first step of the new revolution. IPM is defined as an effective and environmentally sensitive approach to pest management that relies on a combination of common-sense practices. The bottom line with IPM is that you use the least toxic methods you can to achieve your goal. You don't give up your chemical sprays, but you do try something less toxic first.

While IPM is a good first step away from mindless chemical use, it falls short of being truly revolutionary because it is only reactionary. You think about what you ought to do (react) only when something goes wrong.

Farmscaping is a proactive approach whereby the farmer plans ahead to use cover crops, insectary plants and water reservoirs to attract and support beneficial organisms (insects, birds and bats). The farmscaper provides prime habitats for beneficials right in the fields so the beneficials are immediately on hand to minimize or prevent pest problems.

The most enlightened people in the new revolution are not just proactive. They want solutions that also improve the lives of migrant farm workers, increase plant nutrition and provide healthy environments for wild animals. They want the whole enchilada.

Sustainable agriculture/gardening rests on the principle that you must meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Stewardship of human and natural resources is of prime importance. The working conditions of laborers and the needs of rural communities are considered when making any decision. Sustainability is a long-term philosophy and goal. In the mid-1970s, Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren developed the idea of permaculture after watching the growing use of industrial-agricultural methods poison the land and water, reduce biodiversity and remove billions of tons of soil from previously fertile land. In 1978, they published Permaculture One, their system for building self-sufficient, self-sustaining agricultural settlements. The four steps of permaculture:

Eco-agriculture is a global variation on the permaculture and sustainable agriculture themes. The goals of eco-agriculture are to enhance rural livelihoods, conserve and enhance biodiversity and develop more sustainable and productive agriculture. Eco-agriculture goes far beyond one farm or one community. It's a system for many farms and many communities to work together to meet their needs and goals.

The end result of this revolution is that people everywhere are thinking about the global impact of what they do; they are looking for ways to minimize that impact and to better their lives and the lives of their children. Most importantly, we are seeing thoughtful pause in even the most ardent proponents of the "better living through chemistry" program.

If all this sounds exciting, it is! If is sounds a bit scary, that's okay. You can still join the revolution; just start out small. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Put out a hummingbird feeder. Hummers are just plain fun to have in the garden, but they do an important service of eating small bugs. Make your own nectar (mix 1/4 cup sugar + 1 cup water, heat 2 minutes in the microwave, cool, fill your feeder) and don't use any food coloring. I'm particularly fond of the Schrodt Hummingbird Lanterns. In addition to being pretty, they are by far the easiest to clean.
  2. Stop before you spray that fungicide. Ask yourself if you really need to spray today. Could you wait a few days? Could you live with less than perfect foliage? Try using something less toxic, such as the Cornell Baking Soda formula, or a commercial organic fungicide, such as Green Light Organic Fungicide or 70% Neem Oil, which is an insecticide, too.
  3. Give your roses a pick-me-up with Neptune's Harvest Fish-Seaweed. This yummy organic meal contains a myriad of micronutrients that your roses will love.
  4. Set realistic expectations. If you live in an area where blackspot is rampant, don't expect your garden to be blackspot free. Be willing to accept some imperfection. I have one rose that is a rust magnet. The flowers are so lovely and have such a wonderful fragrance that I don't care if the leaves are a bit diseased. Every couple of years, when the bush is dormant, I apply lime-sulfur to just this rose to keep the rust at bay.
  5. Apply 2 cups of alfalfa meal or pellets to each rosebush. This is a slow-release fertilizer that won't burn your roses or cause salt build-up in the soil, and the nutrients won't leach into the groundwater. It will encourage earthworms and beneficial soil organisms to move in. Most horse feed stores carry alfalfa pellets (be sure to get hay-only pellets without any other additions). Alfalfa contains triacontanol, which can encourage basal breaks, as well as many vitamins and minerals.
  6. Substitute an organic fertilizer for one of your chemical fertilizer feedings. Dr. Earth Organic 3 and Grow-More Organic Flower and Bloom are excellent products.
  7. Use an organic fertilizer containing beneficial organisms when planting new roses, or transplanting older ones. Dr. Earth and Grow-More fertilizers contain mychorrhizae fungi plus other beneficial soil organisms. If you want something that isn't a fertilizer, try John & Bob's Microbes and Minerals.
  8. Stop and smell the roses. That's right. Don't get so wrapped up in the care of your garden that you forget to enjoy it.

This article was provided to the TVRS as a courtesy by the American Rose Society.