Bartlett on Gardening: Earth-Kind Roses

In 1990, I hung up my pressure sprayer forever. No longer would I wage a never-ending battle against insects and fungi. Plants in my garden have to survive without chemical warfare. Not wanting to be without roses, I was delighted to learn about Texas A&M University's research program to identify roses that thrive (not merely survive) without pesticides or fertilizer. Roses that make the cut are designated "Earth-Kind."

Texas A&M has the largest network of test gardens in the nation. Texas is a big state with lots of environmental variation. From "gumbo" clay to sand and loam, acid, alkaline, humid, arid, it is all there. The roses were tested for four years. Then testing was repeated in an even wider range of test gardens for an additional four years. These roses never saw a drop of pesticide nor an ounce of fertilizer. After the first "establishment" year, water came only from heaven. A three-inch layer of mulch was maintained around them. Wow! It is amazing that 23 cultivars have earned the Earth-Kind designation.

Perle d'Or, an old French rose tough enough to be designated Earth-Kind.

One finding from this research is news you can use whether growing roses or rutabagas. For all of us struggling with heavy clay soil, they came up with a one-time fix. The old tried-and-true method is to dig in compost year after year until the clay contains enough organic matter to improve drainage. Let me tell you about this new method. Till in three inches of expanded shell followed by three inches of compost. (This is a university research project. They measure it quite precisely.) The expanded shell creates pore space, improving aeration and drainage.

Now you may be wondering what is expanded shell and where is it sold? It is a natural product which has been heat-treated to expand it like puffed rice. Beaty's Fertilizer in Cleveland, Tennessee, sells it. It is not expensive. I have been using it hole by hole to improve things in my little test garden.

When you look at the list of Earth-Kind roses, the term "found rose" needs explanation. Historic preservation has many permutations. Saving living antiques is one of them. The Antique Rose Emporium coined the term "rose rustling." A posse forms up and fans out to search for old roses in cemeteries, old homesteads and historic areas. When they find one, they take cuttings to grow the rose. It is given a study name while they try to figure out what it really is. Believe it or not, they have some success in identifying them. When you see the term "found" by a rose, it is going along under its study name.

The research continues. One hundred cultivars are now growing in an initial trial. More universities are participating with a goal of making this program more useful throughout the nation. Visit the website of the Texas AgriLife Extension Service, "About Earth-Kind Roses" to learn more and to see the list of Earth-Kind roses (

Native Californian Ann Bartlett never lets lack of familiarity with a plant stop her from trying it in the ornamental beds around her home.

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