There’s a lot of advice out there for would-be rose gardeners.
One common recommendation is to consider growing something else.
“Think twice,” warns Susan Young, who for years tended to 150 rose bushes on her family’s Riverhead farm. “A pet is less of a responsibility than having roses. A puppy eventually grows up and becomes less work. A rose bush doesn’t. It needs constant care and attention.”
The undisputed monarch of the flower garden, the rose has inspired poets for thousands of years. But roses also have a reputation for being highly sensitive to all elements that threaten flora here on the North Fork and elsewhere: rot, blight, beetles, drought, heavy rains, you name it.
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For those who don’t like being called chicken, local rose hobbyists say the rewards of all that blood — literally — sweat and sometimes tears, can be well worth it. And thanks to some ultra-modern genetic engineering, more “earth friendly” rose varieties have been hitting the market within the last few years that, with just the basic care, can make a backyard novice look like the master gardener.
“You have to have the time,” stressed Ms. Young, whose 60-plus-year-old rose garden, which she inherited from her husband’s grandmother, died all at once about eight years ago.
Rot claimed all the bushes, she said. Her husband, a farmer, had to plow them under.
“I cried,” Ms. Young recalled. “I didn’t have time to take care of them, because I was working a lot of hours.”
She said the decades-old bushes she tended to needed constant care.
“They need water, but you don’t want the leaves to be wet [at night] or they will get black spots and you never want them,” she said. “The rose beds also have to be kept clean.”
The bushes also need to be “dead-headed,” which every rose gardener knows involves pruning the spent bloom just above the first five-leaf cluster. This will ensure that the roses keep blooming until the first frost.
Do that, says Harvey Feinstein, who playfully refers to himself as “the rose man,” and flowers will bloom “from now until Thanksgiving.”
President emeritus of the Southampton Rose Society, Mr. Feinstein is the East End’s authority on roses. He was recently honored by the Horticultural Alliance of the Hamptons as a “horticultural treasure” to the region for, among other things, helping establish the only free, public rose garden on Long Island, in the Village of Southampton.
He’s also planted a rose garden at the Peconic Landing retirement community in Greenport, where he lives. That garden is now in full bloom, this being June, and will take center stage during an evening of tea and music at the culmination of Peconic Landing’s 10th anniversary celebration later this year, Mr. Feinstein said.
“Roses go back to prehistoric times,” he said. “They’ve found specimens and fossils of roses dating back thousands of years. On the tomb of King Tut’s grandfather they found paintings of roses.”
For much of history, even through Colonial times in the Americas, roses were used mostly for medicinal purposes, as well as for perfume, he said.
“Roses were kept in monastery gardens during the Middle Ages,” Mr. Feinstein said. “They would brew tea and use the petals if they had something wrong on the skin. With a touch of opium they would give it to a woman who was hysterical.
“But they also had a beauty to them,” he continued. “In ancient Persia, they started using roses to beautify the gardens, and when you said the word paradise in Persian, that meant a beautiful garden.”
Napoleon Bonaparte’s first wife, Josephine, was the first historical figure known to arrange roses “for ornamental purposes,” he said.
Roses likely peaked in popularity in the U.S. after World War II, “when all the guys came home and Levittown was built and everyone had a little plot of ground and started planting plants around,” Mr. Feinstein said.
Fay and Avery Young came a generation later. Baby boomers living in Aquebogue, they’ve made growing roses a husband-and-wife hobby. The couple — he’s a farmer and she’s a retired teacher — celebrate their 50th anniversary this month and began growing roses soon after they were married.
“It’s a nice hobby but it’s a scratchy kind of thing,” she said, referring to the thorns that sometimes inflict damage to the skin. “Unfortunately we’ve had a lot of blight this year, so they haven’t been as nice as in years past. This year we had an early spring and they started budding early. Some will come back and some won’t, but we love them, and our backyard is beautiful.”
Despite the stress, Susan Young of Riverhead said she’s slowly begun to string another rose garden together on her Sound Avenue property.
“I’m up to eight now,” she said. “I’m working it. Growing roses is a labor of love, and nothing says it better than a beautiful rose. It is so worth the effort.”
Mr. Feinstein said things should be looking easier for rose gardeners.
Perhaps recognizing that the popularity of rose-growing has slipped as people have come to lead busier lives, horticulturists in this multi-billion industry have of late engineered a much hardier variety of rose. Described as “earth friendly,” Mr. Feinstein said, this variety requires less work and maintenance than earlier ones. It’s also friendlier to the environment because the need to spray herbicides and insecticides is greatly reduced. Called Knock Out, the relatively new variety is available in several colors and has gained in popularity over the last five years, he said.
A new Knock Out bush sells for about $20 to $30 at just about any local nursery.
“Pick it up and put it your garden,” he said. “You will be amazed at what it will do.”