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A national show of roses

WASHINGTON — Roses are like puppies — demanding but bursting to please. A rose grower in the Washington area can get three full flushes of bloom in a single season: in late spring, now and another in November.

Gardeners in colder areas might miss the last performance, but as far as serious rosarians are concerned the show in September surpasses even the May-into-June event. To drive home the point, the National Rose Show is held around this time, this year in the nation’s capital, specifically Alexandria, Va.

Undaunted by Hurricane Isabel, rosarians from around the country are expected to display their best roses at a show that opens to the public today and Saturday. More than 1,000 carefully tended blooms can be seen as specimens or in arrangements, said Joe Mirilovich, president of the Arlington Rose Foundation and the show’s general chairman.

Some local growers are “down in the mouth” over storm damage, he said, but the show will be well equipped with roses that survived Isabel as well as more brought from other states.

At home, you can have your own fall show. The plants are big, the rose blooms are larger, and the cooler nights preserve the colors. “September is the best time for roses,” said Bob Knerr, who cultivates approximately 330 rose bushes with his wife, Linda, on their suburban property in Oakton, Va.

While their neighbors selected lots for their woodland and shade, the Knerrs 30 years ago chose a sunnier prospect, all the better to give the three kids a soccer field and themselves a rose garden that endures in spite of severe weather.

Isabel toppled one of their old oak trees and tore up a fair few roses in bloom, but the rose plants themselves proved wonderfully resilient and their show roses were sufficiently in bud still to ride out the storm.

This is apt, because the rose garden has always provided an oasis of calm in the tempest of life. “The rose garden to me is therapeutic,” said Bob Knerr, a retired pediatrician. Three decades on, he is still thrilled to enter the rose garden. “I just think, ‘Wow, isn’t this great?’ ”

As much as rose gardening has been an important part of the Knerrs’ lives, this form of gardening has fallen greatly from favor. Roses need pruning, they need regular spraying against black spot, they need feeding and watering. In short, they need someone to look after them.

This doesn’t fit with modern notions of low-maintenance gardening (an oxymoron) or with a real aversion many gardeners share to chemical sprays.

The Knerrs, who grow roses to show, spray every two weeks to prevent black spot and other fungal diseases. (They alternate with Banner Maxx and Compass.) In my own garden, I have found one good spraying in the spring is enough to keep most of my roses clean through the season, usually with Funginex or a copper-based fungicide.

Others try less potent approaches, by coating the leaf surfaces with either Neem oil, conventional horticultural oil, a baking soda solution, or a spray made from fermented compost tea.

Without some kind of preventative help, however, black spot will set in, leaves will fall and the plants will be too weak and tattered for prime time in September.

Of course, good gardening practices are also key: putting roses in a sunny and airy location, removing spotted leaves as they appear, pruning bushes to keep them open, planting them in rich soil, and watering the roots, not the foliage.

When all those things are in place, robust blooms follow in September.

Major rose-growing companies have responded to America’s cooling to the plant by developing landscape roses, meant for use as ground covers or for placement in the garden much as an azalea or juniper. Some of these truly are bulletproof, shrugging off black spot and blooming continually.

But fanciers of the now-old-hat hybrid teas and floribundas know that the new workhorses still cannot touch their roses for classic high pointed buds, for abundant thick petals, or for saturation and blends of colors.

Around the Knerrs’ contemporary home, tall bushes of various varieties, new and old, have grown to shoulder height, inviting close inspection of unfurling blooms and fattening buds.

Bob Knerr stops to admire Secret, a cream rose with subtle pink edging. “A lot of show roses will give you fewer blooms but bigger blooms. This is one that will show and be nice in the garden.”

Everywhere he turns, he finds something he likes: ‘Kanagen’ is a floribunda of classic tall, generous bud in a solid and rich scarlet hue; ‘Crystalline,’ a white florist’s rose that works in the garden; and ‘Hot Princess,’ a high centered, deep pink rose that took a top prize at the American Rose Society’s show in Philadelphia last year.

He appears just as enthused for oldies such as ‘Mr. Lincoln,’ with its big crimson cabbages; and ‘Sheer Bliss,’ white flushed with rose pink.

And in the world of roses, which is so diverse, those grown for their blooms can still make handsome plants worthy of any border. My eye is drawn to a well-proportioned shrub festooned with layers of white and pink semi-double flowers. It is named ‘Matilda,’ which will find a spot in my garden, I decided.

It carries a second name, of the French crooner and film star Charles Aznavour, who rose to fame in postwar Europe. If his work represents a period gone by, the prospect of assigning hybrid teas to the past seems a little sad and wistful, though perhaps misplaced.

The Knerrs are active members of two Virginia rose-growing clubs, the Arlington Rose Foundation and the Potomac Rose Society. Communing with other hybrid tea fanciers, they don’t feel that isolation, said Linda Knerr, especially with the American Rose Society’s annual show and convention in Alexandria this weekend.

Bob Knerr points out the fattening buds of ‘Hot Princess’ that might hit their stride in time for the show table. Two nascent blooms in particular take his eye. “I’m hoping this guy.” His hand moves amid the thorny stems. “Or this guy.”


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