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Public Rose Gardens Showcase Toxic Perfection
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Public Rose Gardens Showcase Toxic Perfection

yjyuyIt’s a Victorian-style garden comprised mainly of hybrid tea roses, which, particularly in this hot and humid climate, require the regular spraying of fungicides and pesticides to perform as required. After all, they’re here to do a job – to enhance the aesthetics of this wonderful building using historically compatible plants and style.  But a mere 9 years after it was created, to my eyes the garden is already an anachronism because we’ve turned a corner (finally) in the U.S., and toxic landscaping practices are no longer acceptable.

Next, I spoke with Shelley Gaskins, the horticultural curator in charge of making those gardens perform their job duties.  Very nice person. She confirmed the regular schedule of spraying for these roses, even the ‘Knockouts’ now included in the collection, and the reason for it: in such a high-traffic area, it’s not acceptable to let the plants defoliate (lose their leaves and look crappy).

So of course I asked the obvious question: Has any thought been given at the Smithsonian to switching to plants that don’t need such a toxic diet, like the new easy-care roses?  The answer: People don’t have the same emotional reaction to shrub roses as they do to hybrid teas, which we associate with our grandmothers.  In other words, the Smithsonian believes or maybe even knows that this is what tourists want.  I have to say I think that’s probably true, but should tourists get what they want in this case?  How about transitioning to a garden that would showcase a different kind of beauty, one that not only looks more natural, but IS more natural.  Not to mention toxin-free.

I didn’t say all that, I just asked the final question:  What would it take to get the decision-makers to plant something different? Lobbying.  I should have guessed, this being Washington.

Now just 3 blocks away is a very different kind of rose garden – an organic one.  It’s a feature in the new National Garden, next door to the U.S. Botanic Garden.  Because most of the space is devoted to the sparse, ultra-native Regional Garden, which we hope will fill out and lose its sparseness in due time, the very formally-styled First Ladies Water Garden and  Rose Garden
look a bit out of place here.  And the weird mix of styles probably reflects the various funding sources but hey, at least the roses don’t get sprayed.  Margaret Atwell, the rosarian for this garden, tells me that unsuccessful plants ARE being ripped out.  That’s the kind of tough love I give almost all of my plants.


Both gardens – the National Garden’s organic rose garden and the Smithsonian’s stinky chemical garden – have plant labels, which is a good thing.  But if the chemically addicted roses are going to stay there, how about adding a sign telling the public the kind of care required for them to look so good?  At least educate.

Now can we please revisit the notion that our grandmothers grew hybrid teas?  I remember the Iowa garden of my own grandmother as a riotous mix of colorful plants that included roses of
some kind, but what impressed me no end was the swarming mass of pollinators it attracted, especially hummingbirds. And the childhood memory that I DO have of hybrid tea roses is of a neighbor’s large rose garden, which was always infested with Japanese beetles.  We kids loved grabbing them and dunking them in the many nearby insect traps.Helping to protect this man’s plants from insects was a mission we totally bought into.

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