For those few rosarians dedicated to winning competitions, there is no rest in their quest for the perfect bloom.
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Howard Jones examines some of his 350 rose bushes.
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Judges Nita Bowen and Clifton Jeter at the Richmond Rose Society show.
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The Q-tip treatment.
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Howard and his wife, Sara, share a light moment in their garden.
Tromping into the garden in his “space suit” of water-resistant Tyvek, Howard Jones prepares to spray fungicide on his 350 rose bushes. His garb and gritty, hands-on approach belie the genteel rosarian. Jones, now 87, was as recently as a few years agoa top exhibitor in the polite and oh-so-civilized world of rose competitions.
Almost everyone admires roses, our national flower. Growing them can be a casual hobby for many gardeners who appreciate the romance they lend to the landscape. But producing show-quality roses has been a serious obsession for a few, like Jones and his wife, Sara, who tend their home gardens with the quiet fanaticism necessary to produce a “Best in Show”—in rosarian parlance, the Queen of the Court.
The couple has competed in various contests in Virginia and the Colonial District region (including Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia and D.C.), and they have had a knack for winning: Howard has won the Queen of the Court award 30-plus times in various district shows, as well as the other awards just below the top prize (King, Princess, Prince and, sometimes, Duchess). Sara has been equally dominant in the miniatures categories.
Visiting the Jones home in Virginia Beach, one quickly sees that growing award-winning roses is not for weekend weeders. Jones estimates it takes 25 hours a week, 10 months of the year, to maintain his 350 rose bushes. The experience and the number of hours required to pamper the beauties may explain why many exhibitors are retired. Days before a big event, like the Richmond Rose Show, the back and side yards of the house will be dotted with milk jugs tied onto garden stakes with pipe cleaners. The bottoms of the jugs are cut out to convert them into roomy, protective tents for the magnificent “Hot Princess,” “Keepsake,” “Let Freedom Ring” and other cultivars. Beach umbrellas set up at different angles shield blooms from excessive sunlight. “But if a big wind comes,” Jones laughs, “they may do more harm than good.”
Jones deadheads his bushes for two hours each day during the growing season, not only because he is, admittedly, “a little bit of a neat freak” who will not allow dropped petals to litter his pristine beds, but also because cutting off dead blooms stops seed production, in turn stimulating more buds. Sara Jones notes that her husband’s exacting standards of sanitation do not allow for a single yellow leaf to sully the garden, for each one could carry thousands of spores of blackspot or powdery mildew. His enthusiasm is not dampened by the complex and labor-intensive mechanics of keeping his one-acre garden spotless. “Hybrid teas are like thoroughbred race horses—sensitive and high-maintenance,” Jones says. And yet well worth the trouble. People driving by are struck by the quality and magnitude of the display. Jones admits, grinning, they’ve caused a lot of wrecks.
Dr. Bob Knerr, past chairman of the judges of the American Rose Society’s Colonial District, concurs that it’s a rush to win. Part of the enjoyment comes from learning, over time and from experience, how to prep individual roses for competition. Most of the hard work and key decisions take place in the garden in the weeks leading up to a show. Knerr explains that in the fall, “knowing when to cut back for a show is the key. Some roses take 40 days to develop and some take 50. You count back on the calendar from the days of the show, but you also have to hope God sends the right weather.”
If you’ve never been “backstage” at a horticultural beauty pageant, the last-minute ministrations to the flowers are surprising. For starters, many of the roses have Q-tips sticking out from between their petals like so many hair rollers on the heads of Miss America contestants. Roses can open fast, and the trick for competitors is to have the blooms at the perfect stage on the day of judgment—neither in bud nor fully “blown.” A standard trick is to cut the flower from the bush when the bloom is “tight” and Q-tip it the Friday afternoon before competition. When left overnight, these separators “set-in,” giving the petals the ideal flare.
Starting just after dawn on the day of the show, entrants have about three hours to help nature along—that is, to help display a rose to her best advantage. Out from a cadre of tackle boxes come deckle scissors to feign a natural edge on a bloom—or, in truth, to remove a flaw. Contestants use shoe mitts and pantyhose to buff leaves to a natural luster. Aluminum foil is a staple at rose shows, used as a wedge at the top of a vase to keep blooms rigidly upright. Careful, though: Any foil that protrudes above the lip of the vase is grounds for a penalty. Sable brushes are used, gingerly, for the final “grooming”—removing pollen, dust and the occasional hitchhiking aphid. “We call bugs ‘livestock,’” says exhibitor Jeanette Parsell, of Hampton. “Any of that and you’re dead.”
Flowers are judged by six criteria—color, stem and foliage, “balance and proportion,” “substance,” size and form. In color, which counts for 20 percent of a entrant’s total score, the judges want to see purity and brightness. Substance, at 15 percent, is closely related to color and has to do with freshness. Bloom size (10 percent) is self-explanatory; in most cases, bigger means better. (Sara Jones notes that bloom sizes get larger, and colors more vivid, in cooler weather.)
With form counting for 25 percent of a score, “pencil-point centers”—all petals on the outside falling into a perfect spiral—and “parallel petals” are crucial. Sometimes you’ve gone to lengths in the garden to select and protect a bud you expect to be a contender, only to see her open with a “confused” center. As every pageant contestant knows, a rose can never appear confused. A bloom’s balance and proportion (bloom size in relation to visible length of stem) accounts for 10 percent of the score.
Refrigeration is crucial for holding a choice bloom at the perfect stage in the hours leading up to the judging. Jones is as exacting about his refrigeration as he is about his garden, favoring an older-model refrigerator that does not self-defrost. Holding at a constant 35 degrees, it won’t dehydrate the roses. He refrigerates the cut flowers until time to leave for a show, and then, if the trip is more than an hour or two, transports them in an over-sized cooler he built himself.
Understanding the individual characteristics of each rose variety is also important. In practice, that typically means knowing the petal count of each type. Blooms with more petals hold longer than those with fewer petals. Certain varieties such as “Pristine” hold well but can close up if refrigerated. “Mr. Lincoln” and many reds are notorious for “bluing” if they’re refrigerated—and if bluing is spotted, there is a markdown in the color category. In the end, a contestant must make many subjective decisions based on experience.
Jones loves all his roses and tries not to play favorites: “There are 20 in my top five,” he quips. But he can be brutal with “spade pruning,” his euphemism for eliminating a variety that does not perform to his standards. He is not taking on any new area, so he evaluates newcomers first in biodegradable pots for eight months. If he finds a keeper, he will make room by removing one of a variety that is plentiful.
Procuring the latest roses is one of the things Dr. Knerr likes best about his hobby. In the past, he has taken out 20 to 30 new varieties each year, just to see what is new on the market, warning, “They have two years to show me something.” There is also the challenge of suiting a new variety to its prime geographic location. The plants of many hybridizers that grow in California do not perform well in Virginia, he says. Even within the state, there are micro-climates in the various areas, from east to central to northern Virginia.
Jones freely shares the secret of his success. The best way to “convert from a blue ribbon to the Court,” he says, is to amend the soil. Jones grew up on a farm, graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in industrial engineering, and worked for DuPont, so he had background conducive to the science of horticulture even before he began his major business—growing mushrooms. He grew them for 27 years, producing 750,000 pounds a year, fresh-packed and canned. Mushroom soil is good for mulch, he explains, and is a great organic amendment.
In each rotary-tilled space, he amends the soil in every hole, 21 inches wide by 20 inches deep, with perlite, peat moss, pine bark and compost, and he feeds the plants every two weeks with water-soluble 20-20-20 fertilizer and fish emulsion. In addition, he makes his own organic blend in bulk that includes bloodmeal, bone meal, alfalfa, cottonseed meal, fish meal and a few extra goodies that he feeds the roses twice a year, in mid-April and in August. Sara says with a smile, “They eat much healthier than we do.”
And the end result? For Jones, it was usually winning. No one at the 2007 Richmond Rose Show was surprised when, after the requisite four hours of deliberation, Jones captured the coveted Queen award, with his pink knockout “Hot Princess.” But in what was something of a remarkable feat, he also won every other spot on the Court—King, Princess, Prince and Duchess. His attention to detail back in the garden paid off. “All of the first four had the milk jugs, and the last one had the umbrella,” he says.
Likewise, Sara swept the awards for the Miniatures Court and garnered many other blue ribbons in categories requiring artistic composition and harmony, such as English Box and Artist’s Palette. In all, the couple garnered around 20 prizes. Then Howard and Sara held court themselves, swamped by groupies pumping them for advice on the subtle points of growing and exhibiting.
The Joneses, like Knerr, appreciate the camaraderie and expertise of the competitors they know well and respect. Those who move in the rarefied circles of the rose show circuit don’t keep secrets. “I share everything,” says Jones. “If you tell them everything you know and still beat them, the feeling is even better.” Here is a rose grower who’s been feeling good for a long time.
Tips from the Master
Stock: Purchase top-quality roses from a reliable source.
Location: Situate roses where they get a minimum of five to six hours of sunlight and good drainage.
Planting: Amend the soil with organic material and attain a pH of 6.5, slightly acidic.
Pruning: Prune the canes to 15 to 20 inches when they break dormancy in the spring.
Fertilizer: Roses are heavy feeders, so fertilize regularly.
Watering and mulching: Water one to two inches weekly, and mulch to conserve moisture and to keep the root zone cooler in summer and warmer in winter.
Disease and insect control: Spray to control diseases and insects. If you do not spray, keep the garden completely sanitary by removing any diseased plant parts and picking off all bugs.