Gardener developing roses through tests of patience, pests

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 8, 2007 

— He abuses roses, on purpose.

Garey Wylie plants bushes of April Moon or Winter Sunset roses and doesn't water them after the first year. If they get pests, he doesn't spray them. If any diseased yellow leaves appear, he ignores them.

The Cleburne, Texas, man, caretaker of a rose trial garden, is on a rigorous path toward changing the way America gardens.

Wylie is taking on the notoriously finicky rose.

He's on the hunt to find genetically tough roses that are easy on the planet and low-maintenance for the gardener.

The reason is simple.

"I just don't think that there is any other plant as pretty as a rose in bloom," Wylie says.

He is one of the more passionate of the hundreds of volunteers - mostly Texans - who test roses for EarthKind, a Texas A&M University program that began in the mid-1990s to find easy-care roses that resist drought, disease and pests.

Back then, Steve George of the Texas Cooperative Extension planted 117 kinds of roses in a trial garden in McKinney, Texas, and then - after just a little water to get the plants established - ignored them for five years. Eleven of the genetically hardiest lived.

The sturdy 11 were designated EarthKind roses, including the commercially popular `Knock Out' cherry-red rose that is showing up in not just specialty nurseries but even in the garden centers of big-box retailers.

Six more roses have been added to the EarthKind list since then. Thirty more cultivars are being tested by volunteers in Texas and in 24 other states, as well as research gardens overseas.

The original roses tested were all from Texas, but test gardens such as Wylie's are also experimenting with Northern roses. Some years back, George noticed that the EarthKind Katy Road Pink was identical to the Carefree Beauty rose that had been tested by the late Griffith Buck, an Iowa State University horticulture professor. Before he died in 1991, Buck spent almost four decades collecting and hybridizing more than 90 roses that are drought-, disease- and pest-resistant. Buck selections also are hardy to 35 degrees below zero.

If one rose could survive in extremes of heat and cold, George theorized, then perhaps more would as well.

Now Buck roses make up half of the 30 rose cultivars that are being tested in Texas.

Texas EarthKind roses also are being tested in Iowa.

"We are bringing the Southern program north and the Northern program south," Wylie says. After that, roses from the East and West will be tested in their home regions and across the country for possible inclusion in the EarthKind program.

Eventually, EarthKind may be able to find a group of roses that can grow without care anywhere in the United States.

EarthKind also is expanding its palette. Most roses with the current EarthKind designation are in pink to red shades, and most of the shrubs are small. Different heights and bloom colors are in field trials.

Wylie, 59, visits the test garden regularly when he isn't at work as a firefighter at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport. When airplanes arrive carrying troops from Iraq, Wylie is the guy who drives a 4,000-gallon fire truck out to salute them with a sky-high arch of water, the airport's way of saying "Welcome home."

The rest of the time, it is roses.

A mile or so from his home is his test garden at Winston Patrick McGregor Park on a busy retail strip in Cleburne, Texas. A drone of daytime traffic roars by the Wal-Mart, Walgreens and Golden Corral, and if anyone looks north toward the park, they can see the 15 test rose bushes - three bushes each of five different roses.

Wylie's trial garden is showing signs of success.

"I thought for sure when Dr. Buck's roses hit the Texas summer they would die," Wylie said.

Not so. The roses were planted two years ago during a drought year. Wylie recorded a temperature of 107 degrees in the garden, and still the roses thrived. This year, a rainy year when many roses suffered from black spot fungal disease, the test roses look remarkably healthy.

Three Buck's roses from Iowa - April Moon, Winter Sunset and Folk Singer - are showing pale yellow blooms from creamy ivory to sunny yellow. The fragrant April Moon bush is nearly 7 feet tall. Carefree Wonder, full of pink and white blooms, is thriving as well. An already-designated EarthKind rose, Carefree Beauty, is included in the test garden so Wylie can see if the other roses live up to EarthKind standards.

The test garden will continue one more year before results are reported to Texas A&M.

Even then, Wylie won't be done. His mission is to encourage test gardens of these sturdy roses in every one of Texas's 254 counties, and demonstration gardens in every one of the nation's city parks.

He knows it probably won't happen anytime soon.

He's still going to try. When Wylie isn't testing roses for the program, he's growing them at home.

He grows dozens of cultivars of Buck roses in the backyard of his Cleburne home, including Silver Shadows, Dublin Bay and Pearlie Mae.

In his front yard is Quietness, the rose named for the stillness that occurred when flights were grounded after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Wylie, the first vice president of the statewide Texas Master Gardener Association, has located EarthKind test gardens in 50 Texas counties, and is contacting the other counties looking for Master Gardeners willing to plant rose gardens for testing and for public education.

Wylie also recently was named the national coordinator in charge of getting EarthKind demonstration gardens in every city park in the nation. He also plans to talk to state departments of transportation to see if demonstration gardens can be put in at visitors centers and rest stops.

The EarthKind program, he says, is a logical thing. Little water, no pesticides or disease sprays. That's not such a new idea, Wylie says.

"It's kind of back to what our grandparents used to do."

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TOUGH ROSES

The most recent list of EarthKind roses:

All bloom April through November. Fall is the perfect planting time, but these roses can be planted in winter or spring as well.

Shrubs, about 4 feet tall and wide

Marie Daly, pink

The Fairy, light pink

Caldwell Pink, lilac pink

Knock Out, cherry red (Knock Out roses are sold in other colors but the red is the only one designated EarthKind so far)

Perle d'Or, peach

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Medium shrubs, up to 6 feet tall and 4 feet wide

Belinda's Dream, pink

Else Poulsen, pink

Carefree Beauty, pink, also known as Katy Road Pink

Ducher, white

Georgetown Tea, pink

Mme. Antoine Mari, pink

Duchesse de Brabant

Spice, blush pink

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Large shrub, up to 10 feet high and 6 feet wide

Mutabilis, yellow, red and orange on one bush

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Climbers, vary in height

Climbing Pinkie, rose pink, up to 12 feet high and 6 feet wide

Sea Foam, creamy white, up to 8 feet high and 4 feet wide

New Dawn, blush pink, up to 20 feet high and wide.

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Online and catalog retailers who keep a good selection in stock:

Chamblee's Rose Nursery in Tyler, 800-256-7673, www.chambleeroses.com

The Antique Rose Emporium in Brenham, 800-441-0002, www.antiqueroseemporium.com

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