A Case Against Roses in the Desert

I just celebrated my fifth anniversary of coming to Arizona, and my fourth in my present home. It's amazing how the thing that attracts you at first is the thing that drives you crazy after a while. That's the way it is with me...and the roses. We saw the house in October and the roses were stunning. Bright pink and dark red grandifloras, coral and pink floribundas, white and yellow teas... over a dozen in all. It was heavenly! We moved in over Thanksgiving. The previous owner had thoughtfully pruned the roses for us. I should have taken it as an omen that the short, ugly, thorny sticks were lying in wait for me.

I knew there would be pruning, I'd had roses before in east Texas. But anyone who can't grow nice roses in east Texas has no business having anything but gravel in their yard - they have a brown thumb! I was filled with the enthusiasm of a new home owner. I had not yet learned about the importance of low water use and native plants as the mainstay of a southwestern garden.

Spring came, and the tender red foliage was lovely. I was elated. Then came the aphids. No problem, I'd defeated meaner pests before. Bring out the insecticidal soap! These were hardier than those wimpy Texas aphids, but I prevailed at last. Then came the heat of summer. The amount of water required to just keep them alive was amazing, and then the darn things wouldn't bloom. Six weeks of pitiful, near wilted, thorny, roseless bushes. The love affair was starting to wilt as well.

The weather cooled with the monsoons. Finally, I thought, I'll have lovely roses again. But it was not to be. The double whammy struck. Powdery mildew and black spot had come to visit. I couldn't see how big their suitcases were then, but now I know they wanted to move in for good. I work in the environmental business and know the potential horrors of engineered fungicides in residential areas. Many of these products are teratogens and mutagens. Despite the fact that I didn't know my neighbors well, I would not take the chance of damaging them or their children by using such products in close residential quarters. So I Bordeau'ed and Safer'ed my way through the fall. The paraphernalia was amazing. I tried several types of sprayers and permanently clogged them with the muck that forms in the bottom when using sulfur based products. I was relieved when winter came. I had gotten some lovely roses, but each one had cost me about an hour of my life and four or five dollars, or so it felt.

The first winter that the roses were ours, my husband pruned them. Since then it has been a joint effort. It always reminds me of my Dad's thoughts on lawns. He says, "I have to wonder about people who water and fertilize a crop so they can harvest it several times a year in order to throw it away." I'm beginning to feel that way about my roses. I have developed an allergy to rose thorns. My hands swell, turn red and hurt. I have also developed a Laissez-Faire management philosophy. I still spray when the aphids are really bad, but I prefer to hope that beneficial insects will see the restaurant sign. I supplement the water a bit during the heat, but probably not enough because they always burst forth with an amazing bloom of mildew and black spot when it finally rains. I spray sulfur fungicide after I've pruned in the winter, but that's about it. If I had more time and energy, I'd rip out all but two and replace them with salvias and lavenders. Anyone want some roses?

Gretchen Kent
February, 1998