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Originally published Sunday, June 21, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Plant Life

Woodland Park Zoo is showing you can grow gorgeous roses organically

In the All-American Rose Selections Test Garden at Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo, the growing is all organic, proving that even temperamental roses can be raised strong and beautifully without the use of chemicals.

They will thrive if you take good care

• Hard-pruning roses every spring means better air circulation, which helps prevent black spot and powdery mildew.

• While experts vary in their opinions about how effective compost tea is, E.J. Hook and his brew-master, "Dr. Dan" Corum, swear by it. The zoo brews its own, so it can control freshness and viability. Roses are dosed with compost tea in early March at bud break, and the staff applies 275 gallons of compost tea every week through the growing season.

• Housekeeping is important. Throughout the season, pick up dead leaves and remove any leaves with black spot.

• "It's all about healthy biota," says Dr. Dan, meaning that care of the soil is vital. He adds humus and compost to boost the population of good bacteria.

• Roses are watered an inch a week. Because it's harder to fill up the water table than to keep it full, staff tries to anticipate heat and water beforehand.

IF AN ALL-AMERICAN Rose Selections Test Garden can go organic, rose fanciers everywhere should take heart and toss the protective moon suits. It's time for roses to come out of the chemical closet and join the rest of the sustainable, creature-friendly garden world.

Even fussy hybrid teas are responding well to an organic regime at the Woodland Park Zoo rose garden. "Organic care isn't significantly different in terms of labor," says E.J. Hook, landscape manager at the zoo. "We used to be on a 10-day fungicide rotation." To his surprise, the roses seem as healthy as ever after two years of organic care. "We were worried we'd see a drastic change and even put signs up warning visitors," says Hook. "But no one noticed anything. The roses still have that showcase look."

Most of the roses at the zoo are hybrid teas. The plan is to gradually replace as many as possible with disease-resistant roses, but because this is one of 23 official test gardens across the country, the zoo is required to keep many of the existing bushes. "We need to learn to tolerate a little imperfection," says Hook cheerfully.

The zoo's rose garden has been a summer pilgrimage for Seattleites since 1924. More than 200,000 people visit annually to soak up the intensity of 5,000 roses all blooming together. Many a private garden has no doubt been inspired by the 280 kinds of roses in all their varied colors, scents and ruffles.

The zoo staff takes a holistic approach to caring for 2 ½ acres of needy roses, meaning that a variety of measures are used to encourage them to be more healthy and independent. "We're a conservation organization," says Hook. "We're supposed to walk our talk."

But cultivating roses organically isn't Hook's biggest green challenge at the zoo. He and his staff have 92 acres to keep thriving sans chemicals, a regime necessary for the well-being of both animals and visitors. The zoo hosts 30 weddings a year, upward of 200 people each, many in the rose garden. It entertains 6,000 people a pop at concerts on the North Meadow.

How do they keep the grass green? "If you can't do anything else, aerate the lawn," says Hook. Zoo staff members apply organic fertilizer in springtime, over-seed high-traffic areas when necessary and aerate the lawns twice a year.

"We don't manage for our problems," Hook emphasizes. "We manage for our successes and build on them." Which is a smart approach to healthy garden building on any scale.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "A Pattern Garden." Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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