The Color of a City

Wednesday, July 28, 1999 - Portland, Oregon - Harry Landers could get any woman he wants. As senior horticulturalist of Portland's International Rose Test Garden, Landers works among some 8,000 rose plants each day. When he goes home at night, he tends to his collection of over 350 bushes. If roses are the key to a woman's heart, then Landers is a certified locksmith.

The Washington Park garden, next to the city zoo, is the oldest rose test garden in the United States, established in 1917 as "a place to save the roses from Europe," Landers says. The war over in Europe was very destructive, and the people who loved roses feared the bushes would be lost in the battles. They shipped several varieties to Portland, where the days and nights are cool, and the winters are mild enough for the plants to thrive.

Open from mid-May, until November, the test garden attracts some half-million visitors each year.
It takes a lot of green to make a rose garden.
Admission has never been charged, as the founders believed the gardens should be kept free for the people of Portland. Landers works with a small staff of three in the summer and one or two in the winter. The nearby Japanese gardens has a larger staff, funded by admission fees, and Landers sighs at the thought of charging admission to the rose garden - but he makes do; "We have volunteer groups come in," he says, "which is the only way I can get things done." Children and adults from schools, businesses, churches and social clubs visit for a few hours and clip bushes or clean the grounds. These volunteers help keep the garden alive, so that all Portlanders, rich or poor, can enjoy the beauty, allure and science of roses.

Grooming over 8,000 rose bushes every day, there is little time to stop and smell them.

Volunteers don't get to take roses home, however - not even the trimmed blooms or bulbs - because most of the varieties are patented, and are given to the garden for testing. As one of 26 testing sites for the All-America Rose Selections group, this garden is host to experimental varieties, which are not even named yet. They test each rose for two seasons, and rate it carefully on 14 qualities. 49 varieties are being tested here this year.

Landers says it takes nearly a decade, and as much as 5 million dollars in research and testing, to create and patent a variety of rose - and there are thousands of varieties. Many are named after British royalty and celebrities, but Americans are collecting the honors more and more. (Visit the garden!) It seems likely that a good name can sell a rose more than anything (one would believe that the Princess Diana rose would make much more money for the rose company than, say, the Mark Gilchrist rose) but Landers says that the person is not paid for lending the name.

Roses are rated during testing on 16 points. Here are 9 basics:

1. Color in the bud
2. Shape
3. Fragrance
4. Disease Resistance
5. Plant Habit (form)
6. Vigor (rate of growth)
7. Repeat blooming
8. Aged flowers
9. Hips

Having such a huge arsenal of roses at his amorous disposal does Harry Landers no good, for he is happily married, and even though he keeps roses on the dining room table through three seasons (sometimes up until Christmas) his wife, Darlene, is immune to the flower's romantic powers. Married for over 20 years, they get around this issue; "My wife and I don't agree on a lot of things," he says, "And this way, it's my garden and her house - so we're both happy."

The secret to keeping your rose bushes happy? A few tips from Landers: "Plenty of sunlight, water and food," he says. "And of course, keep the dead blooms off of them." He also offers a tip about fungicides; "Alternate your fungicide - at least 2 different kinds - because the fungus builds up resistance quickly." Also; "The further you cut down when grooming, the larger a flower you will get."

The curious thing about rose bushes, is that after you trim the old blooms (called "dead-heading") and clean the beds, they are not so photogenic. The time to photograph live roses is before the gardener gets to them, when they are full of color - even if some of that color is faded. But that is only the beginning to the plant's intrigue. They are bushes, rather than merely flowers, so a plant may live for decades, and may produce thousands of blossoms. During one season, they may bloom up to five times, so, if you have one that is fading, you can enjoy the challenge of reviving it through the summer. You can transplant roses, reproduce them and hybridize them to no end, so they easily become a fascinating hobby to people who enjoy them for much more than their color.

You have to love the outdoors to love this job, and you have to love to work. Landers is under the sun most of every day, cutting bushes and hauling trimmings. In the winter, he and his crew dig the beds and groom the bushes. Though there is work to do throughout the year, the jobs vary enough by the season to keep things interesting. The bushes here bloom three times each season. (In California, Landers notes, they bloom up to five times.)

Landers had been working at a cemetery, bringing color to the lives of its visitors, until one fateful winter; "I came up here around Christmas, in '84," he says. "And it was cold, and wet and dreary, and I said; 'I would love to work here!'"
A pair of Chris Evert roses hold court before the city skyline. Cities can become so dark and dirty, it's nice to bring some color to them.
Since then, he and his gardens have played host to dozens of weddings, a refreshing change of ceremonies from that previous job. At 47, he isn't about to retire, but he figures this will be his last job, as he has grown to love growing roses. "To me, it's like they're all living, breathing things, and they have their own personalities," he says. "It's like I have bunches of children." (Landers does have actual children; two boys who "could care less" about roses, he says.) Landers isn't alone in his passion for the flower. During our interview, several men approach him and ask questions about pruning or fertilizer and such - though he admits that most men visit the garden because their wives "drag them along."

But Portland, Oregon couldn't care more about these thorny bushes. The City of Roses has three large rose gardens, including the test garden. It has a large festival, during which a rose queen is elected, a significant rose show, a rose contest and a rose parade, which is second in size only to the one in Pasadena, California. The spirit imbued by these gardens has infected the entire city, from its slums to its high-rises, and even a dreary cab ride to the airport on a rainy day is interrupted by small, but inspiring bursts of color from these hardy plants.

So, all this beauty started out with a war - a war so ugly, that for the first time, mankind refered to it as a "world war." A war that we, thankfully, only have images of in black and white. It started out 82 years ago, when this ordinary city became the City of Roses. Today, thanks to thousands of workers, volunteers, patrons and people like Harry Landers, it has a beautiful legacy, and it is a beautiful city, filled with beautiful color.

Harry Landers, Dawn Pfarr-Johnson, and Pat O'Brian deal
with the thorny issue of working with rose bushes.
"It's the most relaxing job I've ever had," says O'Brian.

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