The Schenectady Rose Garden looks like it’s ignoring autumn. Dead leaves blanket the ground around the bushes, but above, the roses blossom, and their perfume smells like summer.
One hard frost and the show will be over for the season, but even before that happens, the volunteers who tend the 4,500 rosebushes in Central Park are working to slowly put the garden to bed for the winter.
Dave Gade of Rotterdam is the garden operations supervisor. A master rosarian with The American Rose Society, he has been growing roses for 40 years and oversees the volunteers who keep Central Park’s roses robust.
Tending the roses at this time of year is a more restful process than it is during the summer months, Gade said. “There’s not a lot of work. All the stuff we do during the summer, water, fertilizer, things like that, deadheading — cutting off the spent flowers — we gradually stop that to help the bushes go into dormancy.”
Volunteers gather each Saturday beginning in mid-September to transition the garden gently into the colder months. “There’s a lot of cleanup to do — odds and ends of raking and things like this,” Gade said. On the last Saturday in October, the bushes are pruned back to 15 inches from the ground by trained volunteers.
Then, 40 to 50 yards of organic mulch are trucked in. During November, after there has been a hard freeze, the crown of each bush is covered with four or five shovelfuls of it. Many people think the mulch is used to keep the bushes warm during winter, but that’s not the case, said Gade. “You’re really trying to keep it cold, rather than warm, so once that freezes, that will protect the bush from thawing out in January thaws or later on. That freeze-thaw thing is a bad thing.”
The most delicate bushes receive a layer of straw in addition to the mulch, but Gade said he tries to avoid using straw unless it’s absolutely necessary. “It doesn’t come off easy, and if you get bad straw, and it’s got seeds in it, in early spring, it will start growing grass,” he explained.
The rose garden is almost one acre in size, so many hands are needed to help prune, rake and mulch in preparation for winter. On Saturdays when the weather is pleasant, 20 to 25 volunteers usually show up to help, but when the weather’s not so nice, the group might be as small as 10, Gade estimated.
Elizabeth Coonrod of Schenectady has helped tend the garden for two years. She had never worked with roses before, she said, but the other volunteers showed her what to do. Last Saturday she was busy deadheading the rose bushes in Central Park. “I was told not to clip the good blooms,” she said. “If you don’t get a handful of petals [when you put your hand around the bloom], then just leave them.”
Coonrod was delighted when someone found a bush of cherry tomatoes growing in with the rosebushes Saturday. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to that. Nobody pulled it out,” she said.
Lorraine Knowles of Rotterdam has been pitching in at the rose garden for one year. “I just happened to stop there one morning, had a cup of coffee and watched a couple of people working,” she said. The next thing she knew, she was volunteering to work in the garden. She was there Saturday, helping to rake around the bushes. “It’s very pleasant,” she said. “If you were going to be doing something outdoors, you couldn’t ask for a more pleasant, lovely environment.”
Volunteers took over the Schenectady Rose Garden in 1995, after several years of neglect. “They laid off all of their city gardeners in 1993 or so, so it went a couple of years with no care. It was full of weeds, and it can go downhill pretty fast,” Gade said. It took his group five years to get the garden back into good shape again, he estimated.
His group of volunteers also solicits donations to help pay for three part-time gardeners, who tend the rose garden from 7 a.m. to noon weekdays during the summer. “It helps out a great deal,” Gade said. “I always say that volunteer pay isn’t very good, so you don’t want to overwork the volunteers.”
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