Sweet Charity: They Promise You A Rose Garden
The little table covered by vases full of perfect, artfully arranged roses makes for an unusual sight in this century-plus old, working-class neighborhood. Some passers-by seem baffled by the sign, too: "ONE VASE of roses per family. Please, return vase." "One man insisted on giving us $2," says 78-year-old Mary Sieder. "We told him they were free, but he wouldn't take them without giving us $2. Sometimes, they leave money on the table." "We don't want to sell them," explains her son Ernest, 49. "We want them to be free. That's what 'you're welcome' means when someone says 'thank you' - no strings attached."Takers have carried Mary and Ernest's rainbows of roses far from their North Highlands Avenue garden. "We've had people come from all over," she says. "They drive by on their way to work and see the table. "They take them to their mothers, their grandmothers, to rest homes, to work. The postman takes them to a law office downtown. They take the vases and many return them. Sometimes they take just one rose and leave the vase, if they don't think they can bring it back." Mary gets the vases for 40 cents apiece at the Sunshine Thrift Store. She guesses she's bought about 300 since she and Ernest started giving away their flowers back in spring 2007. The two don't like to take money, but they have fun with other tokens of gratitude. "Mostly, they leave notes," Mary says, showing the stack she has saved. "One lady brought us a bag of apples. One brought us a picture of her mother. A man left a couple avocadoes." The Sieders' roses got their start a few years ago, when Ernest planted a few bushes for his mom. Then he moved up North and over to Florida's East Coast, where he taught science and started a rose garden at a Christian school. When his dad, Herman, got sick, Ernest came home to help care for him. And he got his mom outside planting more roses. Today they have more than 100 bushes, vines and small trees - about 20 different varieties of Fortunia rootstock. They crowd the front yard of the bungalow Mary's parents bought when she was 11. "I buy them for the scent," Ernest says. "Other flowers are pretty, but only roses have that fragrance. You can have beautiful form and beautiful color, but the fragrance is what makes you go 'Aaaaaaaaah!' '' Ernest handles spraying and cutting; Mary creates the arrangements. Together, they plant. This time of year they have only 20 or so blooms to set out every few days, but from spring to early summer, Ernest might clip 150 in a single day. Then they break out the big vases. "You've heard, 'It's more blessed to give than to receive,' " he says. "It really is. It's not like we're sacrificing." Ernest & Mary's Rose-Growing Tips You Gotta Spray: "If you're going to invest your money in roses, you have to spray," Ernest says. Lots of diseases, pests and fungus attack. He relies on the folks at Hardin's Nursery, 6011 S. Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa, for help identifying problems. (Note: They're open only 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays.) Joining a rose society is also a good idea, he says. Don't Shop From A Book: Ask at the nursery for what grows well here - what's best for Florida and Hillsborough County (or whatever county you're in.) Make A Comfy Bed: "I like to dig out the whole area, remove some [native] dirt," Ernest says. He adds top soil or a soil mix for roses, compost, and lots of peat moss to hold moisture. "Peat's the biggie," Mary says. Know When To Clip: When the green sepals embracing the bud fall down, the blossom's about to open. Squeeze the bud - if it's hard, it's not quite ready. If it's a little poofy, it's time to clip. Keep Your Blooms Longer: Clip about a half-inch from the bottom of the stem every couple days, Mary says. Cut on a slant.
Penny Carnathan can be reached at email@example.com.