Dig This

In spring, John Starnes, better known as the Garden Doctor, is exhilarated whenever he isn't exhausted. Daily, the UPS man brings him roses from all over the country. Weekly, he visits a long list of landscaping clients. Nightly, he sits at his computer, drawing up plans for his yearly tour of the most mysterious roses at Fairmount Cemetery. When he's done with that, he logs on to one of his favorite aerodynamic-design pages and lets his mind roam through the wild blue yonder of a perfect world in which all machines are streamlined and Jetson-like.

"It has nothing to do with gardening," he says, "but my mind likes to engage an opposite. Also, I like the look of it. I look at this stuff and I think the future is not going to be so bad."

Unless, that is, he fails to eradicate the neighborhood quack grass, his mortal enemy. Over the winter, it's made inroads into the fore and aft gardens of his northeast Denver home. This summer it must go.

No wonder that Starnes sometimes has to fling himself into his space chair just to regroup. An ornate wooden armchair rescued from the garbage and spray-painted gold, it features gold lame pillows, Blue Hawaii-theme Christmas lights, gold plastic angels and a wand. Starnes finds a quick sit in it very restorative.

"I don't think any household object should be an innocuous presence," he explains. "I don't believe in that. Plus, I'm a dumpster diver, and everything I get is trashed, so I fix it up."

Or he Pee-Wee Hermanizes it, which explains how his ancient washing machine got festooned with 3-D religious-poster art. And why there is a sleeping mini-dinosaur under glass in the living room--where some kind of psycho German disco opera is blaring--as well as neon tubing blinking over a cheesy stainless-steel display case that displays (what else?) Starnes's "aerogami" of high-tech paper airplanes.

You see all this peripherally while walking through the house from the front yard to the back yard, or vice versa. At this point you can be forgiven for wishing Starnes's world were its own TV gardening show, knocking four or five of those Martha Stewart clone shows, with their "gracious" sets, out of the running. For the most part, Starnes's yards are neither gracious nor even pretty, but they're crammed with the fruits of priceless gardening tips. Things an addicted gardener would salivate to hear. Things you can't imagine how Starnes ever deduced--particularly when it comes to roses.

Twelve years after he moved to Denver from Tampa, Starnes's reputation has finally transcended his obvious eccentricities. Sunset magazine calls regularly for his Rocky Mountain recommendations. He is in hot demand as a consultant at botanical gardens stretching from Denver to the coasts and on to England, where rose-breeders David Austin and Peter Beals are interested in his cultivating theories. In the meantime, roses that Starnes discovered have entered the marketplace. The offspring of roses he has bred--"boinked," he says--are the talk of the American Rose Society. Even garden-variety roses that are about to expire perk up when they meet him.

"I started gardening as a Tampa hippie in the Seventies, in a neighborhood full of blue-haired old ladies who knew everything," he explains. "In Florida, roses are hard to grow, but I knew a lady in her nineties whose rose, a Cecile Brunner, grew with wild abandon. Naturally, I wanted to know why. I did some research, and that's when the clouds parted and the light shone down."

Starnes barely had time to become fascinated with rose genetics before he moved to Denver and to growing conditions the polar opposite of those in Florida. Here his search for tough old roses continued, except these were even tougher: They would have to withstand wide swings in temperature, low moisture and Denver's alkaline soil. And unlike most commercially sold roses, they would have to be growing on their own roots, as opposed to having been grafted onto a more "reliable" plant. Finding a rose that could handle all that would be tough, but Starnes doesn't take on easy projects.

While getting his garden-design business off the ground, he moonlighted as a kids' birthday-party dinosaur and put out a gardening newsletter so labor-intensive that each issue included an envelope of something he thought a gardener should covet. Chicken manure, for instance, or an exciting new bacteria that got rid of tomato hornworms without killing the tomato itself.

His quickly growing number of landscaping clients appreciated Starnes's approach. "I create, design and install Victorian roses and perennials," he says. "Also, I do organic lawn-feeding, which is brain-stem work, but it creates killer organic green lawns. I will not permit bluegrass, but you should see my crested wheatgrass. I like to make an evil dark-green line right where it meets the neighbor's chemical lawn."

To achieve the dark green he prizes, Starnes has always gravitated toward feed stores rather than plant nurseries. When planting a rose, he advises, put two cups of dry dog food at the bottom of the hole. Get a forty-pound bag of fish meal--"which is a feeding supplement for pigs," he says, "but so what"--and sprinkle it on your land as if it were parmesan cheese. While you're at it, he adds, "buy feed-grade cottonseed meal and kelp meal, which are full of trace elements. Fling them unspecifically everywhere."

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