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."

Anything else you need, he notes, you can probably find in a dumpster. In fact, here are his top five trash items for gardeners:

1. Flattened cardboard boxes: They make nice mulch and help to squelch out the quack grass.

2. Old carpet remnants: ditto.
3. Metal lawn furniture on the verge of becoming antique.
4. Doors, especially steel doors with foam cores; you can join a bunch of these together with metal brackets and turn them into "hot boxes," inside of which you can grow roses and tomatoes throughout the winter--as long as you also salvage a double-paned patio door to act as a greenhouse top. A side benefit: Leave room inside for one of those metal lawn chairs, so that you and your dog can sun yourself in the box on harsh winter days, as Starnes and his Sweety often do.

5. Big slabs of Styrofoam: great for further insulation of hot boxes.
In early spring, a back yard full of these raw materials looks like a salvage yard as opposed to a garden. But by summer, the old and scavenged roses Starnes has collected from cemeteries and neighborhood rosarians "will be so giant and beautiful, and they will have such a wonderful old lady/clove smell, they will give you a spaz attack," he promises. "Last year I got my first $10,000 rose garden--I had to redo it for this charming woman, and she had wanted the roses all white. I picked her a bouquet from my garden, and she couldn't believe the colors. I took a deep breath and told her, 'I can see you've never done acid.'

"I don't believe in one color or even one kind of plant. Every one of the yards I build is a self-sufficient ecosystem. I can't go nuking out whole populations. And this is what I get from these gardens and from my own-root roses," he brags. "Total fucking vigor. Total."

Among the most vigorous of all the Colorado plants Starnes has come to love is a rose now known as "Mr. Nash," whose roots can be traced only to 1940 and the northeast Denver home of a certain Mr. Nash, but certainly go back much further than that. "Look at him," Starnes says, handing over a slide that depicts a house-sized rose bush covered with apricot/ gold blooms. "He's giant. And what a boinker. I can breed him with anyone, and I have. This year he's been put into commerce. You can buy him at Birsdall, if they have any left. And we still put quotes around his name, because nobody knows what old rose he really is. You wouldn't believe how many people are trying to pinpoint who he is, and all anyone can do is figure out what he's not."

"All we know is that Mr. Nash was full-grown in 1940," says Toni Tichy, who now owns that original rose. "When I first saw the rose, it was growing four or five doors down from me at the home of an old gentlemen, the real Mr. Nash, who'd been there since that time. Nine years ago he had to move to Chicago so that someone could take care of him, and he told me I could have the rose. He knew I'd always loved it."

After more than fifty years of total Denver vigor--the rose went unfazed by 70-degree temperature drops, dry summers and long winters--it was so big it had to be moved as if it were a tree. Five people spent hours leveraging it out of the ground with shovels, gingerly dragging it half a block away and replanting it in Tichy's yard, all the while hoping it could stand the shock.

"But there was no shock at all," Tichy remembers. "It just sat down and started blooming again. Some of its roots were as big around as my wrist."

Soon, seeds and cuttings from Mr. Nash, the rose, were circulating among breeders in Denver and then in England. Rose historians wondered if he might be related to "Doubloons," a notable yellow rose, debated the issue for several years, and then rejected the theory. Slides of Mr. Nash in all his springtime splendor hit the garden-club lecture circuit, where his intense gold blossoms evoked the promise of Denver spring.

But it's Mr. Nash, the person, that Tichy thinks of when the rose begins to bloom.

"His parents had been slaves, you see, and so they had never been allowed to vote," she remembers. "Mr. Nash was very, very old by the time I met him, and there was nothing he liked better than voting, even in the tiniest election. I used to drive him to the polls. Once, I think, we made the whole trip just to vote for some kind of fire commissioner, but he enjoyed that tremendously."

Mr. Nash died in 1998, in his late nineties, and Tichy doesn't even have a snapshot of the man. But she has the rose. This year it's looking better than ever.


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