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Musings » Mrs. Foote’s Rose Book
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Harriett Risley Foote
Boston
Charles T. Branford Co. 1948

Mrs Foote’s Rose Book is small with a red cover. It was almost hidden on the shelf. The word usually chosen to describe something like this is “unassuming”. It serves notice that in spite of being small and humble in appearance the object packs an unexpected punch. We are not disappointed.

Think about when it was published. Her book came out just three years after the end of World War II. From 1941 to 1945 she must have been absorbed in war duties and not worrying about her roses. There was never enough paper during the war to bring out something so frivolous as a book about roses. She writes principally about the period before the war, a time of other serious difficulties but one with more leisure and space for a person in her position.

Mrs Foote was the widow of a Massachusetts minister and created more than one rose garden during her life. With each one she hoped to achieve perfection, using new and what she termed “radical “ methods to accomplish her aims. Perfection is a very difficult goal and we need to understand what she meant by it.

Her name first appears in a list of commendations from Albert Benson’s official history of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. In 1910, Mrs Foote’s rose garden in Marblehead contained 900 varieties of roses, principally hybrid teas, hybrid perpetuals, Noisettes and Bourbons.

Many of these are extremely demanding to grow, unlike the tough, disease-resistant varieties of today. There were very few grafted roses. Everything was “own-root”. She arrived at her system through trial and error though she notes that she and her husband read every book about roses they could find.
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Mrs Foote also joined the English National Rose Society and her first garden contained roses imported from Scotland. These were the first tender roses to be grown successfully outdoors in new England.

She did not start out totally ignorant but recognized the effects that the enormous variation in climate and soil had on her plants. The MHS Garden Committee singled her out with a few other luminaries for special commendation. They had visited 18 gardens that year.

Many of the great advances in rose breeding had not yet occurred when she began her work. J. Horace McFarland had just started his pioneering efforts to organize rose growing and rose growers into a solid group. Evidently Dr McFarland and Mrs Foote locked horns at one point. He accused her of being as “sententious as the Ten Commandments”, fighting words for a minister’s wife.

Mrs Foote’s prescriptions included digging the trenches as least 3 feet deep and establishing good drainage, using a good deal of cow manure, restricting the beds to a width of 5 feet, avoiding “cheap-own root” plants, watering very thoroughly, pruning very carefully rather than decimating the plants and protecting the tender ones against winter chill. Many of these ideas are now standard practice. Her insistence that enough leaves remain on a rosebush was based on good science. All the nutrition comes from the leaves. If you remove those recklessly, the plant has less energy to make flowers.

Mrs Foote claimed that one reason her hybrid tea roses grew very tall was that she planted them close together, between 12 and 16 inches apart. They tended to give each other a little support and their tops shaded the soil beneath them.

It is hard for us to believe that commercial rose growing did not really start in the United States until about 1914. Before that the public could only buy Prairie Queen, Baltimore Belle and a few hybrid perpetuals.

Nothing has been said about anything so crass as money but the MHS history tells us Mrs Foote created rose gardens for other people, with one assistant, Miss Emma Schumaker. For instance, she planted 400 bushes for the Spaulding family. In 1927, the society awarded her a gold medal for her lifelong achievements. Through the years she received other medals.

Mrs Foote kept on making improvements and being a thorn in the side of some of the “experts”. Our hats are off to her.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT THESE NOTES COULD NOT HAVE BEEN COMPLETED WITHOUT THE SPLENDID ASSISTANCE OF MS ROSALIND HUNNEWELL, A VOLUNTEER AT THE MHS LIBRARY.

Copyright © Judith M. Taylor December 2007