Mable Ringling's Rose Garden turns 100 at Sarasota's Ringling Museum of Art

mclear@bradenton.comMarch 3, 2013 

It looks almost exactly the same as it did 100 years ago, yet it changes every day.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the creation of Mable Ringling's Rose Garden, a stunning display of, at last count, 1,164 roses in 317 different varieties that cover 27,000 square feet on the Ringling Estate.

"It's a hidden gem of our area," said Maureen Zaremba, the curator of education for the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota. "We kept a low profile for the garden until about 10 years ago, but now we're trying to raise awareness."

One way the museum is doing that is by encouraging people to visit the garden right around now. Mable Ringling's birthday is March 14, and by then the garden should be in full bloom for the 100th time.

The museum has several events going on, timed to call attention to the garden's centennial and Mable's birthday.

The museum's third annual "Ringling in Bloom" runs through this evening. That event brings flower arrangers from around the country to design displays inspired by artwork in the museum.

At 7:30 p.m. March 7-9, the Kate Weare Company performs at the Historic Asolo Theater. Among the works on the program is Weare's "Garden," an exploration of the forces of nature.

Then, from 6 to 11 p.m. March 15, the museum's Treviso Restaurant is sponsoring the "Wine Walk to

the Ca' d'Zan" mansion, which offers a chance to enjoy food, wine and entertainment from different regions of the world while strolling through the museums grounds, including the rose garden.

A lot of people in the Bradenton-Sarasota area may not realize such a spectacular garden is in their midst, but rose lovers and gardeners all around the world, know all about it. In 2006, the All-American Rose Society named Mable Ringling's Rose Garden the best rose garden in the country.

Mable Ringling herself oversaw the creation of the garden in 1913.

"We know it must have been a high priority for her," Zaremba said, "because it was one of the first things she did after (the Ringlings) acquired the property."

Pictures from that era show that the garden has remained essentially unchanged for a century.

"Actually, we don't have many pictures," Zaremba said. "Somewhere, at the bottom of a drawer or a trunk or a cabinet, someone has pictures."

The layout hasn't changed over the years, but there are a lot of new rose hybrids in the garden that didn't exist in 1913. Loretta Bestpitch, the garden's curator, didn't know anything about the garden when she first saw it seven years ago.

"As soon as I walked in that front gate," she said, "I felt like I was home."

Bestpitch was a horticulturist living in Palmetto and working for a landscaper. She saw an ad in the newspaper that said the Ringling estate was hiring a horticulturist, and came to check out the job opening. She has been caring for the garden ever since.

Tending such a treasured garden has peculiar challenges, Bestpitch said. There's a delicate balance involved in providing the best experience for visitors and what's best for the roses.

The garden has always been cut back severely in January, which is the healthiest way to handle the roses, she said, and provides for the spectacular sight of the garden in full bloom in March. But it means that other times of the year the garden is much less colorful.

"We have people who come from all over the world to see the roses and, if it's the wrong time of year, there's nothing to see," she said.

So she's trying to find ways to keep the flowers happy, but still have lots of roses blooming 12 months a year.

Another change in the works is making the garden more environmentally friendly. She and her volunteer staff are trying to eliminate pesticides and release beneficial insects into the garden to kill off pests.

"We have someone who's carefully working with us on this," she said. "People say they're worried these beneficial bugs will attack them. But these are so small I need a magnifying glass to see them, so people have nothing to worry about."

Details: The Ringling Garden is open 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. daily at 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota. Free. Information: 941-360-7399 or ringling.org.

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.

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