When Loretta Bestpitch began work as the curator of Mable Ringling’s Rose Garden on the Ringling Museum of Art grounds in 2006, romance was in the air.
“It just sounded so romantic,” she says with a slight Southern twang. “I knew when I came through the gate that it was home.”
Long before this, home was Osceola County, where she grew up with six brothers, as an outdoors-romping tomboy.
“When most girls were thinking about dating, I was up in a tree throwing moss down to cows,” she says.
Bestpitch comes from a long line of West Virginia farmers who grew Old MacDonald apples. She certainly has the green-thumb gene.
At 42, Bestpitch was working for the Osceola County school system and longed for more than the felt walls of her cubicle — she needed to be outside, “where life was goin’ on,” she says.
“My neighbor said, ‘Well, I have a lawnmower,’ and I said, ‘Well, I have one, too. So, let’s go mow yards!’”
The pair started L&W, a landscape-maintenance business. The company eventually had 42 yards; the income financially supported her and her three daughters while she earned a degree in ornamental horticulture from Valencia Junior College.
Post-degree, she spent three years training at Disney’s Epcot, where she would occasionally cut the roses to give to guests. This was followed by a six-year stint working at a landscape company in Bradenton, and finally, the Ringling rose garden.
Bestpitch began in 2006 with an intense, year-long internship under Ron Mallory and replaced him upon his retirement in 2007. Since then, she’s been weeding, deadheading, irrigating, fertilizing and mulching at both the Mable Ringling Rose Garden and Secret Garden. She’s also been coordinating volunteers and interacting with guests.
And, just as a museum curator gets to decide which paintings make the cut, Bestpitch decides which flowers come in when the others go out. But it isn’t as easy as growing roses in the Pacific Northwest, a part of the country known for its rose cultivating.
“Having a (rose garden) in Florida doesn’t follow textbook (guidelines),” she says.
She makes decisions based upon which specimens are the most disease-resistant and grow best in this region. She says that the rose must be of the fortuniana rootstalk. From there, her decision is based on garden design, color and fragrance.
“This one reminds me of apples,” she says pointing out one bush. “This reminds me of when I used to make guava jelly for the kids,” she says while smelling another.
She typically gets new roses locally from Your Farm & Garden on Beneva Road. Occasionally she will test out the All American Rose Selection (AARS) annual winners to see how they will do. And, sometimes, her decisions are spurred by other causes.
In 2008, Bestpitch was reading an article in Southern Living about the Peggy Martin rose. It was one of only two plants that survived Hurricane Katrina at Peggy Martin’s garden in Louisiana. Cuttings of the rose were distributed as a fundraiser for a horticulture restoration fund.
“I just had to have one,” Bestpitch says. The Peggy Martin rose flourished in the Ringling gardens.
The Italian wagon-wheel shaped Mable Ringling Rose Garden was erected in 1913 and was the first attraction on the Ringling property. Though none of the original flowers remains, Old Garden roses (predecessors to today’s rose varieties) from Mabel’s era do fill the gardens.
“When I got here, there were 110 unidentified (roses),” Bestpitch says.
She identified all of them, recorded them and has been keeping a detailed log of every product she plants and when, such as the Dick Clark roses (the 2011 AARS winner) or Pope John Paul II roses.
“There are 480 unidentified species in the mini beds,” she says. “That’s my next project.”
Her eyes light up. What might seem daunting to others is fun for Bestpitch.
The garden won Most Outstanding All-American Rose selection and Public Rose Garden in the nation in 2007.
Bestpitch has many wishes for the rose garden’s future (including streaming classical music and using misters), and she hopes to work in the gardens indefinitely.
She then walks over to her favorite devoniensis (climbing tea rose), puts her nose to it and takes a whiff.
“I always have to stop and smell this rose before I leave,” she says.
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