Harmon Saville and His Magical Minis

Breeder of 114 Different Rose Varieties
Including 12 Award of Excellence Miniature Roses

By Kathy DeRoo

All photos Copyright Kitty Belendez

Harmon Saville was one of the world's top producers of miniature roses, not only as hybridizer of some of the most popular minis, but also as introducer of others' roses through the nursery he began in 1971, Nor'East Miniature Roses. His own creations include Award of Excellence (AOE) miniature rose winners, Party Girl, Cornsilk, Valerie Jeanne, Julie Ann, Little Jackie, Centerpiece, Winsome, Rainbow's End, Heavenly Days, Dee Bennett, Golden Halo, Good Morning America, and the first rose to win both the AOE and AARS awards, Child's Play.

It all began in 1966, when Harmon decided to plant roses to hang over a fence in front of his oceanfront home in Massachusetts. He went to a local garden center and was told to order the plants in November for delivery in May. This surprised and intrigued him so he began reading up on roses, still looking for the right plants. "I found a nursery that had a plant of New Dawn. I took extraordinary care of it (watered it, fed it, talked to it) and about 8 years later, when I sold the house, the rose had crushed the white picket fence ~ the canes were as big around as my arm!"

By that first spring he had 175 rose plants, and 400 by the end of summer. "I had every square inch of the yard covered with roses. I even 'built' more land with retaining walls."

At Christmastime, his son Mike ordered some miniature roses for him from Ralph Moore at Sequoia Nursery with paper-route money. Harm grew them in the cellar: "I thought I invented growing roses under  lights. I put 24 fluorescent lights on a 4' x 8' sheet of plywood and had to have 6 men help me lift it up. The roses grew better there than they do outdoors."

In 1971, Harm decided to "start a little business, to have something to putter around in, in my old age." He began as the "Nor'East" distributor for Ralph Moore's roses. It wasn't long before he decided to try hybridizing his own miniature roses, having minimal success, but anything introduced then would'go'."From just a few crosses he came up with Sizzler and Pearl Dawn (still in commerce).

His first AOE winning miniature rose was one that was hybridized by Ralph Moore, Peachy White (1976). Since "Ralph had no plans to do anything with it," Harm (as the introducer) entered it in the trials and it was one of three winners that year.

Then Harm met Ernest Schwartz at a rose hybridizers' meeting. "Ernie made about 30 crosses and we introduced 17 of them. The first year that we entered him in the ARS trials, he won with the miniature rose called Humdinger [1978]. The next year we won all four awards with Ernie's roses." (Ernest Schwartz passed away before the '79 awards were announced.)

In 1981, Saville had his first win with his own miniature rose, Party Girl. "By that time, the breeding program had gone from a few dozen crosses to the point where we'd germinate 80,000 seedlings. I came to realize that it was a numbers game ~ the only way to be sure of getting good roses was to make enough crosses to get a good exploration of what was in the cross. There are 2 billion possible results from a cross of two roses, so your chances of getting the best one is almost non-existent."

He is currently doing 60 to 70 different crosses each year, 5 or 6 in large volume (20,000 crosses each); the rest are considered to be "exploratory." His favorite varieties for hybridizing right now are Sachet, June Laver, Lavender Jade, and Velvet Touch, a medium red which is new for '94 ("but of course, we've had it quite a while"). He is also using "a lot of very fragrant, bigger roses ~ Hybrid Teas, Floribundas." Harm says he is trying to bring fragrance into the Minis: "I've had some success, but in a few years it'll be real good."

With 80,000 seedlings to look at each year, "there are a lot of criteria that go into picking 4 or 5." The first thing he looks for is vigor: "If it doesn't grow vigorously, then that's the end of it right there." Then, he almost rules out all singles: "Fully a third of the seedlings that come up are singles." He says that it's almost not worth the time and effort spent evaluating singles "because the market is limited even when you do find a good one; only the most sophisticated rose growers like them."

Also, he says, "We look at a lot of amateur seedlings ~ we got Betty Bee from Dan Blazey out in Ohio; of course, Frank Benardella's stuff [Kristin, Old Glory, Black Jade, etc.]; Nighthawk from Don Hardgrove, down by San Diego; Peggy Jane from Peggy Utz in Indiana. So we do evaluate amateur seedlings along with our own."

In his own rose breeding program he is striving to produce excellent form and fragrance in his roses. "I've got to get back on top of the exhibitors' lists!"

When he narrows down the number of candidates, he multiplies them by cuttings and ships about 30 plants of each cultivar to Nor'East in Ontario, California for bicoastal testing. (All rose hybridizing was done in Massachusetts.)

Harm acquired the western facility from Armstrong Nurseries in 1982. There were 312 acres which held the main offices and packing room, eight greenhouses, and the propagation room. Manager Dillon Hayes maintains an efficient, well-organized operation, going so far as to keeping the roses categorized and alphabetized within the greenhouses, which are also categorized.

Each greenhouse holds approximately 22,000 miniature rose plants; the propagation room holds up to 55,000 miniature rose plants in 2-1/2" pots.

Two women do all the rose propagation here, beginning early in June through November 1st. They take cuttings until 10:00 or 11:00 a.m. and "stick" them until 4:00 p.m. They each do about 4,000 pots a week, usually 2 cuttings per pot. The potting mix is about 55% peat moss and 45% perlite ~ "It's well-draining and very aerated so roots can grow and not get soggy," Hayes says. The room is kept quite humid by a fog machine which can create up to 95% humidity. "It keeps the heat down a little bit (this house can get up to 120 degrees very easily), and it keeps the cuttings tender and soft so they root." It usually takes 12 to 14 days for the cuttings to root; after about 16 days the cuttings are brought out to the greenhouses.

After the new miniature rose plants have some good growth, another employee with a 36" electric hedge clipper shears off the tops and sides of the plants, as an alternative to individual pruning. This will encourage more lateral breaks from the bottom to create a bushier plant with more blooms when it is sold. The mini rose plants are sheared again after 6 weeks and made available for sale after another 6 weeks. It takes 4 to 6 months, depending on the particular variety, to go from a cutting to a saleable miniature rose plant.

The freshly-trimmed miniature roses are given clear water for a week, as their roots will be set back temporarily. Then they go on "tank mix" ~ every time they are watered (even daily in summer) they are fed ammonium, nitrogen, calcium, and either phosphorous or iron, alternating every few days. According to Hayes, "Phosphoric acid and iron compete with each other. They're like oil and water; no matter how much iron you put in, if you put phosphorous with it, it won't be made available to the plant."

All watering is done by hand. Two people using water wands spend 4 hours a day passing back and forth over 10,500 five-foot rows of plants. "People who have aches and pains can really appreciate that!" Also, the roses are sprayed for pests and fungus about every 2 weeks.

Each rose growing greenhouse is equipped with a large heater at each end, but Dillon says they try to grow the roses without artificial heat "because they ship better ~ they look better, and they're hardier."

He advises against transplanting a 2-1/2" pot into a one- or two-gallon pot "because it takes forever for the roots to fill out in the pot, and you won't get any growth to speak about until the roots hit the edge of the pot; then you'll get top growth." It is better to graduate to a 4" or 6" pot, before going into a 1-gallon pot. A new Mini can be planted directly in the ground but some less vigorous varieties will just "sit there." Most taller varieties do well "provided you don't keep them too wet. Roots only grow when it's dry enough because they're looking for water ~ that's their purpose, besides anchoring the plant; they look for water and nutrients." (Thus, the argument for good drainage.)

Nor'East presently sells 400,000 to 500,000 miniature roses per year from both coasts ~ nearly 100 varieties are grown. Each year there are 3 to 5 new introductions and the same number of varieties must be eliminated from the catalogue.

Harm's new miniature rose introductions for 1994 are Velvet Touch and School Days, a bright yellow with a smallish bloom. Both get up to 18" tall. He will also have the sole '94 AOE winner, Jackson & Perkins' Hot Tamale. This pink, orange and yellow blend has already made it to the top of the exhibitors' "must-have" lists.

A new one that is expected to be introduced in May '94 is "a really delicious lavender, well-saturated but not that harsh lilac, a soft lavender with excellent form, blooms a lot, grows very nicely, and has everything BUT fragrance," according to Saville. It is still unnamed.

One of Dillon's favorites is Lights of Broadway, a bright orange miniature rose with bright yellow reverse. It will be introduced in May '94 or January '95.

Also for future introduction, he has "one that 'feels' like Party Girl, but much better; and one that's like Jean Kenneally, same color on a more compact plant, and smaller blooms (I don't know how it is for you, but the blooms are almost 2" in diameter here)." There is also an exquisite yellow, now known as #51, which is "going in the trials next year, so that puts it 4 years away [from introduction]. But, I think #51 is going to be an excellent exhibition rose." [Could that have been 'Behold'?]

Harmon Saville is now "semi-retired" ~ he still does the hybridizing, but his son John is the boss, in charge of running Nor'East. This gives Harm plenty of time to pursue his other favorite pastime, fishing!

At the ARS Fall '93 National Convention, Harm was the proud recipient of the American Rose Society's highest commendation, the Gold Medal of Honor, awarded for service to the Society and the rose. He has truly earned the prize.

In preparation for writing this article, Kathy DeRoo interviewed Harmon Saville via telephone in 1993.

Harmon Saville passed away in 1996. The Ontario, CA facility was closed a couple of years later. In 2003, the Saville family sold the remaining Nor'East headquarters facility in Massachusetts.

© Copyright Kathy DeRoo. All rights reserved.

This article was originally published in "Rose Ecstasy," bulletin of Santa Clarita Valley Rose Society, Kitty Belendez, Editor.

Photos © Copyright by Kitty Belendez

For questions about Santa Clarita Valley Rose Society, contact Rose Society.

Updated June 11, 2023

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