By Deborah Mills

Deep in the center of Ventura County, surrounded by in acres and acres of Valencia orange trees, lies a veritable Mecca for rose gardeners. Although it is well known to retail nurseries from San Luis Obispo County in the north to Orange County in the south, Otto & Sons Nursery is, as far as home gardeners are concerned, one of the region's best-kept secrets. If you are a rose connoisseur, this place is a must: more than 50,000 roses and over 450 varieties.

Otto and Jeanne Klittich and their four sons, Bob, Bill, Scott and Karl, established their nursery in 1975 on two-and-a-half acres in Chatsworth. It soon became evident that they needed more room, so they sold the land and relocated to a forty-acre site in Fillmore. Otto & Sons is presently operated by Scott, who took over the business in January 1985 after receiving his degree in ornamental horticulture from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. Scott's goal is, "to grow the best varieties of roses of the highest quality available." He achieves this by purchasing top-quality bareroots from several companies: Weeks, Bear Creek Gardens, Jackson & Perkins, Meilland Star Roses and Hortico. He then personally mixes each batch of potting soil, using his special recipe of redwood shavings. native soil, dolomite, sulfur and a slow-release fertilizer.

Otto & Sons is out of the way. To reach the nursery, you must drive down a rural country road, flanked on both sides by orange trees (the remote location only adds to the excitement and anticipation). Finally, after passing a number of rose-ornamented ranch houses (false alarms), you'll see a large sign surrounded by roses that marks the entrance to Otto & Sons. On the left is a teaser that many people mistake for the whole nursery, and farther down the drive is the office, which will provide a map and price list. The map shows how the roses are sectioned off by category: English and old garden roses, modern bush roses, tree roses and climbers, etc.

The easiest way. to see the entire nursery is by car. Be prepared for a visual feast: waves of dark-green foliage and vibrantly colored flowers that seem to go on forever. These masses of container-grown roses offer the best way to view any particular variety. The true colors and variations of the blossoms can be fully appreciated. Plus you have the advantage of being able to select your "perfect" plant from among the many.

Prices at Otto & Sons are based on can size (not type or variety) and are comparable to those at independent nurseries. Although the prices may, be higher than those at chain-store nurseries, the quality and selection are superior.

Otto & Sons is recognized for its antique or old roses, such as China Doll, Rina Hugo, Ballerina, Madame Alfred Carrière and Cécile Brünner. One exciting find is Grüss an Aachen, from 1930, which was the first rose to be categorized as a floribunda. (Grüss an Aachen is a great selection for an area that has a little shade.) Otto & Sons supplies roses to selected retail nurseries. Ask for them.

The nursery also features lavender, rosemary, citrus and ornamental trees, as well as items necessary for good rose culture -and a great selection of books. My favorites are The Natural Rose Gardener by Lance Walheim, which promotes an organic approach (Ironwood Press, 1994); 100 English Roses - for the American Garden by Clair G. Martin (Workman, 1997); and The Rose Bible by Rayford Clavton Reddell (Harmony Books, 1994; recently reprinted in paperback).

Keep in mind that Otto & Sons is not a regular nursery where there is someone to help you. A visit to this nursery is primarily a self-guided adventure. You will need to do your own research, bring your own references and be able to pick out and load your own purchases.

If you are traveling from afar, feel free to bring a picnic lunch and enjoy the day. Otto & Sons Nursery is located at 1835 East Guiberson Road, Fillmore and is open to the public from 8:oo am to 5:00 pm, Thursday through Saturday. For directions, or to be put on a mailing list for workshops and their incredible Rose Days Spring Celebration, call (805) 524-2123.

Deborah Mills is a Ventura-based freelance writer and certified Master Gardener.