Roses Come Clean

An organic approach to rose care yields healthy, beautiful results.

By G. Michael Shoup

In the early days of the Antique Rose Emporium, a mail-order nursery I established in 1984, I made regular forays into cemeteries and abandoned farmsteads in search of forgotten roses. I joined a group of like-minded lovers of heritage plants, and together, we sought old roses that had survived for generations with little or no care. We called it "rose rustling," and it yielded stem cuttings of many durable and gardenworthy roses, sometimes identifiable but often of mysterious origin. 
At the same time, the emporium's nursery staff and I were developing a display garden outside our Brenham, Texas, retail center. Today that garden has expanded to 8 acres, enabling visitors to see heritage roses in landscape settings—part of our mission to promote these time-tested performers. The garden also affords the staff a creative outlet for exploring the habits and nuances of roses. We strive to make our display garden not only an educational resource but also a destination for tourists. 
Initially, we struggled with maintenance--some varieties of roses lived up to their reputations of being petulant and difficult to grow—and were not always satisfied with the appearance of the garden or the performance of individual plants. Having seen roses thrive in places where they received virtually no care, I realized that not all roses are chemically dependent by necessity. With this in mind, we revised our approach to rose care and adopted a three-pronged strategy that has made all the difference. We now recommend that gardeners choose rose varieties that are naturally vigorous, maintain them organically, and interplant them with diverse companions. These three factors have allowed us to create a garden that defies the fussy reputation of roses—and is richly scented with the perfume of thousands of blossoms, not chemicals.
The days of us wearing nuke suits and spraying with fungicides are over. And our roses are healthier.
Choose the Right Roses 
Roses are comprised of a vast number of distinct varieties. These include not only hundreds of modern roses but also hundreds of antique roses, or old garden roses, as they are also known. Due to centuries of tinkering by rose breeders, there are smaller groups or classes of roses within each of these larger groups. Individuals in each of the classes have differences in color, size, and form that lend them to a particular garden situation better than another even within the same group. Selecting the best rose for its spot in the landscape helps ensure the success of the garden in the long run. As an example, 'New Dawn' and 'Sombreuil' are both climbing roses, but they have different growth habits. The vigorous, high-flying canes of 'New Dawn' require a soaring arch, a gazebo, or other support of significant size. 'Sombreuil', on the other hand, grows in a restrained, mannerly fashion, making it appropriate to adorn an 8-foot pillar. Selection determines success. 
As important as a variety's aesthetic contribution is its ability to remain healthy. Modern hybrid teas produce beautiful cut flowers, but their maintenance needs are high, and their lanky, upright growth habit can be difficult to integrate into a garden. In our gardens, most hybrid teas are short-lived plants that are eventually relegated to the compost heap. Antique roses, in contrast, tend to have a healthier constitution.
I prefer to grow the older roses for several reasons. They are resilient survivors, many living for years with a minimum of care, as I have discovered as a rose rustler. They are diverse in their shapes and growth habits, which makes them versatile in the garden. Their blossoms are lushly romantic. And they are often fragrant—a beloved, evocative trait that many modern roses lack. I consider most antique roses to be the ultimate garden plant--the perfect brushstroke from the gardener's palette.