Bartlett on Gardening: Living Antiques

The fabulous Gallica Duchesse d'Orleans.

It comes as no surprise to me that all but four of the “Earth-Kind” roses--those designated as capable of thriving without fertilizer or pesticides, as described in my Jan. 7 column--are heirloom roses.

Roses introduced 70 or more years ago are considered heirlooms. These roses came onto the scene before we had “better gardening through chemistry.” When I first gave up pesticide sprays, I became enchanted with them. Old roses are everything good about roses as well as easy to grow. They thrive on benign neglect.

To plant an Earth-Kind rose, start with a sunny well-drained site. Dig a generous hole and add composted manure to the backfill. If the soil is a heavy clay, add an equal amount of expanded shell (see my Jan. 7 article for more about expanded shell). After planting the rose, water thoroughly. Make sure that each rose receives an inch of water weekly throughout the growing season.

Many old rose varieties can survive some insect damage and are not very bothered by disease. They do not like a heavy feeding program. Fertilize after the first flush of bloom with compost or a balanced product such as Mill's Mix (6-5-1). One yearly feeding is all they want or need.

Prune these roses only when needed. In early spring, look over the bush. Remove any dead or broken canes. If any branches are rubbing against each other, correct the situation by removing one of them. You may lightly prune the tips to maintain an attractive shape. Some cultivators only need pruning every third year. Others need more attention to maintain an attractive shape.

Some of the most vigorous old roses have one sensational flush of bloom in the spring. The rest of the year they add to the landscape as other green shrubs do. I once trained a huge rambling rose over a 12x14 foot patio arbor. We enjoyed the spectacular floral canopy for a few weeks in May. When the flowers faded, it provided perfect filtered shade the rest of the season.

One word of warning: some old roses look like giants in today's gardens. They grow to be six to eight feet tall and just as wide. Many others fit perfectly into the sunny border. Research the mature size of the rose. These roses often have naturally rounded or conical growth habits, making them very easy to maintain in the landscape.

When I first began growing heirloom roses, finding them was a challenge. Now there are many online sources, and I see more being offered in general garden catalogs. They are generally sold potted and growing on their own roots. A May visit to Remarkable Roses Nursery and Display Gardens in Cedar Bluff, Alabama, would be a great way to see what these roses are like. Many are quite fragrant, delighting the senses.

Editor's note: See Ann's column last week for more about Earth-Kind roses, and for a link to a list of varieties.

Master Gardener Ann Bartlett never lets lack of familiarity with a plant stop her from trying it in the ornamental beds around her home.

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