Antique Rose Care Guide

Old roses, antique roses, old garden roses, or heritage roses, whatever name you wish to give them, are hardy even under the poorest conditions, surviving the tests of time. However they will thrive if planted in rich, well-drained soil and given at least six hours of direct sunlight and good air circulation, for countless years to come.

The Bed:

A soil pH of 6.5 is ideal for roses, but they will tolerate soils that are slightly alkaline with a reading of 7 to 8 pH or more acidic down to 5. Test kits are available at nursery retail centers or any large retail center that contains a garden center. Local county extension offices also have soil testing kits available as well as information concerning the soil make up of the surrounding area. They are a valuable resource that can be tapped for landscape questions.

Incorporating decomposed organic material into garden beds and onto turf is the very best action to take to insure a healthy condition in which to grow plants. Composted manure, bark and leaves along with kitchen scraps enrich sandy soils and break up heavy clay soils to allow for proper drainage. Adding coarse sand will also help to loosen heavy clay soils. As the organic matter decomposes over time it will add nutrients to the soil, promoting beneficial soil organisms and buffer a high or low pH. The sand must be very coarse, so it will not compact, worsening the soil drainage problem. Also, garden test have concluded that peat moss and peat based soil amendments as well as mushroom compost have not provided optimum results when compared to ordinary garden grass, leaf, green kitchen scrap and cut grass compost. Peat tends to retain far too much moisture during rainy parts of the year and robs moisture from plant roots during dry months of the year. Fungus is the rose’s primary disease threat. Any compost that is blended specifically to nurture mushrooms, which are a fungus, is definitely NOT for roses!

The easiest way to prepare a rose bed is to build up, particularly on rocky terrain. It is also the most expensive. The sides of a raise bed can be constructed of rock, landscape timbers, railroad ties, concrete blocks or anything that will hold up a volume of soil without crumbling. The sides do not have higher than eighteen inches in order for the raised bed to be effective. Once three sides of the raised bed are completed, premium rose soil that has been purchased at a garden center can be brought in and spread in the bed through the open side. Once that has been accomplished, the open side can be closed and planting can begin. The soil in the newly filled bed will soon settle and sink, so plan for that by leaving the soil well rounded on the top of the bed to allow for the settling.


When transplanting any plant, always dig a hole large enough to accommodate the root ball, never any deeper or larger. Digging a hole larger and deeper to add rich soil, merely forms a ‘pot’ in the ground, encouraging plant roots to remain in a confined area, requiring more supplemental moisture and nutrients. Force the plant roots out into the natural soil to become hardy to the elements. Fill the empty hole with water and add one teaspoon Vitamin Bl. Place the plant in the hole, cover the roots, firm the soil in well and water thoroughly to remove air pockets. Larger shrubs and trees should be watered in while the hole is being back-filled, covering the roots. Water in well when half the roots are covered and again when they a fully covered. Fill with the remaining soil, mounding it slightly around the base of the plant for stability while settling.

Potted roses can also be ‘potted up’ into larger containers and grown indefinitely until a permanent location can be prepared. Any plant grown in a container will need more frequent fertilization and moisture than those planted in the ground. They also will need six hours of sunlight and air circulation. Pot grown plants usually have a life of ‘feast or famine’. Timed, slow release fertilizer pellets and a rigid watering regime will lessen the extreme effects. Water potted plants in the morning, especially to cool the pot’s soil during the summer months, particularly in the South and South/west. If the temperature climbs above 90 degrees, water potted plants both in the morning and evening.


This is probably the most critical step to take in any garden. A thick layer of mulch means fewer weeds, richer soil and healthier plants. Mulch cools plant roots and retains needed moisture, promoting vigorous plant growth. As the mulch decomposes, it adds nutrients to the soil, beneficial microbes, and breaks up soil compaction providing a healthy and disease free soil. Adding a 1 to 2 inch layer of compost first and a 2 to 3 inch layer of shredded mulch once in the spring or once in the spring and again in the fall will insure healthy, disease free, vigorous plants for years to come. Freshly shredded bark mulch can be spread if a layer of compost is spread first. If fresh vegetation is used for mulch without an intervening layer of compost, it will steal nitrogen from the plants that it surrounds as it decomposes. The layer of compost laid down first circumvents that action.


The old roses that have survived over the years are usually drought tolerant once established. It usually takes about two or three years, depending on the climate, to establish a young plant in any given location. Give young plants a good deep soaking every 5 to 7 days during dry conditions even during the winter. A light sprinkling only encourages roots to grow near the surface where they are vulnerable to stress and damage. Deep watering promotes better bloom and foliage during summer months. Soaker hoses or drip irrigation minimizes wasteful evaporation and is particularly useful in beds when installed under a layer of mulch.


Most important about any fertilizer, whether chemical or organic, is following application directions. Chemical fertilizers can burn or even kill a plant if applied with a heavy hand. Organic fertilizer that has not composted can also burn and kill. Slow release fertilizer granules are fine and give good results if directions are followed carefully. A side dressing of composted manure in the spring and another in late summer should suffice as well to keep roses healthy and blooming well. Water fertilizers in well after application to dissolve them and clean any residue off the foliage. Stop fertilizing at least six weeks before the first frost date to help plants slow their growth, going dormant for winter and avoid freeze damage.


Antique Roses prone to black spot or powdery mildew, are more than likely planted in the wrong spot or too close together. They are in too much shade, poorly drained soil or too close to a building, wall, etc. Some old roses do occasionally have black spot or powdery mildew as the result of unusual weather conditions, but they will usually shed any infected leaves and continue to grow and bloom with vigor. It is not really necessary to spray old roses with a fungicide. As a matter of fact, they prefer you don’t. If the spotted leaves bother you, strip them off and burn them in the grill. Fungus spores germinate in the soil during wet conditions. When the soil dries, the spores are lifted up onto plants by passing air currents where they come to life again during wet weather. For that reason, rosarians prefer to irrigate their prized plants with soaker hoses or drip irrigation rather than sprinkler irrigation. Sprinklers throw water drops onto the blooms and leaves, discoloring the petals and activating the fungus on the leaves.


Aphids, thrips, grasshoppers, beetles, and other munching, chewing insects rarely affect a healthy rose severely. They disfigure and damage new growth, beds and flowers to the dismay of many a rose grower. Insecticide soap controls most of these pests because they cannot build up a resistance to it as they have other commercial insecticide sprays. Use soap sprays at the first indication of an infestation for proper control or bring in their natural predator. Aphids can be controlled very effectively with ladybugs, which are sold in larger garden centers. Thrips can be controller with the soap spray. During warmer weather, plant thrips trap, marigolds, around your roses. Thrips are attracted to the bright yellow flower and would rather munch on them.

Companion Plants:

Centuries ago, before the onslaught on chemical herbicides and pesticides, farmers and gardeners used what is referred to as Companion Planting for their vegetable and herb gardens. The new buzz word for this style of planting now is the Intergrated Garden. Never mind it was used successfully for centuries until farmers began mono-farming – growing one plant variety over a very large area. That set them up for – yep, you guessed it – an invasion of the plant pest! By planting pole beans, for example with corn and cucumbers and melons between the rows of corn, one vegetable acts as a shade to another and each repels the pest of the other.

Sometimes companion plants don’t return the favor. Carrots help beans, but beans don’t reciprocate, although they will help out near by cucumbers. Roses love to be planted with Alliums: onion, garlic or chives, which improve their scent and repel pests. Pungent garlic is an accumulator of sulfur explaining its reputation as a fungicide. It has also been used against Japanese beetles, codling moths, snails, root maggots and carrot root fly. It is especially good for roses. Parsley, thyme, catnip, mignonette, lupins (flower plants in the Pea family) and (in more moist conditions) Limnanthes douglassii, meadow foam or marsh flower are beneficial to roses. Rue is also reported to be generally a good influence on other plants and the smell is said to drive away fleas and Japanese beetles from homes and gardens. Touching the Rue leaves can make your skin more sensitive to the sun. If you plant it in your garden take the precaution of working around the plant wearing gardening gloves and a long-sleeved shirt. Storey Books in Pownal, Vermont publish several good books on companion planting. Chek out their web site at


Antique Roses don’t need much pruning and coddling. If a shrub seems too full for the space allowed, up to one third of the bush can be pruned without destroying its health and vigor. Keep its natural, attractive form. Any shrub, when cut back, responds by putting on a spurt of growth. That is why all pruning should be in the spring rather than the fall. By leaving some of the older rose bushes alone in the fall many of them produce very attractive hips or seeds, which add color to a winter garden. The tender new growth can get frost or heat burned, so early pruning in the spring should be carried out across the nation. Roses that bloom once, however, are best pruned AFTER they have bloomed. Their flowers come from wood that has hardened over the winter, so early spring pruning will reduce their floral display. February 14, Valentine’s Day is traditionally when roses are pruned. Unbalanced growth is removed along with any dead canes and twigs. Tip pruning and deadheading can be continued throughout the blooming season.

Climbing roses need only to have any dead or unwanted canes removed and their canes trained. If a climber is getting too big and bushy, thin it out in early spring when you can easily see the canes without their foliage. The exception to this, are the spring bloomers.

Rose hedges can be shaped with hedge shears. Roses in a natural or wild setting can be left completely alone unless a particularly harsh winter has left some unsightly dead canes.

Love your roses and care for them, but mainly enjoy their beauty and fragrance. Old roses aren’t to be fussed over. They are wonderful reminders of the past, holding great promises for future generations.

Happy Gardening!


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