Gardening with Old Roses

I learned all about roses from an
old rose grower in my hometown. (The
roses are old, not the grower.) Her
relaxed approach to rose care made me realize that roses really could fit into
my extremely relaxed—some would say neglected—garden.

Take the California native Rosa
. This deciduous shrub
rose prefers sun near the coast, but will take some shade in warmer, inland
areas. It tolerates dry summers and wet
winters. An occasional flood won’t bother
it. And it produces simple pink
blossoms, with good-sized red hips to follow. This is a great rose for thickets and it doesn’t demand much fertilizer. What’s not to like?

But even if you don’t have room to
add native roses to your garden, there are ways to tend the existing roses in
your flower beds to make them more compatible with a naturalistic garden. Here are a few tips I’ve learned from my
local rose expert:

Go chemical-free. There is absolutely no reason to spray your
rose bushes. Serenade, an organic
biofungicide, is widely available and effective against a variety of blights
and mildews. Need-based sprays (created
from the oil of the neem seed) are also effective against rose diseases. A mixture of dish soap and water kills
aphids and other soft-bodied pets, and beyond that, damaged or diseased leaves
can just be picked off and discarded.

An organic rose food, dished up
once per month throughout the growing season, will keep them blooming. Many rose gardeners sprinkle a cup or two of
alfalfa pellets (available at feed stores as rabbit food) around each rose bush
twice a year, and add a couple tablespoons of Epson salts twice a year to
provide supplemental magnesium. There’s
anecdotal evidence that worm castings may help plants fight off pest
infestations and increase the presence of helpful soil-dwelling microbes; it
certainly couldn’t hurt to scratch in some worm castings once or twice a year.

Cut back on pruning. In a naturalistic setting, roses can be
allowed to stretch out a little. Forget
the advice to cut your roses back to bare canes each winter. Instead, try removing dead canes when you
see them, and cutting back any canes that have grown too long or unwieldy. A little casual shaping throughout the year
may be all you need. This method also
allows you to leave the hips on the roses as a food source for birds throughout
the winter.

Experiment with pegging. Shrub roses can be “pegged” down to the
ground, transforming them into more of a low-growing, groundcover-like shrub
that is perfect for slopes. Wait until
the canes are long enough and flexible enough to work with, then draw them down
gently to the ground and stake them in place using a landscape staple or a peg
and some string, allowing each cane to curve and weave according to your own
aesthetics. Remove any canes that you
don’t peg.

Get rid of what doesn’t work. Sometimes, a rose just doesn’t work. It might be too prone to disease, it might
not bloom, it might tolerate dry shade, but not the wet shade your garden experiences. If a rose isn’t flourishing, don’t be afraid
to pull it out. After all, old plants
never die—they just become compost.