Roses Come Clean

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

July 22, 2011
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.
Embrace Nature's Ways 
When we were establishing our display garden, applying the recommended 10-10-10 synthetic fertilizer to the roses was laborious and resulted in plants that became less and less vigorous over time. Weekly spray sessions of insecticides and fungicides did little to stop pest invasions; they were effective only at curtailing our enjoyment of gardening. One day, we spread several inches of bark mulch in part of the garden, and what happened next surprised us all: Plants in the mulched areas showed brighter and more vibrant leaves and were less affected by daily heat stress (no small consideration as our location is central Texas). 
This realization caused us to rethink the way we grew roses, challenging the conventional chemical-intensive methods. Our bark mulch replicated nature's recycling of leaves and organic debris on the forest floor. In successive years, we replaced chemical inputs with a variety of organic regimens, all based on what we saw in the natural environment.
Nobody fertilizes the flora in nature, but it grows and thrives just the same. Could we rely on nature's techniques for supplying nutrients to plants instead of buying bags of fertilizer? As it turns out, twice-yearly applications of coarse hardwood bark mulch (2 to 3 inches in February and again in September) provide all the nutrition roses need. Beneficial organisms in the soil—certain fungi, bacteria, and nematodes—assist in breaking down the mulch and feed on carbon released during decomposition. Gardeners tend to think of these organisms in negative terms, and indeed, the microbes that cause bacterial crown gall and powdery mildew, among other rose maladies, are bad. But there are many more organisms that improve the viability of plants through symbiotic relationships that make roots more efficient at seeking nutrients, or by converting soil nitrogen into forms that plant roots can absorb. Gardeners who are starting with nutrient-depleted soil might need to add a supplement of decomposed manure, compost, or other organic fertilizer to get the microbes rolling.
Brew Tea For Roses 
In retrospect, it is hard to believe that we spent years destroying these microbial populations through our spraying program. A change as simple as adding mulch had improved the health of our plants, yet there was something even more magical—dare I say miraculous?—that evolved from this discovery. Elaine Ingham, Ph.D., a soil microbiologist from Oregon, introduced us to a revolutionary process of increasing beneficial soil organisms by aerating freshly leached compost tea. While traditional compost tea is brewed simply by suspending a "teabag" of compost in a bucket or barrel of standing water, the aerobic technique uses an air pump to continually bubble oxygen through the liquid in a brew tank. 
We followed Ingham's instructions, blending chlorine-free water, molasses (a food source for microbes), fish hydrolysate (ground fish carcasses, another food for fungi), humates (organic residues of decomposed plants or animals), and a handful of good compost to provide the initial microbial population. The air pump kept the mixture in a state of constant agitation and aeration.
According to Ingham's research, after 24 hours of aerobic brewing, the microbial population explodes exponentially. One milliliter (about one-fifth of a teaspoon) of aerobically brewed compost tea contains a trillion bacteria, representing 20,000 different species, and a much-increased fungal biomass—all multiplied from the initial organisms in the compost. Researchers caution that molasses and other microbial foods used in brewing compost tea can boost the levels of pathogenic bacteria, such as salmonella and O157:H7 E. coli. Because of this significant health concern, aerated compost tea should be used with care, and should not not be used on food crops.
The ability of compost to aid the soil's capacity to retain water, improve soil porosity, and help plants absorb nutrients and minerals has long been understood. But I was surprised at the results of spraying compost tea directly on rose foliage. The vast number of beneficial microbes in the tea defended our plants from the "bad guys," like black spot and mildew. It was described to me as like having an auditorium filled with healthy friends: If someone sick with a flu bug tries to enter, all the seats are taken. Treated plants were less prone to attack by red spider mites.
We began spraying weekly during spring and fall (the seasons when roses in Texas grow actively), wetting the leaves thoroughly. Within 6 months, the improved health and vigor of our gardens proved that we were on the right track.
Roses Love Company 
Gardeners often show their devotion to roses by planting them in monocultures. The unfair burden on roses to perform in isolation from other flowers reaches its extreme in formally styled beds of modern hybrid teas. Blooms are expected to be perfect all the time, sprayed and fussed over in straight rows of sameness. Old roses need not be put in this secluded prison; in fact, the beauty of antique roses is that they thrive in combination with perennials, annuals, shrubs, and flora of all types. Thus my final words of advice: Don't plant rose gardens—plant gardens that have roses in them. 
Once again, nature shows us the way. Forests and prairies are composed of a diversity of plants that ebb and flow through the seasons, with ever-changing foliage, flowers, and fruit. We now strive to replicate this "natural" success in our ornamental gardens and landscape. In a mixed planting, the diversity of so many plant types creates year-round beauty even when roses are not at their peak. The burden is not on the rose to be perfect all the time, because the companion plants add their own layers of form, texture, and color. Old roses love company.
At the Antique Rose Emporium, the ability of roses to collaborate with other garden plants allows us to have several themed gardens within our demonstration area. The children's garden has sunflowers and whimsical yard art integrated with the roses. Herbs and vegetables mingle with roses in the kitchen garden, while the Southwestern garden has grasses and agaves as companions to roses.
So instead of "-cidal" sprays, we're applying aerobic compost tea on a weekly basis and renewing mulch twice annually. This program, along with a diversity of proper plant selections, makes gardening fun again. The plumpness of leaves, the vigor and color of our gardens is vastly different than in the days of using synthetic fertilizers and store-bought chemicals. Most important to me, the gardens are now what they should be: a place where I can listen to the contented conversations of visitors as they stroll along paths populated by scented flowers, birds, and butterflies. It makes the garden a much bigger place than just a collection of plants.
10 Roses For Organic Growers
This outstanding group of antique and modern roses has performed admirably with our organic regimen. All are repeat bloomers, which means they flower in waves from spring until frost.
Old Blush This China rose dates back to the 18th century and represents all that is good in old roses: long life, repeat bloom, ease of care. As a parent for rose breeding, 'Old Blush' is responsible for giving its ever-blooming quality to modern roses. Hardy to USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 6.
Souvenir De La Malmaison Large, multipetaled, blush pink flowers with a spicy perfume are borne on a 4-foot spreading shrub. This rose embodies romance. Zone 6.
Marchesa Boccella Fragrant, pink cabbagey flowers sit atop the foliage of this 5-foot upright shrub. Zone 5.
Belinda's Dream The Texas extension program designated this pink, full-flowered rose a "superstar" because of its fragrance, ease of care, and cut-flower quality. Zone 5.
Perle d'Or Often called the "Yellow Sweetheart Rose," 'Perle d'Or' has fruit-scented 2-inch flowers that are pale apricot and look like frilly crepe paper. This rose flowers throughout the growing season on a compact 4-foot shrub. Zone 5.
Caldwell Pink A "found" rose of uncertain heritage, this flouncy lilac-pink variety exhibits superb blooming qualities even in the heat of summer. A bonus is the dramatic fall foliage of reds, oranges, and yellows. Zone 5.
Penelope Soft, peachy blooms in bouquetlike clusters are noted for their rich perfume. The sprawling shrub can reach 6 feet. Zone 6.
New Dawn This climbing rose bears lightly fragrant, soft pink blooms on vigorous 20-foot stems. Foliage is dark, glossy, and resistant to black spot. Zone 5.
Crepuscule Clusters of orange flowers nod under their own weight, lending a romantic effect to the garden. 'Crepuscule' is a climbing rose of excellent vigor. Zone 7.
Stephen F Austin One of the Antique Rose Emporium's own Pioneer Rose introductions, this 6-foot shrub has shiny leaves that act as a foil to the fragrant flowers, which open pale yellow and mature to creamy white. Zone 5.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This list is based on the author's experience in an area of Texas with hot, humid summers and relatively mild (Zone 8) winters. However, many of the roses described here are widely adaptable except in the coldest climates. To learn which roses excel in your region, contact your state's Cooperative Extension Service.