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Raise Healthy Roses — Summer 2009 | Out Here Magazine

Old-fashioned bloomers thrive with little care

By P. Allen Smith
Photography by Jane Colclasure

Roses top the list as America's favorite flower for good reason. Few plants display more beauty, charm, and allure. Our long-held desire for these sumptuous blossoms is reflected in the thousands of varieties that have been developed through time.

Along with their pretty faces, some roses have developed the reputation for being finicky and high maintenance.

Because I'm not one to fuss over my plants, I prefer hardy, disease-resistant varieties. That's how I fell under the spell of old-fashioned roses, known by names such as antique, heritage, heirloom, or Old Garden roses.

They differ from the classic roses you think of in Valentine bouquets. These flowers vary in their look and style; some are open and blowsy while others are compact and tightly petalled.

But their allure is more than skin deep. Because they have prevailed in the landscape for generations with little or no attention, they are tough survivors and require less maintenance than many of the modern tea roses.

Heritage varieties are great for new gardeners because their natural vigor helps them flourish.

Along with the old-fashioned varieties, a relatively recent introduction also has captured much attention — the Knock Out® rose.

Wisconsin rose enthusiast William Radler worked for years to create a nearly maintenance-free rose. Knock Out® is cold tolerant to zone 5, heat tolerant throughout the United States, reliably resistant to disease, and produces a bevy of blooms that appear every five to six weeks from spring until the first hard frost. How's that for carefree?

The Right Place

After you've selected a variety to grow, provide it the kind of growing conditions and care so it will thrive:

Sunlight — Most roses require about six hours of sunlight per day, so before you plant, choose a spot and keep track of the sun throughout the day. If you have your heart set on growing a rose in a dappled light, look for shade-tolerant varieties such as Buff Beauty or the vigorous climber, Lamarque.

Soil — Roses require nutrients found in rich loamy, well-drained soil. Because my garden's soil is mainly heavy clay, I've developed a rose soil recipe that has never failed me.

If your soil is less than desirable, mix up a batch and give it a try.

Bare-root roses are more economical to buy than container roses and are simple to plant. With the right soil mixture, a spacious hole, a bit of banana peel for potassium, and a thorough watering, your roses will grow and thrive. 


  • 2 buckets of existing garden soil from the hole you are digging
  • ½ bucket of bagged manure
  • 1 bucket of bagged compost (or use your own if you have a compost pile)
  • 1 tablespoon of Epsom salts (for added magnesium)
  • 2 chopped-up banana peels (for added potassium)
  • Fish emulsion (follow label directions)
  • Mulch

Keep fungal disease in check by allowing air to circulate around and through rose bushes. Follow spacing requirements for each particular variety so you avoid planting them too close together.

Correct planting — To save money, I usually buy bare root roses rather than those grown in a container. If that is what you are planting, soak the roots overnight in a bucket of tepid water to rehydrate them.


Dig a hole at least 18 to 20 inches deep and wide enough to spread out all the roots. Place the chopped banana peels in the bottom of the hole. Blend all the dry ingredients in a wheelbarrow and mix well.


Now, here's an important point. Pay attention to the bud union; that's the swollen juncture between the top of the roots and the main part of the trunk. If you live where winter temperatures fall below zero, bury that area about 1 to 2 inches below the surface of the ground for protection. In milder parts of the country, plant the rose so the bud union is an inch above the ground.


Fill the hole with enough soil so the rose is placed in the correct position for your climate. Spread out the roots in the hole and then begin filling in with the rose soil mixture in gradual layers, gently tamping the soil around the roots. After the hole has been filled, water the soil to help settle it in the hole.


Mix up a solution of fish emulsion following label directions and apply it around the rose. Add a layer of mulch to the planted area to keep weeds down and conserve moisture.


Water — Keep watering your new roses throughout their first season. How often depends on conditions, but on the average, if it doesn't rain, water new roses twice a week. Water them thoroughly by letting the water slowly seep in; deep waterings are better than light ones.


Avoid splashing the foliage or watering late in the evening because that fosters fungal diseases such as black spot or powdery mildew.


P. Allen Smith, Tractor Supply's gardening partner, is host of two national TV programs, a regular guest on the Today show, and author of P. Allen Smith's Bringing the Garden Indoors and other books in the Garden Home series.