Old Roses for Small Gardens
Lili Shohan
Clinton Corners, New York

(reprint from American Rose Annual 1980)


Many rose growers express interest in the old roses and then lament that since they have only small gardens, growing such treasures of the past is impossible. But these same old roses were the garden flowers of our ancestors and not all our forefathers were blessed with extensive grounds or a crew of gardeners.

The rose has been a door-yard plant for several thousand years and many of the old roses were small in stature and suited to a limited space.

Why are the small rosebushes of the past now considered too large for modern plots? There are three reasons. Today there seems to be an increasing interest in species and species hybrids, but these varieties are the ones that tend to be outsized for our gardens. A more careful selection would provide for many of the old timers that are compact, upright plants and that can be easily handled in a restricted area.

Today we prefer roses naturally grown, not limited by training on walls or tied to posts or trellises. Yet is was the old methods of guiding plant growth that made it possible to grow the more rampant roses and confine them within boundaries. Most important of all, the older writers were united in recommending pruning techniques, which today we would consider very drastic.

It is almost impossible to understand why modern authorities state the old roses need little or no pruning. The writers who were contemporaries of those roses knew better. Theophrastus (circa 400 EC) recommended burning or cutting the rosebush to make it bear better flowers. His roses were probably gallicas and damasks, the most ancient roses of all.

Sir Thomas Hammer, quoted by Norman Young in The Complete Rosarian, wrote in 1659 that pruning should be done at least every other year, "for the young second yeare branches beare most flowers." He was referring to hybrid teas!

In the 19th century, Robert Buist wrote this about gallica roses, "cut back the young shoots to three or four eyes of the wood of the preceding year's growth. . . . there should be not one shoot crossing another, and every shoot or branch should stand free and straight."

Thomas Rivers wrote of centifolias, "In pruning they require a free use of the knife; every shoot should be shortened to three or four buds." Rivers goes even further after recommending cutting gallicas to four or five buds. He goes on to write that disbudding produces finer specimen blooms.

In short, the idea that the old roses do not need pruning is of modern origin and the sooner it is discarded, the sooner these roses will be admitted to a wider range of gardens. There are many vigorous hybrid teas, which if left untouched by the shears, would in a few years form a tangled mass of old wood and crowded, twiggy growth. We prune these roses as a matter of course and should do the same with the oldies.

In cold climates, the first task is to cut out winter killed wood. After that, some of the oldest and heaviest canes may be removed at the base to open the center of the bush and leave room for new basal shoots. Tipping back the remaining canes by one-fourth to one-third will encourage better flowers since the thin wood rarely supports good roses.

In all areas, a good rule of thumb is that about one-third of the bush should be removed each year. Although you may have seen the suggestion that pruning should be delayed until the bloom cycle is over to avoid removing flowers, delayed pruning is difficult and almost certain to damage succulent new growth. It is far better to prune old roses at the same time as other kinds.

If space is a problem, the bushes may be pruned even more severely. Outstanding in my memory is a plant of Eglantine, normally about 12 feet high and as much across, that was planted in a New York City garden inside a frame of wrought iron about three feet high and not quite so wide. It had been clipped to a solid mound of green and was prospering as a very dwarf plant indeed.  This is an extreme which is not a good idea to emulate since it would be far better to select a plant of more modest proportions for such treatment. But it is an example of how the rose may be made to fit the garden rather than the other way around.

In the gardens at Mt. Vernon, the rose beds are edged in a box and filled mostly with gallicas, all pruned to a height of about 30 inches. The result is formal in appearance though the roses themselves are generally considered plants more suitable to background use or for facing down a shrub border.

Another garden in Connecticut, has formal beds edged in dwarf yew and filled with roses and perennial and annual flowers. The roses are an astonishing assortment of old varieties, modern shrubs and some hybrid teas and floribundas. All fit into the formal scheme and all thrive though restricted to fairly narrow areas.

To cite another example is a small suburban garden where more than 100 old roses share space with hybrid teas, floribundas, shrubs, miniatures and climbers. Here, some of the plants are supported on posts or trained on trellises or arches so they grow up rather than sideways. Rosa alba semi-plena is used as a large climber, scrambling into the branches of a pine and cascading outward.

This is the second way of fitting old roses into modern gardens. They may be grown as climbers or pillars. The semi-double alba is only one example. Eglantine can be grown on the side of a house with the reminder that it will need pruning, training and clipping during the growing season.

Harison's Yellow is a lanky bush but an excellent plant for espaliering - training flat on the wall of a garage. Many of the taller Bourbons, Mme. Pierre Oger, La Reine Victoria or Variegata di Bologna will take kindly to a trellis. Most of the centifolias would benefit from the support of a fence.

Some of the larger mosses could be used the same way. Frau Karl Druschki takes naturally to being treated as a pillar as does Henry Nevard and other vigorous hybrid perpetuals.

The old texts recommend pegging roses - tying or pinning them down so the canes are horizontal. Treated this way, they will break from every budeye and make a beautiful display. Each bush then covers a wide area, but a lot of time must be spent training and tying. For the smaller garden, the same varieties can be used but planted closer and either trained almost vertically or kept pruned to hybrid tea or grandiflora proportions.

Careful selection of varieties provides many naturally compact kinds. The gallicas are almost all short in stature and upright growers and though they sucker when on their own roots, budded plants will be free of this fault. Rosa Mundi and Officinalis are excellent choices and so are Tuscany, Tuscany Superb, Camaieux, Belle de Crecy, Cardinal Richelieu and Rose des Maures. These show the brilliant coloring typical of gallicas.

Duchesse de Montebello is an atypical shell pink and a truly beautiful little rose. For those of us in the northern United States, the gallicas have the extra advantage of being among the hardiest of shrubs, long lived and tough.

Damask roses tend to be somewhat larger, though I would not give up my Celsiana in spite of its graceful fountaining habit. The autumn damasks and Portlands are smaller, more compact plants and they have the extra advantage of repeat bloom. Jacques Cartier, Rose de Rescht, Rose du Roi and R. damascena semperflorens are the main survivors of what was once a numerous grouping.

Among the summer damasks, Hebe's Lip, Marie Louise and Ville de Bruxelles are exceptionally lovely varieties that are not over large and respond well to pruning.

Alba roses are generally very large bushes, but several are moderately sized. Koenigin von Danemarck has charming pink buds which, when half open, are reminiscent of the fabric roses on Grandmother's hat. The double blooms grow pale around the edges as they open, but the centers remain a rich rose color. Felicite Parmentier is lighter in tone, the faintest of blush pinks with small, globular flowers in clusters. Other albas can be used for pillars and posts, Maiden's Blush being a good one for this treatment.

Centifolias are big sprawly plants and though the flowers are exquisite, their perpetual droop may discourage anyone not enchanted by the infinitely sweet fragrance. However, there are three candidates for small spaces: Petite de Hollande, Rose de Meaux and Pompon de Bourgogne (in diminishing order of size).

If you can find room, try Juno, the loveliest buxom, creamy pink or Rosa centifolia bullata with the same crumpled foliage that Redoute painted.  Among the moss roses, Alfred de Dalmas is both compact and recurrent, but not very mossy. Other shorter growers are Deuil de Paul Fontaine and Little Gem. Comtesse de Murinais, though tall, grows stiffly upright and therefore needs little room. It is heavily mossed and the pale pink buds open to pure white flowers, making it a favorite for cutting.

The Chinas are not reliably hardy north of Zone Five, but if given the same protection afforded hybrid teas, they can survive and are delightfully everblooming. Old Blush and Hermosa are the best known.



Serratipetala has small, fringed flowers while Mutabilis supplies a constant display of single flowers that go from orange buds to pale yellow open blooms which age to pumpkin orange and finally brick red. In mild climates, these will become large bushes and they respond well to cutting back.

Rosa Mundi (R. gallica versicolor), a beautiful white, pink and red striped rose will sometimes dis­play the solid pink blooms of Officinalis from which it sported. One bloom of each are shown here emerging from the same stem.


Hybrid perpetuals are a mixed lot and though some of them are tall indeed, others are closer in stature to their hybrid tea descendants. Mrs F.W. Sanford is a pale colored sport of Mrs. John Laing and a smaller plant. Gloire de Ducher, Empereur du Maroc and Vick's Caprice are no taller than floribundas. Mabel Mornson s beautiful white blooms come on a neat bush which rarely exceeds three feet. Most of the larger hybrid perpetuals respond very well to hard pruning with one outstanding example being Prince Camille de Rohan with its dark red velvety blooms and astonishing fragrance.

Since tea roses will not survive our severe winters without exceptionally good protection, the selection of varieties will have to be left to the reader. Grown indoors, they have done very well in constricted quarters with limited light. Gloire de Dijon, especially, can be recommended to anyone with a mild climate and a wall or fence. The fragrant, apricot-buff flowers are a constant joy.

Teas do best when allowed to develop older wood, but though pruning should be done with care, it is still possible to keep them within bounds. Cutting back thin side growth while keeping the main canes only slightly shortened will help to encourage new growth and bloom.

There are many good reasons for growing the old roses: historical interest, abundant bloom, the grace and delicacy of the flowers, the remarkable fragrance which enhances so many varieties and their vigor and hardiness.

It would be a pity to forego such a wealth of good attributes because of the mistaken impression they are also greedy for space. For those who still protest their gardens are too tiny, how about an old rose of impeccable lineage: Rose chinensis minima? It dates back to 1815 and few gardens can be too small for it.

Editor's note: All of the roses mentioned in this article are in commerce with the sole exception of R. alba semi-plena, a widely grown variety which should be available next season.

The author is the Northeast Regional Coordinator for Heritage Roses Group, edits the quarterly newsletter for that Group, is a Consulting Rosarian, Accredited Judge and Chairwoman of the Heritage Rose Committee for the ARS. She maintains a collection of 80 old garden roses and an equal number of miniatures and several hybrid teas and floribundas.

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Date last edited: 01/21/10
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