Roses can be planted from now till April when the ground is not frozen and when you can get the plants -- before Christmas, preferably, or after Valentine's Day.

A new book suitable for drooling over is Peter Beales' "Classic Roses" (Holt Rinehart and Winston, $38 until January, then $45) with 454 pages and 540 color shots of the roses.

There is also a reprint, in soft cover, of the fine "Dictionary of Roses in Color" by S. Millar Gault and Patrick M. Synge (Mermaid) with 500-odd color shots also.

The reason I call particular attention to them is that most gardeners are not sure what the roses look like, especially the ones introduced to commerce in the 1800s or earlier.

These roses, which may be called shrub roses or old-fashioned garden roses, are increasingly popular on both sides of the Atlantic, and for good reason. Most of them require little care, though this is not true of all. The old Portlands, Bourbons, Teas, Noisettes in particular all require good garden care, though once established they are less trouble than floribundas or hybrid teas, the roses now most commonly sold by the great rose firms.

And such old classes as the Albas, Multiflora Ramblers, Sempervirens, Boursaults, Gallicas and Damasks require only a generous hand in the planting (that is, a hole 20 inches square and deep filled with excellent soil including humus, but no fertilizer) to send them off, then a mulching of manure in late winter in the future.

But there is much to learn about these roses, and it is a perfect pastime for the gardener who likes to dream. I myself have room for very few, and go through considerable anguish (and have for many years) if space turns up for two additional plants. Which? It is a harrowing choice.

And before the gardener has any idea which ones he'd like, he wants to know what they look like, how large the plants get, whether they are hardy, whether they need support (some flop) and whether they bloom off and on all summer or only in the spring; or whether they bloom in spring and fall, but not summer.

I would like to urge anybody not to be altogether seduced by the lure of "roses that bloom spring, summer and fall." In some cases it is a tremendous attraction for a rose to bloom steadily through the season. It is nice to cut a few blooms from the fine white Noisette climber, 'Mme. Alfred Carriere,' or the splendid pink 'Comte de Chambord' in July and August, as well as October.

Even so, the roses that bloom only in spring are far more desirable than one might think at first blush. To begin with, they bloom heavily, the bushes covered with flowers; whereas some of our favorite modern hybrid teas do not make great bushes at all. Some of the old kinds that bloom only once a year produce twice as many flowers in that one effusion as 'Mr. Lincoln,' or other fine modern ever-blooming roses, produce in the course of the whole year.

It is also true that the old roses can give a quite different look to the garden, which cannot be achieved with our favorite modern kinds. The old ones make (as a group) billowy mounds of white, soft pink, lilac, purple, crimson and pale yellow. They do not include geranium reds or orange yellows or other colors that can be seen a mile off.

And while modern roses may be strongly fragrant ('Mr. Lincoln,' for example, or 'Helen Traubel' or 'Sutter's Gold' among dozens of kinds) still the old roses as a tribe are more fragrant than the roses of the average modern rose garden.

The selection of varieties is a personal choice. It may be the gardener will fall under the spell of, say, the Albas, and will wish to have eight kinds of them, even if it means leaving out the Centifolias. Or vice versa.

Many gardeners would like to sample the different old classes of rose, even if it means growing only one bush of each. And then the selection becomes hard indeed, for if all the kinds rescued from oblivion (often at great bother and expense) were not beautiful, they would not still be grown at all.

A good selection of old roses may now be seen at the National Arboretum and these may with profit be visited in May when they flower, or even now when the habit of growth may be seen.

If I were beginning my exploration of the old roses I think I'd want an old Gallica or two (such as 'Officinalis' or 'Tuscany,' 'Camaieux' or 'Charles de Mills'); an Alba ('Celeste,' 'Celsiana'); an unsophisticated wild type of rose such as 'Cantabrigiensis,' pale yellow; and a Noisette ('Mme. Alfred Carriere' if there were room for a large climber, or 'Blush Noisette' if one wanted a small bush).

Then I'd like a Centifolia (perhaps 'Fantin Latour' or 'DeMeaux') and a Moss ('Common Moss' or 'William Lobb'); a Hybrid Musk ('Felicia' or 'Buff Beauty' or 'Bishop Darlington') and maybe an old climber like 'Gloire de Dijon.'

Certainly there should be a Bourbon ('Souvenir de la Malmaison,' 'Louise Odier,' 'Mme. Isaac Pereire'); a Portland ('Rose du Roi,' 'Jacques Cartier'); a Rugosa ('Roseraie de l'Hay,' 'Agnes,' 'Mrs. Anthony Waterer').

And as you see we already have far too many for the average garden, so the choice would probably have to narrow. The great thing about the books I mention, which I trust will soon be in all public libraries, is that they not only describe each rose in some detail, but illustrate it.