I’m gathering my thoughts for a talk next week and came across this article in The Telegraph, written by Bunny Guinness. I’ll leave her to talk more about Uncle David…
Coming up roses
How to find out all about the joys of breeding roses from a favourite uncle.
I can’t imagine that anyone keen on gardening – particularly those who love roses – hasn’t heard of David Austin, the UK rose breeder whose stunning varieties have won international acclaim. I, however, have been conscious that David Austin and roses are synonymous pretty much since I first drew breath.
For to me, he is simply Uncle David – my mother is his sister – and last week, for the first time, I spent the whole day with him, quizzing him about his beloved roses.
I do know a little about his lifelong passion turned profession: I’ve gleaned snippets from my mother and other snippets from various chats with David over the past 50 years. But pulling it all together was a revelation.
So here, from the mouth of my 86-year-old uncle himself, is the story of how his passion for roses came to be.
David has always been interested in gardening. At the age of five he would trot up the road to The Bowling Green – the Queen Anne house on his logo – where his grandma, Clara Austin, a keen gardener, lived. In her typical Victorian garden, which surrounded a grass tennis court, David had a little patch of his own where he created a sunken garden and grew flowers and vegetables. Clara, keen to instil a commercial element, would take them to nearby Albrighton to sell.
As was usual, he was packed off to prep school, followed by Shrewsbury School, where he was considered a dud due to severe dyslexia (though he writes beautifully now). He did, however, enjoy – and did “rather well” at – botany and genetics, and, as a boy, was influenced by a great friend of his father, James Baker, the son of a wealthy shoe factory owner, who grew and bred lupins. Baker’s Nurseries became one of the leading pre-war plant nurseries.
When David left school, he helped with the family farm but was also interested in plant breeding. His first foray involved trying to develop a perennial grain, using plants from a Russian source he found despite the Cold War.
“It was a slightly mad idea and completely beyond my facilities,” he recalls.
At 18, he bought some of the then popular hybrid tea roses from the famed breeder Harry Wheatcroft and a small collection of old roses from George Bunyard, who was amongst the first to reintroduce old varieties since their demise in the late 19th century.
Growing these sparked an idea. “If I hybridised the two kinds of roses I might produce what was a better rose than either of them . My idea being to combine the style of flower, rich fragrance and attractive shrubby growth of the old roses with the wide colour range and excellent repeat flowering ability of the modern roses; that is, the hybrid teas.”
“I believed these would fit into the border far better than the sticky, upright habit and sometimes crude colours of the hybrid tea, which dominated the typical rose garden .”
David found Practical Plant Breeding by WJC Lawrence (1968, from the John Innes Research Station), and started. His first cross involved Rosa ‘Cécile Brünner’ with a hybrid tea. He removed the ripening pollen and transferred it with a brush onto the stigma (female) parts of the other.
The resulting seeds produced a tray of beautiful seedlings, and he went to bed, highly excited, dreaming of them. But disaster struck: they all damped off from some gruesome fungi. It wouldn’t happen again .
“From my early teens to my early forties I carried on breeding roses as a hobby while farming,” he says. Nearly all the first crosses produced non-repeat flowering plants, which he then crossed back to another repeat flowering tea. With this second cross, about 75 per cent were repeat flowering, and these he then crossed with each other. After about 10 years, he started to get some good, repeat flowering, shrubby plants. Some, such as ‘Constance Spry’ and ‘Chianti’ are non-repeating but beautiful. He recalls taking the Chaucer roses (as the repeat flowerers were named) to Chelsea for the first time in 1969. “The well known rose grower, Jack Harkness, with a large grin on his face, whose stand was by the entrance, said, ‘if anyone else asks me where those Chaucer roses are I’ll scream’.” They took Chelsea by storm.
In 1969 he started his nursery (davidaustinroses.com). He employs 20 people full-time in the breeding department alone, and about 140 others in addition.
The United States and Japan are the biggest outlets. The 80,000 seedlings that he breeds each year have eight years of trialing before the very best (just a handful) are selected. He is highly excited about this year’s bunch and is always monitoring their progress, spending a good two hours each day eyeing up his progeny in the one acre of glass breeding houses.
So what do rose breeders at this level look for, and what are they trying to achieve?
Uncle David strives to produce strong, disease-resistant plants: “I am not looking so much for bigger or brighter flowers, but more beauty, strong fragrance and charm, and also a great variety of different roses.” He regards breeding as more of an art than a science and Carl Bennett, his top breeder, who has worked with him for more than 25 years, is a trusted ally.
Rose fragrance is so complex they even have a “nose” to check and analyse the scent: Robert Calkin, who once worked at Yardley.
Running the business and continually developing and breeding new roses (he has bred 180 to date) is complex. His son, also called David, has been involved since 1990, so Uncle David can concentrate on breeding. When barely a teenager, young David was fascinated by business, but he is also a keen hobby gardener, and his father says he has a very good eye for a rose.
Uncle David is not the only rose breeder in Britain, of course. Norfolk’s Peter Beales, another eminent grower, started his nursery in 1968 (classicroses.co.uk), but his love affair with roses began at the tender age of four, when his grandfather showed him ‘Maiden’s Blush’.
“David and myself, we have had a very similar experience,” he says. “I’ve always been very impressed by his approach. He set off on his type. My approach has been much more eclectic – I crossed roses that I thought would make good parents.”
Peter is breeding “Modern Classics”: repeat flowering shrub roses with the growth habit of a floribunda or hybrid tea. ‘The Queen’s Jubilee Rose’ is the first, and aptly, is “diamond coloured – white with a hint of pink and yellow”. This is the first of his ‘Manor House’ roses; ‘Capel Manor House’ will be coming soon. He also breeds repeat flowering ramblers, such as ‘Rural England’ with masses of strong pink flowers and compact, easy to train, flexible stems (with very few thorns). It is tolerant to poorer soil.
As I watched my Uncle David among his thousands of young seedlings, seizing on one or two that stood out with obvious interest and displaying a depth of understanding accumulated over 70 years or more, I realised just why what he has developed is unique.
Next week: the different types of English roses, including David Austin’s cutting roses; how to best use them in the garden; the most popular varieties; pruning and general tips on rose growing
a link here to this follow up article –
“Roses: new ways with an old classic
In her second part of her focus on roses, Bunny Guinness advises where to plant them and how to keep them looking lovely.”