From the Arctic to India
Michael Marriott, writing in the Financial Times in May 2011 (link below)
Roses are exceptional plants. They vary in size from tiny species of a few centimetres to huge ramblers growing tens of metres into trees. Their flowers can be just a few millimetres across, or 20cm or more, and the number of petals ranges from five (occasionally four) to 200. There is no other plant with such a wide range of fragrances and few with such a geographical range. In the wild you can find them in all parts of the northern hemisphere and in every climate except the truly tropical.
In the Arctic there is Rosa acicularis; in the desert R. stellata; our own R. spinosissima grows in pure sand by the sea and R. clinophylla spends six months of the year submerged below the flood waters of the Brahmaputra. The same goes for growing roses in the garden too, whether you live in the cold climates of Hokkaido or Canada, the heat of Florida or India or simply in Hampshire: there is a garden rose that will suit your climate.
It is hardly surprising that roses are such popular garden plants. Not the Hybrid Teas, of course, with their stiff upright growth, so much as the very varied shrub roses with a more informal habit that mix seamlessly with other garden plants and that, most crucially, will stay healthy.
Here at David Austin Roses in the UK, where I am senior rosarian, we regard ourselves as major players in the rose-breeding world along with Tom Carruth in the US and Wilhelm Kordes in Germany. We may be rivals but we are united in introducing excellent varieties that are helping to make roses so popular once again.
Rose-breeding is a long-term project. Good parents have to be chosen. This may take years. It is then eight or nine years from the initial transfer of pollen from one parent to another before a new variety can be introduced. Tens of thousands of seedlings have to be grown and trialled before a rose can be deemed good enough to be taken to the market.
The qualities that distinguish an outstanding rose from its pretty rivals include long flowering season, beautiful, individual, fragrant flowers, and charm. Charm is that special characteristic that is difficult to define in words but is easily recognisable. It is the way the flowers are held on the bush, the shape of the bush, the colour of the leaves setting off the colour of the flowers, the fragrance and many other characters that make up the beauty of the whole.
Unfortunately, all too many varieties of plants – not just roses – are introduced purely on the basis of novelty, which may seem exciting at first but very soon becomes boring. Any plant that is beautiful, tough and reliable will be loved for many years.
Roses are an incredibly versatile group of plants and there are varieties for all styles of garden, from the most formal to the completely informal. A formal rose garden is out of fashion now although, with a good layout and careful choice of varieties, it can be a wonderful spectacle and be in flower for many months of the year. A more informal rose border using shrub roses will often be easier to fit into the contemporary garden. For the mixed border, shrub roses are perfect.
The roses create contrast and, of course, most repeat flower, a rare characteristic in most other plants. David Austin’s English Roses are good for this situation, along with the Hybrid Musks and Rugosas. Many of the Old Roses are excellent, too, despite the best of them not repeat-flowering. Perennials are the most common choice to go with the roses, although annuals can also work well. Biennials such as foxgloves, verbascums and eryngiums are a great favourite of mine, as their tall spiky shoots are in complete contrast to the more rounded shapes of the roses and they often seed themselves around, placing themselves much more effectively than I ever would. I like Sweet Rocket (Hesperis matronalis) for this reason too and if it gets a bit out of hand, it is easily pulled out. The great advantage of combining roses and other plants is that one provides a foil to the other. The mixture also helps to keep the roses healthy by attracting beneficial insects into the garden that help to control pests.
Climbing and rambling roses are the best of all the climbing plants. Ramblers usually have small flowers and flexible stems, are very vigorous and do not repeat flower, while climbers usually have much larger flowers and repeat flower but are less vigorous. A rambler planted to grow into a tree or to cover a shed can produce a mass of flowers whose fragrance will be wafted great distances through the air.
With the right choice of variety the flowers will be followed by an equal mass of orange or red hips later in the year. The climbers are ideal for training on walls, trellises, obelisks and arches.
If you have no garden but just a balcony then a rose in a pot will flower for months and fill the space with fragrance. Roses are for everyone and almost every outdoor space.
- Roses are easy to grow. Success comes with the right choice of variety and ground preparation. There are thousands of varieties available worldwide; some are superb and others are awful. Some, like Brother Cadfael and Barbara Austin, will grow and flower beautifully in a temperate climate, yet when grown in a hotter climate they will grow like triffids and produce few flowers. The Mayflower and Wild Edric are extremely winter hardy, coping with the extreme cold down to minus 20°C or minus 30°C. Others will curl up their toes after just a touch of frost. If you do not want to spray your roses, make sure you choose healthy varieties.
- Roses love a soil that is rich in organic matter so, before planting, mix in plenty of well rotted (very important) manure, garden compost or green waste to depth of 40cm-50cm.
- Once you have taken these initial steps the rest is easy. Prune when the roses show the first signs of growth – Christmas/January/February in the UK but later in colder climates. Pruning is simply a matter of reducing the height of the rose down by around half and cutting out any dead, diseased or old stems. Don’t worry about the usual advice of cutting at an angle, to an outward pointing bud etc; concentrate instead on creating an attractively shaped plant. In spring, mulch around each rose to help conserve moisture and to keep the organic matter in the ground topped up. Apply an organic or organically based fertiliser in spring and summer.
- If you live in a dry climate then watering will certainly help to extend the flowering period although, once established and the roots have gone down deeply, roses are remarkably drought-resistant and will quickly spring into flower with some rain.
- Depending on the size of your garden or border, roses, and indeed all plants, are best planted in bold groups. Too many small areas can end up looking messy, rather like when you go up to a buffet and are tempted by too many different dishes.
- In many borders, planting groups of three roses of one variety, quite closely together, is most effective. Space them about 50cm apart, so that they grow into each other and give the impression of one large shrub rather than a number of individuals.
- Plant the other plants in bold groups, too, but don’t let them overwhelm the roses. They are the stars.