The beautiful collection of Old Roses at Mottisfont Abbey in Hampshire – displayed in three separate walled gardens, each with its own distinct character and altogether showcasing several hundred Old Roses varieties with a range of complimentary plants. And the fragrance! Be still my beating heart!
A preamble really to the subject matter today, introducing some elements of pruning and training Old Roses, climbing and rambling roses – eventually expanding later into an early spring maintenance regime so that your roses give their absolute best this summer and in the years to follow.
I’ve visited these impressive gardens both in winter and at their zenith in June and I thought it would be useful to look at some of the specimens to see how they have been cared for – contrasting them bare of leaf and flower – and see them too in their glorious summer garb.
I’m preparing a workshop for a little later this month on seasonal rose maintenance, pruning, planting and getting the best out of existing roses and new purchases alike. I’m hopeful that some of these photos will make a valuable contribution to this event, illustrating some of the pruning and training techniques we can apply now for a good show in the summer.
The roses in this collection are Old Roses, an inheritance from Graham Stuart Thomas who created the garden and I will be coming back to other types of roses we might have in our gardens later on – hybrid teas and floribundas for example and not forgetting the English Roses from David Austin. For the moment let us take a tour around the gardens at Mottisfont, winter and summer, to illustrate how they tend to their charges.
All plants want to go up, towards the light (well, most in our garden repertoire) and to do so with the least effort. The top bud on any stem or branch will be the leader, top dog and commander-in-chief and while there may be many, many dormant buds along the whole length of the stem, they are quite firmly told to stay dormant. Apical dominance is the thing, with hormones preventing these dormant buds from bursting into life, leaf and flower.
That is, as long as the stem is growing vertically, pretty much straight up and the top bud is left in charge. As soon as that very same stem is trained to grow at an angle, all the way to being grown horizontally – or if the top bud is decapitated – or both – then the whole balance of power changes.
Dormant buds can spring to life, side branches emerge, flowering buds are ultimately created and spindly growth becomes denser with much more flower to show for itself – and much of that flowering going on at an accessible distance from the ground. New growth can be encouraged by judicious pruning and training – even roses in their twilight years.
Pulling long stems down to train along horizontal wires might not always be possible – there may not be the room on a section of wall or fence, or you are furnishing a pillar, post or arch. In this instance, a lazy spiral or serpentine ‘S’ is what you are looking to achieve. The sap slows and dormant buds are given a chance to work for you. Older wood, particularly on climbing roses, can be very stiff and difficult to manipulate, so getting the plan in place early, while the stems are more pliable, is key.
A quick diversion here to touch upon the differences between rambling roses and climbing roses. One key difference lies in the size and grouping of the flowers (there are other differences). With climbing roses, they are generally typified by large blooms held singly or in small groups. This contrasts with the ramblers, where the flowers are smaller and held in great swags and much larger clusters. Rambler roses have a limited colour palette – white, cream, pale pinks and blushes with just a very few stronger tones – purples and reds come to mind. Every colour (bar the elusive blue) will crop up in one climbing rose or another.
Ramblers tend to flower just the once, in one glorious extravaganza, putting all their effort into one show in June or early July. You will look forward to it and remember it for the next 11 months! There are some repeat flowering ramblers, just a few, and these are well worth seeking out.
Climbing roses tend to flower more than once (though not all) and this may be in successive flushes throughout the summer, or once in summer and again in the autumn, or perhaps continually (but not extravagantly) right the way through the season. The flowers are usually much larger than their rambler equivalents and many are sports of hybrid teas or floribundas. Many are richly fragrant.
Rambling roses flower, the once only types, on the new growth they put out the year before, and this growth tends to be wiry, flexible and with trademark rambler backward facing thorns (prickles technically) which they use to clamber through trees and anchor themselves securely as they grow. Individually, each flower may lack a strong perfume, but massed flowers can prove superbly fragrant.
The Garland, below, I’ve not seen in flower, but you can imagine the effect of these millions of buds fully open…
I forget the name of this rambler, I think it might be a young specimen of The Garland again, but you can see the careful treatment of fanning out these wiry stems across the wall surface. Older, less vigorous stems will have been removed right from the base, and these younger stems tied in along parallel wires.
By contrast, Crimson Glory – a climbing sport of the hybrid tea, has larger flowers held singly but again the stems are trained more or less horizontally. These main arteries will be a permanent (more or less) feature of the mature plant, with younger side branches coming off from them cut back each year to promote flowering along their length.
– Smaller ramblers such as these are ideal since their stems are pliable and easy to train – climbers can be used but as the stems are stiffer, training has to be done when the stems are younger and more easily bent to your will. Here the stems form a sinuous ‘S’ rather than heading straight up to the top of the structure.
One thing to bear in mind when choosing a rose for an arch, and particularly a rambler – many are immensely vigorous and ultimately very large plants. Wedding Day can reach 9m and the original Kiftsgate, 24m x 15m. Not one for an arch such as this! Match the vigour of the your rose with an appropriate support – give larger ramblers free reign if possible, allowing them their natural grace and habit – rather than continually having to straight-jacket them to keep them in bounds.
Training stems to the horizontal to promote flowering can also be used on some shrub roses – this is the Bourbon/Hybrid Perpetual (depending on where you look) Mme Isaac Pereire, a rose of fabulous colour and scent, where the long stems grown last year are pegged down to the ground at their tip in the spring. Flowers form all along the length of this stem, pulled low and under tension. Many forms of training – into domes for example – maximise this trait.
The long border in the outer court, photographs separated by just a few months… what a difference! The climbing rose (below) Mme Caroline Testout.
The Old Shrub roses – the gallicas, damasks, portlands, albas, bourbons, hybrid musks and more are a great feature of the gardens of course and these too are pruned, to a greater or lesser degree – actually a lesser degree – and I’ll come to how we look at these another time. Dead, diseased and crossing/rubbing stems are always removed and some height may be reduced, with some shaping of the shrub – but these are shrub roses and the short back and sides you might associate with hybrid teas has no place in their care and maintenance.
I spent a day with Michael Marriott from David Austin roses at their nursery and gardens in Albrighton looking at pruning of these Old Roses – their own creations too – and I’ll look out the photographs I took during the course. For the moment, they elude me!
Before I get to a gallery of some of the roses from the gardens at Mottisfont that are also in the collection at Petersham Nurseries, one that I’ve put together this year, I thought the following article by Charles Quest-Ritson, writing in the Telegraph in 2009, gives a thoughful introduction to these rose gardens and puts them in context.
Graham Stuart Thomas and the Mottisfont old roses
Mottisfont Abbey, celebrated for its old roses, is plantsman Graham Stuart Thomas’s masterpiece.
A gallery featuring just some of the Old Roses at Mottisfont – available at Petersham Nurseries (though with limited stock).