Pruning, care and maintenance plan for your roses, starring Mottisfont Abbey


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!

Actually, there is a new garden there, that I have only seen mid-construction when I visited in June 2018. These photos are from 2014/15, winter/summer though there are many many more galleries of images on my website featuring these glorious gardens, in successive years. I had a memorable visit last June with a friend and was introduced to the delights of the nearby town of Stockbridge, which I heartily recommend. The Sir Harold Hillier Gardens are about half an hour away, next to Pococks Rose nursery, so don’t spend too long over refreshments.

I’m reposting this to coincide with a workshop I’m hosting, a Celebration of Roses, today at Petersham Nurseries. Look out too for past stories from David Austin’s gardens near Telford, and RHS Wisely, Kew Gardens, the Savill Garden, Sissinghurst and across the Nurseries too, planted and potted, in the Cutting Garden and House Gardens too – opening for charity on 14th July if memory serves me well.

I hope to get to a few new rose gardens, well new to me, so will keep you posted as we head into peak rose season.

These pruning notes were originally published in February 2015 and the work of renovation and pruning is a job to be done between January and the end of March as a preference.

DSCF5460A 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.

69624_513893848649566_1894123755_nBuff Beauty here at the entrance to the Walled Garden complex at Mottisfont Abbey. Before and After, as it were!

DSCF6149I’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.

417634_513893691982915_309756335_nDSCF5641Constance Spry (above)  – trained along the ‘horizontal’ to maximise flowering – and here with Adelaide D’Orleans cascading from the pergola.

DSCF5645535550_513893358649615_1846004094_n421497_513893655316252_749795579_nDSCF5930Crepuscule, first in twig and then in flower above another bench on a warm sheltered wall.

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.

DSCF4469DSCF5279These are matched posts clothed in The Pilgrim, flowering from ankle to about 8′ where the stems are twined around the post in a double helix, the same below.

DSCF4470DSCF4504The posts above feature the ramblers Bleu Magente and Debutante. You can easily see how the pliable young growth has been wrapped around the uprights.

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…

DSCF5357DSCF5954Lykkefund (above) is a great mass of flower almost 4.5m tall and through, with an extravagant display of creamy, scented double flowers.

555072_513893791982905_971949665_nI 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.

DSCF4525Crimson Glory (above left) and Buff Beauty (above right)

and in flower…

DSCF5293DSCF6055This is the rambler, Laure Davoust, being trained over an arch –

– 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.

DSCF5496Training 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 - many early Teas
The Long Border – many early Teas
and in winter…
and back to summer….

The long border in the outer court, photographs separated by just a few months… what a difference! The climbing rose (below) Mme Caroline Testout.

Rambling Rector, below

DSCF4515DSCF4505DSCF4510Substantial supports are needed for larger and more numerous specimens. These are almost entirely hidden at the height of summer but there are no shortcuts!


Paul's Single White
Paul’s Single White


un-named, as yet
Seven Sister, Rosa platyphylla


Adelaide d'Orleans
Adelaide d’Orleans

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.

Charles Quest-Ritson    14 Jul 2009

Graham Stuart Thomas was born on April 3, 1909 and all this year the National Trust has been celebrating the centenary of his birth with a series of events that pay tribute to the man who dominated the world of English gardening in the second half of the 20th century. Plantsman, nurseryman, writer and eventually Grand Old Man of British horticulture, Thomas is usually remembered for two achievements above all others. The first is his work for the National Trust, where he was responsible for more than 100 gardens in England, Wales and Ireland – restoring, re-making and, above all, turning them into viable tourist destinations. Thomas is the man who revived Hidcote Manor, rationalised Sissinghurst Castle, embellished Mount Stewart (in Northern Ireland) and restored Stourhead to its 18th-century splendour. His brief was to maximise enjoyment but minimise expenditure – not a bad principle on which to run your own garden.

Thomas is also remembered for his work with old garden roses. It was while he worked as a nurseryman in Surrey that he was first smitten by the beauty of the old roses – Gallicas and Damasks like ‘Belle de Crecy’ and ‘Mme Hardy’ – that had fallen from fashion because they flower only once. And he soon saw their commercial potential. The catalogues he produced for Sunningdale Nurseries in the 1960s presented old roses as a quality product, much more rewarding than vulgar Hybrid Teas and flashy Floribundas. Thomas had collected them from all over the world, trialled them and selected the best for British conditions. Then he wrote about them: his book The Old Shrub Roses, first published in 1955, has proved one of the most popular of all gardening books, constantly reprinted and updated.

When Thomas wanted to retire as a nurseryman, he looked for a site to preserve his collection of old roses. At first, they were parked (with very little in the way of artistry), in the garden of the Royal National Rose Society. But in 1971 the opportunity came to create a new garden at Mottisfont Abbey, the National Trust’s property in Hampshire whose tenant had just relinquished possession of a handsome walled kitchen garden.

Thomas knew how the National Trust worked and soon had permission to assemble all his roses in a new formal garden that he designed within the four-square, old brick walls. It was to be a celebration of the beauty of old roses, laid out so that visitors could study and compare the different varieties, but interplanted with herbaceous plants that would show them off in mixed plantings. The garden opened for the first time in 1974 and – though it is open from March to October – now attracts over 150,000 visitors a year, of which nearly 60,000 come during the high season of June alone.

Mottisfont Abbey’s garden is Graham Thomas’s masterpiece. It brings together his strong sense of design, his immense knowledge of plants, his love of roses and his genius for combining plants in attractive colour combinations. On the walls are old Noisettes and Climbing Tea roses, plus a few of the best Wichurana and Multiflora Ramblers. In the beds beneath them are Hybrid Perpetuals, China roses, Scots roses, a few Rugosa hybrids and Bourbon roses. More structure comes from the box edging, occasional pieces of trellis-work and tall, clipped yews.

Mottisfont is the best garden in Britain to study not just the way plants can be put together but also to learn about the roses themselves. With so much to look at and compare, you get your eye in fairly quickly. You notice how large the flowers of old Gallica roses are – sometimes as much as 6 in across – and how strong and sweet are their scents. The Tea roses, by contrast, smell exactly as their name suggests, of fresh China tea-leaves, while the Musk roses are free with the fragrance of – well – musk.

The Damask roses have soft grey-green leaves to complement their flowers in shades of pink or white. Moss roses have a hard, green outcropping all over their sepals and stems – it looks like moss, but it is sticky when you touch it and smells very strongly of pine-resin. Some of the old roses are striped, with slashes of colour across the flowers or – in a few cases – tricked out with a white edging to the petals. Others are thornless, and you wonder why nurserymen have not bred this valuable characteristic into more modem roses. Mottisfont provokes such reflections; no other English rose-garden offers such a stimulus to ponder and dream.

In the late 1980s, the opportunity arose to extend the garden into an adjoining area, triangular in shape but enclosed by walls of the same mellow brick. More old roses were now streaming into England from the great collections at Sangerhausen in Germany and L’Hay-les-Roses in France, and the new rose garden – though merging completely with the first – gave Thomas the opportunity to display the best of them. Here, too, the roses are interplanted with herbaceous plants. In one corner lies a wooden shelter, where Thomas would sit and hold court on hot days in June until only a few years before his death in 2003. Visitors would bring him roses to identify and ask him questions on cultivation – though roses of every sort are among the easiest of all plants to grow. His precise, rather schoolmasterly voice dispensed advice and encouragement with all the charm and authority that were the hallmarks of his professional career. It is not a bad place to sit today, shaded from the sun, with the late-flowering, ‘Sander’s White Rambler’ bowered around you and the sweet scent of roses assailing your nostrils, gazing out at the sea of opulent shapes and soft, subtle colours. Only one anomaly sticks out – a tall rose on the far side of the enclosure in very bright yellow. This turns out to be ‘Graham Thomas,’ the English rose dedicated to him by his great friend David Austin. It is planted here as a tribute to the man who re-invented old roses as top-value garden plants and gave us, at Mottisfont, the most beautiful rose-garden in Britain.

  • Mottisfont Abbey, Mottisfont, nr Romsey, Hampshire SO51 0LP 01794 340757.
  • Charles Quest-Ritson is editor of The NIS Encyclopaedia of Roses.


A gallery featuring just some of the Old Roses at Mottisfont – available at Petersham Nurseries (though with limited stock).

Phyllis Bide
Phyllis Bide
Phyllis Bide
Phyllis Bide
Phyllis Bide
Phyllis Bide
Gruss an Aachen
Gruss an Aachen
Blanc double de Coubert
Blanc double de Coubert
Blanc double de Coubert
Blanc double de Coubert
Roseraie de 'Hay
Roseraie de ‘Hay
Ghislaine de Feligonde
Ghislaine de Feligonde
Rosa Mundi
Rosa Mundi
Hugh Dickson
Hugh Dickson
Hugh Dickson
Hugh Dickson
Clg Souvenr de la Malmaison
Clg Souvenr de la Malmaison
Reine des Violettes
Reine des Violettes
Varigata di Bologna
Varigata di Bologna
Madame Isaac Pereire
Madame Isaac Pereire
Lady Hillingdon Clg
Lady Hillingdon Clg
Perle d'or
Perle d’or
Perle d'Or
Perle d’Or

5 thoughts on “Pruning, care and maintenance plan for your roses, starring Mottisfont Abbey

  1. I am very grateful to you for this article! (And hundreds of previous ones too !!)
    I do not have the opportunity to attend your workshop on pruning roses, but thanks to your magnificent photographs and a pleasant explanation, much is clear.

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