In a new monthly series, landscape designer Catherine FitzGerald shares her garden wisdom. This month she talks all things roses …
A large parcel from David Austin Roses lands with a thud on the doormat. The several layers of thick brown paper crackle as I pick it up and tear it open. It is tightly sewn up at both ends. Frowning with impatience, I resort to attacking it with a kitchen knife. Pulling out an unprepossessing-looking muddle of black roots and forked naked stems cut brutally short with a sharp secateurs, I turn them over in my hands. It is hard to imagine any sort of life ever bursting forth from this dead-looking tangle, bound tightly together with baler twine.
Bare root roses are lifted from the field and sent out when dormant from November to late March. By April they will have settled into the earth, and have begun to send out fresh new fibrous roots and cast up their first wondrously pliable green canes. They will even produce buds and flowers in the first year. By the second they will be miraculously well established.
I want to soften walls and gable ends and send them up apple trees in an orchard so have ordered ramblers, a distinct category from the climbers. It is their softer more romantic appearance that is so alluring – their abundance of small flowers and buds held in large open sprays creating a sublime cloud-like effect – set off by a background of small, delicate, airy apple green foliage. Some have a sweet musky scent, others a whiff of fresh primrose which fills the air as you walk past.
They are amazingly tough and disease resistant, which is why you often find them in long abandoned overgrown gardens still doing their thing. Some of the most famous ramblers are the beautiful giants like the airy “Paul’s Himalayan Musk” with its pale pink rosette-shaped flowers. It will easily grow to 12m in height. However, new breeding programmes mean there are much smaller varieties available such as the excellent “Little Rambler” (3m) and the more recent “Snow Goose” that will grow to only 2.5m. If you only want to cover a small wall area you can still enjoy these roses without having to do mortal battle with them each winter at pruning time – and invariably come out the worse for wear with nasty deep scratches and sore arms.
The names alone transport – thoughts of Empress Josephine and Malmaison – Redouté’s watercolours – the wives of famous rose breeders or in the case of Rosa “Adélaïde D’Orléans” determined French princesses. Adélaïde d’Orléans was bred in 1826 by Antoine Jacques, head gardener to the Duc D’Orléans, Adélaïde’s adored brother who she saw become king of France in the July revolution. She is a very elegant rambler with small pink buds opening to semi-double flowers which fade from cream to white, in small delicate sprays hanging gracefully from the branch like Japanese cherry. She grows to almost 6m in height – not too vigorous by rambling standards.
Another favourite is “Félicité et Perpétue” – also bred by Jacques – again not too big at 6m. Small, closely packed perfect white pompom flowers emerge from buds awash with a vivid pink. The ever-healthy small pointed dark green leaves have a slight sheen, lustrously beautiful. Both of these varieties will take some shade – a very useful trait many ramblers share. Who doesn’t have too much shade in their garden but still wants to enjoy roses?
We think of ramblers as mostly flowering once in high summer – which can be a discouragement – but quite a few do repeat into the autumn. I often choose these ones for a longer season of interest. A very neat long-flowering variety is “Phyllis Bide” which has a mass of small apricot pink flowers flushed with yellow all summer long. It looks very good against a red brick wall. The blooms seem to change colour before our eyes with a shimmering effect like an alighted cloud of butterflies. Many of the ramblers that don’t repeat go on to have lovely coral or scarlet hips which extends the season – such as the moschata, or musk-rose, “Francis E Lester”.
“Paul’s Himalayan Musk”
One of the earliest flowering ramblers, cultivated in Chinese gardens for hundreds of years, is Rosa banksia “Lutea”. It is a vision in April/May with heavy-hanging sprays of double pale yellow flowers. I always plant it for clients on the front wall of a house – to contrast with the hanging purple racemes of wisteria – for the ultimate wow factor. They flower at the same time and will stop any passer-by dead in their tracks to gape open-mouthed at the sight.
But enough imaginings! The outdoors must be braved and the roses planted. The bare roots are thrust into a bucket of water and left to soak for two hours. I pull on my boots and coat, hat and battered gloves, search for the spade which takes some time to find. A generous hole is dug so that all the roots can be spread out comfortably – about 40×60 cm. If I have it I add some of the excellent mycorrhizal fungi (Rootgrow) or some Blood, Fish and Bone, which will help the rose settle in and shoot off in the spring. Then – my favourite part – I replace the soil around it making sure the graft is just under the surface and firm it in with my foot so that it is nice and secure. It is the same satisfying feeling as tucking a child into bed at night and turning off the light. Now, just wait.
Catherine FitzGerald is a landscape designer based between London and Ireland.
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