Thorn in two: My love/hate relationship with roses
February is the time to plant roses – they’re high maintenance but so worth it
Right now is a great time to plant both bare-root and potted rose plants, focusing on only the best, most disease-resistant, strongly scented cultivars. Photograph: Getty Images
“A rose is a rose is a rose . . .” All my gardening life, my attitude to growing these shrubby plants has been an ambivalent one. So, not quite on the side of the late Christopher Lloyd, who mischievously described roses as “miserable and unsatisfactory shrubs”, but nonetheless . . . All that palaver of pruning, training and deadheading. Those damned thorns. Plus the rose’s Augustus Gloop-like greediness for manure and fertilizer, coupled with its hoity-toity unwillingness to tolerate competition from most other plants. Add to that its bare-faced ugliness in winter. And, of course, the propensity of some cultivars to succumb with boring regularity to pests and diseases like consumptive invalids.
On the other hand, who would be without those exquisitely beautiful, edible flowers? The rumpled, multi-petalled, tangerine perfection of “Lady Emma Hamilton”, for example, or the pale golden simplicity of “Mermaid”. Tell me whose heart doesn’t give a leap of unadulterated joy on seeing the sea of snow-white frothy perfection that is “Rambling Rector” in full summer bloom. And, of course, what other flower has a more exquisite perfume? A scent so divine that Mecca’s most sacred mosque, the Kaaba, is washed twice a year in rosewater sourced from Qamsar, the Iranian city famed worldwide for its centuries-long production of this perfumed liquid.
Creative inspirationSmall wonder that the same evocative scent has also inspired generations of perfumiers, from Jean Patou (Joy) and Dior (Miss Dior) to Chloe (Roses de Chloe). Indeed, as a passionate gardener, the rose garden of Christian Dior’s childhood home, Villa Les Rhumbs in Normandy, provided him with creative inspiration for the rest of his life.
Like many, I also treasure the intricate and complicated history of the rose as a cultivated plant, a story that reaches back in time and across the globe to China, Iran, Turkey and Egypt. It’s said, for example, that one Roman emperor (Elagabalus) accidentally smothered his dinner guests by emptying tonnes of rose petals from a false ceiling down into the banqueting hall where they were dining. See what I mean about feelings of ambivalence? Which is why, teeth slightly gritted, I offer you a guide to keeping these plants happy.
Best time to plant? Right now is a great time to plant both bare-root and potted rose plants, focusing on only the best, most disease-resistant, strongly scented cultivars (ideally those that are repeat-flowering). Examples include those mentioned above (especially the more modern David Austin types) as well as the white-flowering rambler “Alberic Barbier”, the pink-flowered shrub rose “Comte de Chambord”, “Buff Beauty” (fragrant, apricot yellow shrub rose) and the many species types.
Even then, be super-vigilant when it comes to protecting your rose plants against pest and diseases. This doesn’t mean spraying them regularly with noxious insecticides and fungicides; in fact, I’d suggest giving these a very wide berth for both personal health and environmental reasons. Instead concentrate on providing the perfect growing conditions. This means full sun, space (leave at least 60cm between plants), shelter from cold or drying winds and, most importantly, a healthy, free-draining but moisture-retentive, fertile, friable soil. To ensure the latter, add plenty of manure and some homemade compost to the planting hole or as an annual mulch around the roots in March along with a generous handful of organic pelleted fertilizer and a sprinkle of seaweed powder.
Garden hygieneGood garden hygiene is also crucial. Certain rose diseases (for example, black spot) overwinter on the rose plant’s fallen leaves so it’s important to carefully collect diseased leaves and burn them. Other common rose diseases – for example, powdery mildew which appears as a silvery/white powder on the surface of the leaves – can be a sign of inappropriate growing conditions including a soil that’s too dry or a site that’s too shady. So consider either moving the plant to a better spot or replacing it with a more disease-resistant alternative. Regular liquid seaweed feeds throughout the growing season will also boost your rose plants’ general health/immune system, thereby helping them to fight off common pests and diseases.
Finally, a careful pruning regime will also help to keep your roses in good heart. Now is the time to prune climbing, floribunda, hybrid-tea, patio, polyantha and David Austin shrub rose types (rambling and old-fashioned shrub roses should be pruned in late summer). Wear a sturdy, thorn-resistant pair of gloves/clothes and use a sharp loppers/secateurs to remove any dead, dying, damaged or diseased stems (the four Ds) as well as any remaining leaves. With David Austin shrub roses, shorten all stems by roughly a third. Do the same for patio and polyantha-type roses. With hybrid-tea types, pruning should be more severe, cutting the oldest, woodiest stems out completely and the remainder to just 10-15cm above ground. With floribundas, cut out weak shoots before pruning any remaining shoots down to 25-30cm above ground. This, I should add, is no more than a brief summary. For a detailed guide, pick up a copy of Dr DG Hessayon’s The Rose Expert. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.
This Week In the Garden . . .
Sow leeks under cover and in gentle heat for transplanting outdoors later in the year as young transplants. Recommended varieties to grow from seed include “Hannibal”, “Autumn Mammoth”, “Porvite” (a good variety to grow as baby leeks) and “Belton”.
Sow seed of tomatoes under cover and with bottom heat (an electric propagator is recommended). One of the very best suppliers of tomato seed is Cork-based organic seed producer Brown Envelope Seeds. Their range includes everything from the easy-to-grow cherry-type tomatoes such as “Brown Berry” and the yellow-skinned “Tear Drop” to big, meaty beefsteak tomatoes including “Blue Betty” and “Brandywine” as well as old favourites such as “Moneymaker”. See brownenvelopeseeds.com.
Lenten roses (Helleborus x hybridus) are in full bloom now so it’s great time to buy them as young pot-grown plants in garden centres. This way, you can be sure of what you’re getting as regards the variety. This long-lived ultra-hardy perennial, which is prized by gardeners for its late winter/early spring flowers, likes a humus-rich, moist but well-drained soil in either shade or full sun. Recommended varieties include H. “Anna’s Red” (available from johnstowngardencentre.ie).