There’s a lot of snobbery in the gardening world, particularly when it comes to growing roses. All too often the so-called old-fashioned rose, with the fascinating history and the fancy name, is chosen for reasons of style rather than health, vigour and flower quality. When the humid months of July and August arrive, black spot (Diplocarpon rosae) strikes with vengeance and any leaves that remain are stunted, spotted and yellowed. That’s when most gardeners reach for the fungicide, in sheer desperation. The very brave dig up their sickly incumbent because they can’t stand the sight of a disfigured rose lingering on any longer.
The late Christopher Lloyd famously went for the last option and removed all the roses from his Great Dixter garden in 1997, labelling the rose a “miserable and unsatisfactory shrub of stick-like thorny blobs”. His geometric rose garden had been designed by Lutyens in 1912. Originally 10 beds contained hybrid teas in shades of pink. They had been chosen by his mother, Daisy, and each bed contained one variety. They included the shell-pink ‘La Tosca’ (1901), the pale pink ‘Earl of Warwick’ (1904) and the silver-pink ‘Viscountess Folkestone’ (1886).
However, Lloyd’s battle began long before he finally reached for the spade. Writing in The Well-Tempered Garden, published in 1970, he summed up his plight: “If we can’t grow decent roses without spraying them a dozen or more times through the growing season, then the answer is surely to grow something else.” Lloyd was not a fan of sprays and in those days DDT (dichlorodiphenyl-trichloroethane) and lindane-based BHC were still part of the gardener’s chemical armoury.
Lloyd was worried about earthworms and breeding birds – and quite rightly. With all this in mind he advised his readers “not to commit yourself to beds of roses” but to “plant them with other shrubs and plants.” Few gardeners aspire to planting dedicated rose beds now. These days we prefer to interplant with tulips, astrantias, violas, well-behaved hardy geraniums, cosmos, penstemons and verbascums. Not only do these provide colour from April until October, they also sustain all-important pollinators which roses (usually being fully double flowers) can’t.
Astrantias and umbellifers, both full of tiny flowers, are particularly good for hoverflies which will lay their oval, white eggs singly near aphid colonies. The predatory larvae will soon eat up aphid infestations. Birds will also frisk your plants, to feed their fledglings, and ladybirds will visit – so don’t reach for insecticides or “green” alternatives such as soft soap and garlic. Allow nature to do the job for you.
Rose breeders began to feel a bit like Lloyd, depressed by disease. They took on the challenge and began breeding healthier roses. These tend to be shorter and bushier and therefore slot into herbaceous planting schemes more easily. The leggy, long-stemmed hybrid teas, with one or two enormous flowers held on rangy stems, and those gaudy floribundas that looked like flowers pulled from a magician’s hat, have thankfully long gone. However, the snobbery surrounding their “parks department” image lingers on, often making people hesitate to grow them, although the modern versions of these plants perform very differently. Modern roses are bushy, clothed in good foliage and their flowers have become fuller and softer, too. So much so it’s often hard to tell a floribunda from a hybrid tea these days. Some have heavily quartered flowers (the “old-fashioned” look) and they come in a wider range of colours, including ambers, tangerines and yellows, not just pink and white.
I stumbled across the modern floribundas by accident some 11 years ago when I was given ‘Champagne Moment’, a floribunda named Rose of the Year in 2006. With an empty garden to fill, I was very glad to plant anything. I soon discovered that ‘Champagne Moment’ was a stunner with warm-white, champagne-tinted clusters of flower and shiny copper-tinted foliage. I now have several in my rose and peony beds and their foliage and height marry together well. More importantly it’s always looking gloriously healthy.
The Rose of the Year, which began in 1982, is a two-year trial held in six different British locations including Aberdeen, Hampshire, Northern Ireland, Cheshire and East Anglia. The winner must endure the dry summers of East Anglia, the cold winters of Aberdeen, the heat of southern Britain and damp conditions in the more westerly locations. One rose per year is chosen and crowned at the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show each year.
‘Champagne Moment’ (Korvanaber) was bred by Kordes Roses, a German company which made the brave decision to stop spraying its trial fields in the Seventies. Thousands of its seedlings succumbed to disease and only six healthy roses remained. These formed the basis of a new breeding programme. Gradually British breeders followed suit, sometimes reluctantly.
Philip Harkness of Harkness Roses finally persuaded his family that it was a good idea to stop in 1994 and at first he saw “much more disease”. He monitors his roses all year and in September he does a thorough disease assessment, before taking bud wood in the second year. He explains that he looks at “what’s wrong with the rose, rather than what’s right”. Once selected it will take at least eight years to bulk up a rose (i.e. grow sufficient numbers of plants) before it can be sold.
Harkness has had lots of success with Rose of the Year. Winning roses include the honey-coloured climber ‘Penny Lane’ (1998), the tangerine floribunda ‘Lady Marmalade’ (2014) and the classic floribunda ‘Amber Queen’ (1982). Harkness also raised ‘Chandos Beauty’, a blush-pink hybrid tea that just happens to be Mary Berry’s favourite rose. A new ‘Mary Berry’ rose, launched at this year’s Chelsea, is a sweetly scented hybrid tea in shades of clotted cream and honey. It has ‘Chandos Beauty’ in its bloodline. I grow both in my cutting garden. But I often go off with secateurs and return without having cut any roses at all because they look so great. I can’t bear to do it.
David Austin also has a new breeding programme and the soft pink ‘Olivia Rose Austin’, named after his granddaughter, was christened last year. It is thriving in my garden with blemish-free foliage, along with ‘The Lark Ascending’, an upright yellow rose with a sunset colouring. I also find the following David Austin roses, ‘The Generous Gardener’, ‘Wildeve’ and ‘The Mayflower’, are very healthy.
For old-school gardeners who like a historic provenance with their roses, I recommend the Pemberton hybrid musks, raised in the dry county of Essex in the Twenties and Thirties. These do well in trying conditions and they’re healthy and free-flowering; the pink-toned ‘Cornelia’ is my favourite with its small, semi-double flowers held in generous clusters.
‘Buff Beauty’, a slightly heavy-headed buff-apricot, has young, copper-red foliage that sets off the soft peachy flowers on this amply proportioned rose which will make a roundel of 5ft x 5ft or more. It was named in 1939 by Anne Bentall, the widow of Pemberton’s head gardener.
So, if your roses disappoint you, it’s time to take off the rose-tinted blinkers and ditch them, for there are plenty of modern floribundas and hybrid teas which cut well, look well and blend into mixed planting schemes with ease. Many are beautifully scented, too, and some even have an old-fashioned shape.