In the last 30 years I’ve had two gardens and, although there were only 20 miles apart, they were as different as chalk and cheese, a bit like my children! My old garden in Hook Norton in Oxfordshire, famous for its beer, was a stone’s throw away from the church. The one-acre garden was on the site of an old monastery and many a time I dug down and found a stone floor. The previous owners uncovered, and sold, a spiral stone staircase and a coat of arms.
It was hard to tell whether you’d hit bedrock or the stone foundations of the Abbey, for ironstone ran right underneath that garden. Planting anything often demanded a pick axe and when the summer sun shone you could feel the heat rising from the ground as the submerged stone warmed up, like a giant storage heater. In the distant past, Hook Norton had been famous for its Cherry Fairs because cherries love warmth that rises upwards. Fruit expert Will Sibley used to advise people who wanted to grow cherries to put stones around their tree. This stone-blanket technique was also used by Ashwood Nurseries’ John Massey on his salvia collection.
Hook Norton, tucked away just off the north-eastern edge of the Cotswolds, was also in the rain shadow and many a year we only had nineteen inches of rain per year. The south-facing garden was hot and dry. Certain plants loved these conditions and I did very well with silvery Mediterranean plants and South African plants such as dieramas, kniphofias and agapanthus.
However it was a disaster for roses, peonies and phloxes because they need moisture-retentive soil. The move to Spring Cottage in Cold Aston provided an opportunity for me to grow the things I couldn’t in Hook Norton. It’s cold in winter, the soil is deep and friable and there’s plenty of rainfall sweeping up the Bristol Channel.
That’s my excuse for overdosing on all three – roses, peonies and phloxes. They work well together though, because the rose and peony foliage ties in well. The glossy greens, coppers and reds make a perfect foil for tulips especially ‘Ballerina’, a lily-flowered, scented terracotta tulip that returns year-on-year. The peonies begin to flower in May and, as they fade, the roses begin. They’re glorious in June and early July, but then they fade. The phloxes begin in August and fill the gap until the roses return in September.
Fully petalled roses and peonies don’t provide much sustenance for pollinators though, so there are plenty of insect-friendly summer-flowering perennials planted close by. They include Campanula lactiflora ‘Prichard’s Variety’, a sedum called ‘Karfunkelstein’, a more-upright nepeta named ‘Bramdean’ and two loosestrifes, Lythrum virgatum ‘Dropmore Purple’ and the pale-pink L. salicaria ‘Blush’.
There are lots of annual scabious and cosmos and these carry on late. Rock roses and pinks also line the stone path.
The roses in these summer borders are either repeat-flowering floribundas, or English roses raised by David Austin. They have to be wonderfully healthy because, as an organic gardener, I can’t use any fungicides for blackspot. They’re mainly a mixture of champagne whites, pinks and sunset shades of yellow and orange. When you use soft colours you don’t have to worry about whether they’ll go together or not, because pastel colours sit happily together, although there have to be darker notes in order to stop the border looking insipid. It might be a dark penstemon, or the dusky foliage of a sedum and ‘José Aubergine’ is brilliant.
Favourite floribunda roses include ‘Champagne Moment’, ‘Joie de Vivre’ and the strident-pink ‘You’re Beautiful’. These have all been voted Rose of the Year by an expert panel following trials held across the country. David Austin roses include the pale-pink ‘OIivia Rose Austin’, ‘Wildeve’ and ‘The Lark Ascending’. I also grow a Harkness rose named ‘Natasha Richardson’.
Although these are very healthy roses I have a three-stage system for keeping these roses clean. In the middle of October I take off one third to a half of the top growth because my garden is windy. I don’t want them to rock about and loosen themselves at the root. A couple of weeks later I strip the foliage from the stems and collect up all the leaves and bin them. At this stage I may cut out any dead wood.
The final pruning takes place between Christmas and the middle of February and the weather must be clement. A good pair of Felco secateurs ( no 2 or 6) and long sleeves help enormously. The floribunda roses are cut down to eighteen inches and the David Austin Roses are taken down to two feet. Any thick woody growth at the base is removed with the Felco pruning saw and then the shape is examined. I want four to five strong stems that form a cup shape. Any hybrid teas, such as Chandos Beauty’ and Mary Berry’ go back to nine inches, because hybrid teas have a leggy, upright tendency.
The roses up the front path get the same treatment and one of the best roses you can grow, even on poor soil, is ‘Bonica’. This French-bred rose, named in 1982, is always the last flower so I find myself cutting blooms for the kitchen table in mid-November. ‘Bonica’ may start a little later, probably in July, but it’s hardly ever out of flower and I have several lining the path from the gate.
I try to grow pollinator-friendly roses in this patch and the semi-double clear-pink ‘Bonica’ has a boss of pollen-laden golden stamens. ‘For Your Eyes Only’ is a persica-type with single maroon-eyed pink flowers. These both fit in with perennial planting because they only rise to three or four feet.
I do grow larger roses in other areas of the garden. ‘Sally Holmes’ bears a large, single flowers in shades of toffee and cream. ‘Buff Beauty’, raised from Pemberton’s hybrid musks in the dry county of Essex, likes warmth and shelter and was short of both quite often in Cold Aston. The reddish foliage and soft-apricot flowers are tremendous in July. Pemberton raised roses in his retirement, always selecting for fragrance, and ‘Buff Beauty’ was selected in 1939 by Ann Bentall, the wife of Pemberton’s Head Gardener – after Pemberton’s death in 1926. Many of his roses have names that might have been used in a John Betjeman poem – ‘Penelope’, ‘Cornelia’ and ‘Felicia’ for instance. Of the three ladies ‘Cornelia’ is the prettiest, with clusters of small copper-pink flowers.
These larger roses are planted on the north side of a south-facing low stone wall and the idea is that they’ll tumble over into the field and frame the cottage. They are not so aggressively pruned, although the three Ds – diseased, damaged and dead – are always cut away. Some of these roses get a little black spot by autumn so I do try to pick off any affected foliage and collect up the leaves.
My sympathetic pruning is usually interrupted by the arrival of two donkeys in April. They’re very fond of rose stems, but the roses seemed to recover. Favourite roses along the wall include an American rose with a small, creamy white flowers named ‘Gardenia’. It’s a prickly beast and it flowers prolifically in June. I’ve also planted ‘Pippin’, a repeat-flowering, strawberry-pink rose with very healthy, high-gloss green foliage. This was Peter Beales’s nickname. When he was a baby in his pram everyone said he had cheeks like rosy Pippin apples. ‘The Generous Gardener’, a large rose with an abundance of pink flowers, is now sold as a climber by David Austin, the raiser. However it’s an extremely good shrub rose that flowers from top to toe.
Roses seem to have been out of favour in the past, but they make extremely good garden plants whether you’re growing them up a path, on the boundary, or with summer perennials. I have to remind myself about this when I’m being lacerated by thorns in the winter, for you have to be prepared to work at roses to grow them well.
It’s particularly important with climbing roses, whether they’re ramblers or repeat-flowering roses. I can’t grow many here because my old cottage has no foundations. I do grow a couple of ‘Goldfinch’ rambling roses on the edges of the garden. Ramblers are vigorous roses that flower only once, in June, and once-and-only roses are the ones that make the garden ‘rosiferous’. Ramblers produce new whippy growths from the base. These new olive-green stems are shiny and these are the stems you want to preserve. The technique is to cut out some the old stems and replace them with an equal number of new stems. The process depends on how many new stems you have.
Once you’ve done this you have to slow down the sap by bending the rose stems. You can coil them round pergolas, or loop them into waves along horizontal bars. If you’re very adventurous you can create circles on the wall. The easiest month this November because the stems are very pliable. It’s impossible to wear gardening gloves for intricate rose work, but one head gardener I know uses rubber stationers’ thimbles to protect the ends of his index fingers from those sharp little thorns. It’s definitely brutal, but worth the battle!