For the next month the garden is the place to be. Impulse visitors need to know that the great English gardens have had a late year and that a late June visit will find the best of our roses still at their best. It is all so exciting. We have become used to a peak season of about June 10 and a week of such hot sun that everything fades quickly. This year, the old delight of anticipation is back. I have already had as much pleasure waiting for our rose and iris buds to open three weeks late as I have recently had from their seasons of actual flower.
In June, roses take centre stage, quite unperturbed by the apostles of dreary “sustainability” who want to eliminate them in favour of “meadow” muddles. My most sustainable garden plants in the past 25 years have been roses, even on the sort of stony soil which they hate. I will be basking in my pink Jacques Cartier roses and the masses of white flowers on Madame Legras de Saint Germain. I do hope the devotees of native “matrix” planting will be enjoying the wait, meanwhile, for some washy pink flowers on the Carthusian dianthus among their ornamental grasses.
At the Chelsea Flower Show I much enjoyed the big rose exhibit from our market leaders, David Austin Roses. They deployed standard roses as a main feature. Sometimes trendy designers talk as if standard roses are the very last sort of thing they would ever consider putting in a “client’s” front garden. I consider them one of the first. They add height from year one onwards. They go on flowering long after fashionable sanguisorbas have packed up. They are great in a front garden, not least because they offer the owner a daily buttonhole on the way out to work. Buttonholes are not sexist. They are just as available to today’s multitasking woman in the era of the business suit, but somehow she never wears them. Are they thought to be a lover’s gift and therefore “unprofessional”?
The special interest of the David Austin stand was its choice of standard rose varieties. The most impressive were David Austin’s own English roses, bred by himself over the past 50 years. This year, 28 of them carry the Award of Garden Merit from prolonged trials by the RHS. It is the award which I most trust for my garden’s purposes. Some of the Austin roses which are good as bush roses are fabulous as standards. The most spectacular is his yellow-flowered Graham Thomas.
Justly, this rose bears the name of our greatest rose expert. In a garden it is tall as a freestanding bush and its yellow is rather rich. As a lowish climber against a wall it has turned out to be better, but to judge from this year’s Chelsea it is most desirable as a standard. Standard roses are budded on to stems about 4ft high. They have three times the impact of a bush rose because three shrubs are budded on to the top of the stem at once. The classic way to use them is to line them on either side of a garden’s front path, but ones and twos are almost as lovely. They are available at £39.95 each this year or at £105 for three of the same variety, accessible at firstname.lastname@example.org. I loved the rich Graham Thomas yellow at eye level but other winners were the big-flowered pink Mary Rose, one of Austin’s best roses ever, and the white Winchester Cathedral. If you still think that his roses never have a first-class scent, you are wrong. His heavily petalled Princess Alexandra of Kent is exceptional and even won the Fragrance Award in the Glasgow trials about six years ago, against all newcomers. The Austin catalogue is beginning to sound like Jancis Robinson’s wine-tasting notes. Princess Alexandra is described as having a “delicious fresh tea fragrance which changes to lemon, eventually taking on hints of blackcurrants”. Imagine walking past a line of it as standards on your way out to work.
Beneath the rich yellow of a standard Graham Thomas I picture in my mind’s eye the easy new wonder-plant. Geranium Rozanne is the best herbaceous plant to have hit the market in the past 20 years. It is extremely easy to grow and extremely easy to split into many more plants after a year in the garden. Its flowers are the loveliest cool blue round a white central ring. They go on and on, beginning now and ending in late autumn. In cool, but light, conditions their colour is even better and their growth more profuse. Anyone can grow Rozanne and enjoy its extraordinary generosity, though it is never more than a foot-and-a-half high on cool soil. It is not to be found in “sustainable” meadows, but it spreads beautifully in summer to keep out weeds. Unlike other hardy geraniums it does not become a sprawly mess in July which has to be clipped back at once. I picture its blue-white flowers as a perfect match below standards of yellow Graham Thomas. Add some tulips for spring and you have a smart front garden which will get better and better over time.
On walls my roses either go mad and end up all over the roof or else go spotty and object to poor soil. What I most want is something with the vigour of a rambler but the repeat-flowering habits of a first class tea variety. On walls of modest height one answer is to use a David Austin rose as a climber, pinned back and trained upwards. Like most of the older Hybrid Musk roses the Austin roses are surprisingly good wall plants. On bigger walls the latest answer is to try one of Austin’s English Musk varieties. I already enjoy the recently-launched Malvern Hills and now I want to add the brand new Albrighton Rambler.
Malvern Hills will reach about 12ft but it is already a top selection for a house wall. The small flowers of a soft yellow are double and enchanting, with the profusion of a high-class rambling variety and the same glossy small leaves with few thorns. Unlike a rambler, Malvern Hills really does repeat its flowering season. It is charming on an arch and a good match for any wall, whether made of stone or red brick or rendered concrete. I am delighted with it.
This year’s new Albrighton Rambler picks up the theme and may well be even better. According to its breeder, Austin himself, it “is an exceptionally healthy variety that will do well with little attention and the flowers are not affected by rain”. Who can argue with that? The flowers’ shape is cuplike and fully double, with even more impact than Malvern Hills. It reaches the same sort of height, about 12ft, but its tone is different. At Chelsea, under cover, the show plants came out a shade of white, quite unlike their colour outdoors. Albrighton Rambler is in fact a soft pale pink which no Chelsea visitor could have guessed. Shows cannot show everything, especially when they have to force it into flower. Albrighton Rambler is even better than it looked to its visitors. Who says roses are a thing of the past? They are a glory of the present and as breeders worldwide address the problems of leaf disease and once-flowering, their future will be better and better.