The Jubilee weekend has done wonders for English gardens. It broke the dry weather and ushered in the broken light and cool paradise which allow us to plant easily and view everything at its best. Jubilee Monday saw me in my garden all day, happier in the conditions than I ever remember in early June. How delighted, I am sure, the Queen would be to have presided over such a day for the outdoor passion of her nation.
English roses remain the glory of the summer, but are they fully out yet? While watching their varied progress I have been collating recent notes on some of the best.
Londoners will hardly believe that rural roses are still waiting to open their buds. In the hot air of a capital city climbers have been out for nearly a month and anyone can have a rose in their hair or buttonhole. In green and pleasant country, the roses on walls are near their best but any bush rose which was pruned in the winter is still holding back its flowers. At last a season has regained normality. The recent sequence of accelerated summers used to leave us with fallen rose petals by the start of the fourth week of June. This year, the best is still ahead of us. The many gardeners who open their gardens to the public and fix dates in advance will be delighted by the calendar’s return to traditional form. Visitors can be more confident of their timing.
For years, “old-fashioned” roses have been every civilised gardener’s ideal. The names are so seductive. It is so pleasant to sit by bushes with names like Mme Sancy de Parabère. One of the admired new roses of 2010 was Easy Does It but the name does not have the same romance. Old-fashioned roses also flower profusely and have an exquisite scent and shape. However, so many of them flower only once and are then ravaged by black spot on the leaves. They no longer have the benefit of every doubt. Breeding is moving forwards and at the Chelsea Show my two top roses were not old-fashioned at all.
Over in Hertfordshire the Harkness family have been breeding and growing roses for more than a century. In a recent TV episode of Mastermind the quizmaster actually asked a contestant to name the flowers with which the Harkness family have been associated for so long and to which they have often given their names. Better still the contestant answered “roses,” whereas the Oxford professor to whom I have just put the question over lunch replied “daisies.” After 100 years are the Harknesses’ hybrid tea roses old-fashioned yet or not? Perhaps not, because their blood lines continue to produce new varieties in a similar style, whereas Mme Sancy and her like are no longer breeding similar children.
At the recent Chelsea Show I admired for the second year running two newish roses on the Harkness stand. Helen Robinson has heavily petalled flowers which are classed as “candy pink” and which are extremely soft and easy on the eye. The scent is excellent even on a Show stand, and the flowers are said to go on appearing throughout the summer. Chandos Beauty is given the highest number of stars in the Harkness catalogue and is a beautifully shaped pink-white, shading to pink-apricot in the centre. It too has tremendous scent and stamina. Why do many gardeners now turn their noses up at bush roses just because they are “modern”? The leaves on Helen Robinson are coppery-green when young but they are not nearly so prone to disease as a Baroness Rothschild. I have planted both these lovely new varieties not in a special rose bed, which would be too like a formal city park, but as individual specimens, nowhere near each other, in mixed plantings. Both of them have flowers which are perfect for picking and showing off indoors. Few of the old-fashioned varieties last so well in bowls of water.
The “old” and “new” divide has been bridged, of course, by David Austin, breeder of the cleverly named “English roses” for more than 50 years. In many garden centres David Austin roses now dominate the roses for sale. The group’s success worldwide is now backed by Austin nurseries in many countries. Austin varieties often begin with the ideal of an “old” rose’s shape, scent and colour but try to breed plants which will flower longer and be less susceptible to old-fashioned diseases. The list grows yearly and some of the heavy-centred modern additions are too opulent for my eye. By now, however, enough of them have been tested in gardens for their merits to be assured.
Whenever I look at the Austin Chelsea stand I am soon directed to the special merits of their variety called Munstead Wood. The flat, heavily petalled flowers are in a shade of deep velvet crimson, one which is not always free of purple in truly “old” varieties. The shape is as good as the shape of a dark oldie like Charles de Mills. The scent won a gold medal in Japan three years ago and the nursery’s scenting expert seems to have been inspired by our FT wine expert Jancis Robinson’s tasting notes. He describes it as “warm and fruity with blackberry, blueberry and damson notes”. Munstead Wood is low-growing, about 3ft high and wide, and has proven itself as markedly healthy in recent British summers. Why grow an old French beauty when you can have similar colour and shape and none of the French diseases in this old-style modern breakthrough?
Among the pink-flowered varieties, Austin’s Gertrude Jekyll is taller, up to 5ft high, but it is equally healthy and free-flowering from prettily rolled buds. It also makes an excellent climber for a low wall up to 6ft high. Among the cream-whites, many of you would vote for Winchester Cathedral, another proven selection which has had more than 25 years in which to distinguish itself. Its scent intensifies in warmer weather and I have never had much trouble with black spot on the leaves.
The next two weeks are the best time to note new-old varieties which most appeal to you. At their best they rival the true oldies’ colouring and scent and share little of the oldies’ susceptibility to mildew and defoliation. Why choose roses which need to be sprayed to stay healthy? We are reaching the stage where we will be able to have old-fashioned class and proven modern stamina. The 1950s mania for everything bred before 1890 will seem a one-sided curiosity. The major loss will be the names. Mme Lauriol de Barny, Mme Legras Saint Germain ... they add to a summer’s evening in a way which even the shallow cup-shape of new-old William and Catherine cannot match.