The best time to view a summer garden is in sudden sunshine after rain. The colours are clear and the light has a freshness rather than a glare. So far, British viewing conditions have been patchy since mid-May and there have been entire days of dull, wet dimness. For those of you who like annual bedding out, they have not been so disappointing. All through the 1990s, newly bedded plants had to struggle with long dry spells just when they needed to establish outdoors. Bedding gardeners had to chisel at the soil in order to plant them, unless they soaked it first with a hose. This year, the task has been so much easier.
Not everything is ahead of itself. Whereas roses are three weeks earlier than last year, peonies and irises have kept to the usual calendar. Big oriental poppies are highly fashionable now, but mine were not out until early June, and even then the rain hit them hard. The absence of any significant spring frost is surely the reason why roses have raced so far ahead. This weekend has become a traditional high point for visits to the National Trust’s fine collection of historic roses at Mottisfont Abbey, near Romsey in Hampshire. It is still in fine form, but it was already looking good two weeks ago, long before its usual peak around June 20. Spring frosts used to hold back rose buds and young growth. Without them, the old-fashioned early “June gap” in gardens is being filled this year with roses near their best.
Visitors to Mottisfont can admire the historic plantings of the great rosarian, Graham Thomas, especially in the farther of the two walled sections of the garden. There, Thomas planted old varieties of rose from the important collection at Sangerhausen in Germany, at that time still under communist rule. He once told me that he was still unsure of the names of nearly half of the roses he had acquired in consignments from behind the Iron Curtain. Their aristocratic French names were not being held against them.
In the first half of June, my personal favourites are the best old Alba roses. The heavenly shape of the flat flowers and the pink flush and tightness of the white petals make Rose Félicité Parmentier an unsurpassed bush, only about 3ft or 4ft high when lightly pruned. It does not suffer from ugly diseases and it needs almost no pruning. It is superb in all weathers, but of course it has only one flowering season. So do peonies, but nobody complains about them. I am happy to have this heavenly rose in a prominent place, even if it lasts for only three weeks. In shadier places, even on a north wall that is not denied light, the trick is to plant its Alba relation, Queen of Denmark, a bigger flowered pink with a lovely quartered arrangement of its petals. She too flowers only once, but does well in places where other roses fail. I recommend her to city gardeners with walls that lack direct sun.
Out in open sunlight, it is hard nowadays to escape the many David Austin roses in a modern garden centre. Who would wish to after yet another gorgeous display of their potential at this year’s Chelsea? If you are still grumbling that they lack scent, you are way behind what are now the best of the Austin class. I have just been admiring the strong “old-fashioned” scent on three of Austin’s creations, all of them born long after roses like the pink-flowered Louise Odier had celebrated their antique centenaries. One is the excellent LD Braithwaite which has well-shaped flowers of a lively crimson-red. It is a healthy and easy rose but the scent is most pronounced only as the flowers age. Another is Teasing Georgia, a beautiful yellow-flowered rose which has a very powerful scent, the equal of any of the old French Tea roses. Teasing Georgia grows well against a wall, like so many of the recent Austin hybrids. Like them, she is useful there as she does not exceed 5ft in height, quite unlike traditional rambling roses. The third has to be the new Olivia Rose Austin, named after the great breeder’s own granddaughter. It looked magnificent on show at Chelsea, a pale pink of the most beautiful form with a fruit scent and a very strong constitution. It is a low bush, only 3ft high, which makes it invaluable. The nursery regards it as perhaps its best rose ever. It is simply not true that only “old” roses or “old” sweet peas have an intense scent. Some of the moderns are just as sweetly scented, if not better. The newer roses, of course, flower repeatedly, especially the new Olivia Rose.
As their season has sprung ahead, their companions have changed most interestingly. At Mottisfont and elsewhere, the classic companions have always been blue and white campanulas especially the tall milky-blue Campanula lactiflora at a height of 5ft and Campanula persicifolia in blue and white, a classic bellflower whose flower stems are only about 1.5ft high. The roses are out in flower with me, but these campanulas are not. The companions of the moment are also blue-flowered, but from quite different families.
Both are worth acquiring if you believe that early summers are now a fact of British life. Sharp-eyed growers have been selecting special forms of the blue-flowered Jacob’s Ladder, or Polemonium, for some years now. There is even a gold-variegated one, which I find a bit much. Among the other selections are some superb, long-lasting plants which flower at just the time for accelerated roses. A good one for this purpose is pale blue Polemonium Sonia’s Bluebell which was first commercialised by the nursery of Carol Klein in the West Country, even before she became a familiar television star. It flowers for months, beginning in May and ending in early August. It is excelled, in my view, by the more recent Polemonium Northern Lights, which is also only about 1ft high but even more persistent in mid-blue flower. It has a worthwhile scent, continuing with the flowers until early September. This polemonium makes an excellent edging in front of roses. A single plant soon grows into a good clump which can be split up into many more pieces, keeping down the cost of a polemonium border. It is even better away from full sunlight.
The other good options are parahebes. They are lower growing, about 1ft high, and have more or less evergreen leaves, making them invaluable little shrubs. A really cold winter may trouble them but after this mild one, they are in excellent form and flowering their heads off. The one to buy is Parahebe catarractae in any of its blue forms, Porlock being one of the best. Again, a plant or two suffices because parahebes are extremely easy to root from cuttings taken in early July as unflowered young shoots. Trim them back to a woody main stem and plant them in a pot of sandy or well-drained light soil. If watered, they will root very quickly and be fit to plant out in spring 2015. Their showers of pale-blue flowers go very well with shrub roses behind them.
I also grow the darlings of the apostles of “matrix” gardening and the “meadow” look. Even in a mass, their off-white and stale purple-pink flowers are rather drab. In this early summer season, the beauty queens are the roses and the blues, whites and accompanying pinks of flowery English gardening. As the light fades, I sit quietly among them all, lit only by the showers of rambling white roses. I bless the growers who have given us these centrepieces of the English year.