Reinventing the Rose

There is no reason why roses cannot be mixed with other plants to avoid the sorry sight of barren twigs for much of the year

By Jennifer Gay

THE TRADITIONAL way of growing roses is to set them out in rows in a dedicated bed. This approach was popularised in municipal and suburban plantings in the second half of the 20th century across the Western world.

The downfall of the approach, however, has become increasingly evident.

While the beauty of the blooms holds the attention in early to mid-summer, the rest of the year classical rose beds look a rather sorry affair, amounting at the bleakest time of the year to little more than a few twigs in the ground.

On top of which, these sorts of rose beds are often given centre stage, underlining the contrast between their summer glory and winter gloom.

Thankfully, a more naturalistic approach to growing roses has come to the fore, and gardeners are realising that there is no reason why roses cannot be incorporated into general garden schemes, and mixed with other plants such as low shrubs, perennials, biennials and annuals. This trend, which started in northern Europe, is slowly filtering through to Greece.

Breeding hybrids

European fascination with roses dates to the early 19th century when repeat flowering roses were introduced from China. There began the quest to produce a continually flowering rose.

Hybrid perpetuals were the first such as Rosagallica var. officinalis - the earliest known garden rose - were combined with the new Chinese forms to produce roses with a new range of colours and several blooming periods each season.

In the late 19th century, La France, the first hybrid tea (RT), was introduced by breeders Guillot and Fils. It was not a particularly robust or healthy rose, but its distinctive pointed buds and flowers dominated breeding style for decades.

Though some gardeners stayed true to the subtle grace, scent and beauty - but fashioned roses, during the 20th century, Floribunda Roses and HTs became the ideal because of their long flowering season.

However, most cultivars were not particularly fragrant and almost all were disease-prone, requiring regular spraying throughout the blooming period to prevent blackspot, mildew and so on. Therein originates the enthusiasm for growing roses in block beds - so that they could be displayed, sprayed and pruned together.

Ultimately, the style led to their associated rose growing with high maintenance. In parallel with this came greater awareness of environmental as well as health and safety issues, and a rise in the number of garden chemicals being withdrawn from the market. Suddenly, gardeners didn't want to spray disease-prone roses any more.

Quest for vigour

Breeders began to focus on health and vigour. Early disease-free roses were produced by Kordes and Noack Roses, in Germany, and were popular for use in mass-planting municipal schemes. But despite their health and ease of maintenance they were not really garden-worthy.

It was clear there was a gaping hole in the market. During the '70s and '80s British grower David Austin saw the potential in creating a rose which combined the delicate charm and fragrance of old-fashioned roses with the flowering performance of modern HTs and floribundas. He knew that if he could also make them disease-resistant, the recipe would be a winner.

David Austin's English roses we introduced from the 1980s. In 1983 he caught the attention of the gardening world at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, with yellow-flowed Graham Thomas (Ausmas). Scented, the form of his English roses is very much that of an Old Rose, be it cup shaped rosette or with numerous small petals, and with endless variations these basic shapes.

Though repeat flowering, they are bred not so much for brilliance of colour or even excessive flowering, but for the gentle scented beauty of the individual flowers. They have a natural shrub habit which makes them ideal plants for the mixed border, and each year there are new additions to the English roses range.

Breeders nowadays only use disease free parents in hybridisation programmes and many have adopted a no-spray policy. Thus disease resistance is forever improving.

Combined with proper soil preparation, balanced feeding and the correct choice of cultivars, it is now possible to grow beautiful scented roses without spraying, and in natural combinations with other garden plants.

For more information on English roses:

(Posting date 8 October 2009)

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