Wednesday 12 December 2018

Diarmuid Gavin: Bed of roses

With an alluring perfume and vibrant colour, it is no wonder the rose is the flower of Valentine's

Roses symbolise love and friendship
Roses symbolise love and friendship

Diarmuid Gavin

As Valentine's Day approaches, supermarkets and florists are packed ceiling to floor with red roses - the traditional floral choice for this annual expression of love and passion.

Not only is the rose emblematic of love, its history unfolds like an exotic eastern tale: murals of them painted in ancient Crete in 1600 BC, the Greek poetess Sappho calling them the 'Queen of flowers', and the Romans carpeting their floor with petals, bringing in the plants from Egypt and using them in food, wine and perfumes.

So, we have been adoring this royal genus among plants for millennia. Roses symbolise love and friendship. In 1945, a rose called 'Peace' was placed outside the hotel room of every delegate at the first meeting of the newly formed United Nations.

I've always been stunned by the places I've found them being grown, such as nurseries at the base of the Atlas mountains in Morocco, crammed with the plant that I think of as the epitome of our gardens.

They are a wonderfully versatile breed. They can be a shrub, climber, rambler, specimen, ground cover or even miniature, so there is probably space in your garden for at least one, even in a tub.

For many gardeners, roses are a lifelong passion. Once you have fallen in love with their beauty and fragrance, it's an enduring relationship - if occasionally thorny. So, today we celebrate the rose, remembering it's the perfect time of year to be planting them bare root. If your soil is frozen or waterlogged, wait until March, but if you are buying them in containers, you can plant at any time of the year.

Be careful if you're planting roses in an area of the garden where roses have previously grown as replant disease can occur. While existing roses can flourish in the same place for years, if you plant a new rose in the same spot it will often fail to grow. So, plant new roses about 2ft away from the original spot, or replace the soil completely to a depth of 1-2ft.

Roots should be kept damp and cool before planting with mycorrhizal fungi sprinkled over the roots as the plant is being placed in the planting hole. This fungi helps plant roots to establish much quicker, it helps nutrient uptake and it also holds onto water. You'll find this product in your local garden centre - ask for Rootgrow.

When you are planting, pick the best spot possible in your space - sunny, airy, sheltered, and really good soil. Improve your soil by adding plenty of well-rotted manure or compost. If planting a climber, plant at least 1ft away from the wall to avoid dryness around the root system.

At the RHS's Wisley garden in England, they have also planted herbaceous plants to create a more naturalistic environment where pests and disease are less likely to thrive. But one of the best ways of ensuring problem-free roses is to choose those which are bred to be highly resistant, such as favourite perennials 'Gertrude Jekyll' and 'Iceberg'.

The range of roses available is vast so it's a good idea when visiting other gardens to have a notebook handy to jot down your favourites. Catalogues are wonderfully informative but they can't tell you how the plant actually smells, and it is the delicious perfume that often makes us fall in love with a particular species.

Speaking of love, I hope your Valentine sends you a large bouquet next week!


Here are my top five classic roses that are justifiably popular for their beauty and performance:

Graham Thomas

This comes from the distinguished David Austin stable, the noted Rosarian renowned for breeding new English roses while retaining the charming appearance of old roses. Its beauty lies in exceptional deep yellow bowl-shaped flowers; the golden colour stands apart from other roses and has a lovely tea-like fragrance. It's available as a shrub or climbing rose.


Gertrude Jekyll

Another hugely popular rose (pictured) - the best to choose if you like a good, strong, old-fashioned perfume. The colour is deep pink, the flowers richly rosette, and this is a reliable repeat flowerer. Gorgeous in the mixed border or can be trained to climb a couple of metres.


This has glorious clusters of dainty pink flowers, one of the prettiest shrub roses around. Its flowers keep repeating through the summer and it has excellent disease resistance.

Munstead Wood

This rose is named after the garden of famous plantswoman Gertrude Jekyll in Surrey, England. With its deep velvety crimson blooms and rich fruity fragrance, this English rose will be an eye-catching addition to your garden this year.


If it's a white rose, it's probably Iceberg. The flowers start off as pink buds which open to white - it's easy to grow, and long flowering. Available as shrub or climbing rose.

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