Wednesday, 5 October 2011

A big bouquet of roses - Never Say Goodbye

I want to spend a little time today thinking about roses.  Every day should of course start like that; considering the rose will surely always brighten the saddest, darkest day.  The time will soon come, as winter approaches, when the avid gardener will prepare to order a couple of new bare-root roses, revelling in the escapist catalogues of Peter Beales, David Austen and so many others.

Well, I'm sad to say that this may be a short and accurate route to The Garden of Disappointment where large groups of yellowing, spindly plants are to be found.  They are not what we call bushes, they are blackened and broken promises.  Here and there thin branches hold beautiful flowers aloft, never enough, never together, soured and dismayed by their accompanying foliage.  They are spotty by both nature and disease; the roses themselves like larger rounder spots: grace and health missing.

Perhaps this seems a bad way to start a piece about roses;  but I really don't want to hold out hopes for scent and beauty that are unlikely to be wholly delivered.  Rose catalogues are well known as agents of the strongest seduction, we all make the same mistakes, and we all think we won't mind.  Then the buds open in June (often early May these days), they seem to be about to offer everything we hoped and believed for possibly three days, and then begins the dying of the dream.  Hybrid teas have been blamed, but Gallicas, Centifolias, Albas, Hybrid Perpetuals, Floribundas, Modern Shrubs - none escape as a class in their entirety.  Beautiful names make no difference, antiquity and fame are no protection.  Disappointment lurks.

The Dylan song is Never Say Goodbye from the album Planet Waves. It is not a disappointment, but it's SO short.  Do listen, it's seriously lovely.  First, he is in the frozen landscape of his youthful memory.  Then the big bouquet of roses comes down out of the sky, like a Monty Python boot.

While we're in the Dylan area, and before we get to the truly rose-related, I need to share something surprising with you.  In his film Renaldo and Clara, of which I have never seen more than a couple of tiny scenes, Mr D used a red rose as symbolic of a "travelling vagina";  I believe this allowed him to film wordless transactions between his characters as they contemplated different forms of relationship.  Whatever, it's very funny, this idea of easycare, transportable convenience, untrammelled by the other parts of a person. Once you've heard it though, it makes a ghastly sort of sense to the gardener, apart from the travelling angle. The flower of the rose seems to be the most important part and, in catalogues, that's often all you see - a single flower. I'll allow you, my readers to develop other comparisons as you see fit.

This rose is called Magenta.  It's a Kordes hybrid, wonderfully scented and might repeat flower if nicely treated.  One of my favourites along with Lavender Lassie which is more pinkly coloured, more repeatable, fabulously scented and very healthy.  Plus elusively charming, a quality shared with Magenta in my view and the unnameable element which we search for most of all.

Never Say Goodbye is a beautiful song because of the way in which its parts are spaced.   Five snatches of song are alternated with an marvellous ornate melody.  I don't know how to describe it; something to do with swelling and building, rippling and lifting, element upon element. The words are loosely connected, part to part - the music holds it all together.  There is a sense of being allowed a moment to absorb each sung section before moving on to the next.  I don't know why that would increase the feeling of unity in the whole, but it seems to me that it does.  Pattern is important, rhythm matters.

And there lie the clues to what we can look for in a truly satisfying rose.  The round blobs of colour need to seem integral to the bush, which needs to have graceful arms, issuing from a central unified point.  It's good if the flowers are grouped and spread, if their size and complexity is related to the size of the bush, and if their dying forbears drop neatly.  A wodge of differently aged flowers, tightly compacted at the end of a branch, is not nice; neither is any sense of overbearing growth in one area, next to a diseased sluggishness elsewhere.  Differently sized flowers are good.  Spacing is supreme.

Not a marvellous picture of another excellent Kordes rose - Goldbusch.  Now five or six feet tall, it is very elegant, once flowering, good hips, tidy, scented.  A love.

So here are some suggestions about what to focus on in catalogues and some varieties I have found satisfactory.  These are the fruit, the very hips of my experience.  I won't cover everything today, fortunately many Dylan songs mention roses and I plan to return again to this subject with further suggestions.  Today we're going to stay with bush roses - up to about two metres in height.  I haven't found a red one I trust as much as the ones I suggest, goodness knows what that means.

To begin with, avoid any bush rose with "erect" growth.  It sounds like it might be good thing, but it's the quickest way to gracelessness.  What you want is "spreading", "wide", or even "arching"  growth.  "Requires support"  can be good.  This doesn't mean you have to build a great construction - you may get the benefits of a bending kind of elegance if you can surround the plant with something lower and firmer that will hide its sad legs.  Sometimes very little will be said about plant habit in the available information: check the width against the height. Tall and thin means flowers at the top of sticks, wider than tall holds out greater hope of a better plant.

Don't expect to grow your roses all together.  It seems like a good idea, to harmonise yellow, cream and white, or crimson, pink and pale pink, but it's jolly hard to pull off.  One variety will be going over as another comes into flower, relative sizes, leaf colours and habits will matter more than you expect, and finally disease transfer will be encouraged.  Keep them separated, preferably enhanced by other plantings.

Here is Francine Austin, a rose that will repeat flower in most places and grows as a lax fluffy shrub, slender, scented and charming.  This is a North wall in August, from a recent cutting.

Another favourite Austin rose is Graham Thomas, whose rich saffron looks edible . Nothing unusual in my choices - these are proven doers, as gardeners like to say in sturdy tones.  Also Felicia, a warm pink Hybrid Musk and English Miss, a floribunda, the only upright rose I choose, but still a gracious plant, in the palest rose pink.  Peaudouce or Elina is a massive healthy hybrid tea, flowers like cream cabbages, dark green leaves and an air of invincibility.  The plant is round and solid.  I don't love it, I admire it.

Here is a nice wild looking rose I planted last year from Peter Beales.  It's called Lyda rose, the flowers are clean, innocent and wild-looking, but they have substance and continuity.  The bush is supposed to stay shortish although a parent was Francis E Lester, a massive rambler.  We'll see.  So far it's short, graceful and the flowers are subtle as they die, dropping their petals unnoticed.  Hips are coming.

When you decide on a rose, understand whether you're expecting good hips or not, and whether the rose flowers more than once.  It alters the way you manage the dead-heading. A "continuous" flowering rose, can be kept going by prompt dead-heading, taking just the dead flowers off.  But it may look pretty miserable continuously too, retaining every spotty leaf, every misshapen or excessive stem.  If you take more, down to a healthy bud, you might slow down the next set of flowers, and end up with something closer to a "repeat-flowering" rose, which may be a better idea anyway.

A "repeat-flowering" rose that produces good hips should be dead-headed on its first round or two, or you'll get less of a second or third go.  You'll be able to leave the final burst of flowering intact and get the hips then.   If you dead-head a once-flowerer, you won't get hips, it should be obvious, but so little is.  Feed your roses, give them sun and space, cut out old wood in winter.

If you grow a once-flowering non hip-bearer(Some Albas, Gallicas, Fantin Latour) cut it back harshly after flowering and enjoy the other plants around it.  In other words, treat it like a spring-flowering shrub and don't worry about pruning so much in winter.  Fantin-Latour is quality in pale pink, I have cut her to the ground and restarted her on several occasions, always to the good.

Consider the ground-cover rose - they often have  arching bushy growth and  will grown  out and down rather than straight up.  But not the ones with really tiny messy flowers, and check how they look as they die.  They have a certain vulgar reputation but the good ones are flower-machines, as I once read somewhere.  Those on the left are a mixture of Bonica, Kent and Wiltshire.  Less of the charm, I admit.

Also try Chinas, their flowers, stems and leaves have a delicacy which saves them from any form of grossness, and they cope with drought as well as repeat flowering well.  Archduke Charles has astonished me this year, in bright cerise.  Cecile Brunner is well-known, a tiny warm pale pink tea rose with thin purplish stems.  Enough roses for the moment.  There are always more to love, but I have said goodbye to plenty.

It's not at all obvious what Dylan is getting at in his lovely song.  Something to do with love and longing and permanence.  "My dreams are made of iron and steel" might be an interesting line, it being unclear what connects heavy metals and dreaming.  Perhaps it's something to do with pergolas holding up the roses.  Perhaps the singer's dreams are stronger than his love, which may be why he fears a loss.  Maybe that's all hindsight, like the glimpse of twilight on the frozen lake. 

I like the image of the singer standing on the beach waiting for someone he loves to come and hold his hand, it seems so simple and familiar a gesture; reassuring to all of us.  Roses all the way, for the moment anyway.

This is from Mount Ephraim in Kent.

And here is the view from within the roses

Dreams of endless roses can fill our imaginations as we plant our gardens. The perfect rose-garden or the perfect rose is like an ever-retreating fantasy, more in the head than on the ground.  Sometimes you see something close to your desires, just enough to spur you on. When you return to that same plant or garden the magic may often have departed.  That's just the way roses are, a little bit too lovely to last.

1 comment:

  1. Jane, love your blog,what do you think about chopping down apple tree , has nasty fruit, and leaves all gnarly and brown Feel v bad about cutting down but want Victoria plum more?
    On roses,nothing beats sniffing, looking and choosing the best plant you can find, the only time we bought bare root plants two roses died and the raspberries came to nought!