Every rose in England


scenic english country house


It didn’t take much prompting to convince my husband to come with me to England when I said I couldn’t wait any longer to see rose gardens on my must-visit list. The gardens include Mottisfont Abbey in Hampshire,  Hidcote Gardens in Gloucestershire (both of which are run by the National Trust) and Abbey House Gardens in Wiltshire. He Google-mapped our route to the nearest centimetre, found us great places to stay, and waited in the parking lots while I visited the properties.

Wait, WHAT? Yep, that’s right. It took me some convincing, but he assured me he’d be far happier with his puzzles in the car, or in a cafe, than gazing at Bourbon roses and marvelling at the pruning and training techniques employed by the genius gardeners.

Mme Isaac Periere rose

And so I’ve enjoyed the first two gardens in rather splendid isolation, getting the chance to glimpse the roses just approaching their peak.

Mottisfont is as miraculous as you may have heard, with Graham Stuart Thomas’s collection of old roses stretching across brick walls, spread over 7-foot arches, or pegged down to create arches of colour close to the ground, as you see with rose Mme Isaac Periere here. I grow this rose, but it doesn’t look as healthy as this. It felt as if every rose in England was growing here, and that might just be the case — every old rose, anyway, which are the kind I love most. The gardens were tended for more than 30 years by David Stone before his retirement last year, and the health and beauty of the gardens are testament of his and his successors’ wonderful hard work.

At Mottisfont I also got the chance to have a sniff of roses I’d only ever read about, including Desprez a Fleur Jaunes (which isn’t fragrant enough for me to bother with) and Rosa Spinossisima, which Gertrude Jekyll reportedly included in most of her garden designs, and which smells wonderful.

Rosa Lamarque from Mottisfont Abbey

I also discovered a white rose called Lamarque at Mottisfont which is meant to be difficult to grow, but it had a rounded, full scent and an overall grace that could make me change my generally low opinion of white roses. Arching over a brick wall that was already studded with pale lichens, Lamarque looked and smelled sensational.

But it was at Hidcote (where my husband said he enjoyed an uninterrupted 2.5 hours of newspaper puzzles) where I fell in love with Blairi No. 2, a very old and overlooked rose that nevertheless has every characteristic I love most about the old roses.

The fragrance is indescribably rich but not heavy; and its flower changes colour dramatically, from palest pink-white buds to light pink heads that develop warm, dark-pink centres. The texture of the petals is like wrinkled tissue paper, and the plant (which I think must be 50 years old at least) that stretched across the warm gable wall of one of the Hidcote outbuildings reached right up to its thatched roof, with canes and canes of healthy growth. Only some canes were filled with flowers, but the overall magnificence of this rose already has me searching my mental inventory of spaces in my garden for any south-facing surface I could grow it on. There’s not a lot I wouldn’t do to get Blairi No. 2 into my life.

Rose Blairi No. 2 All Rights Reserved

Hidcote wasn’t quite what I expected. Yes, there were the endless garden ‘rooms’ I’d heard of, but there were also several empty expanses that I was grateful for: the hide-and-seek layout of the smaller rooms left me a bit disoriented, and the empty spaces were restful to the mind.

The kitchen garden, which the kindly woman at Hidcote reception advised me not to miss, was a delight of pleached apples skirted by merry, purple-headed chives, as well as rows of cutting flowers like cosmos, lupins and cornflowers. I noticed they’d stopped the cosmos after three sets of leaves to promote flowering, which is something I’ve done ever since a flower farmer in Virginia advised it (I did a short YouTube video showing the technique here – how to get more cosmos by making a bold, low cut when dead-heading).

I heard a couple visitors at Hidcote being a bit uncharitable about the relaxed planting style — “I couldn’t live with a garden like this,” one said, pointing at a crowd of plants that jostled each other — but I loved it. Hidcote allows plants a bit of freedom, and it’s a wonderful experience: it looks more like a real garden than a showpiece, with some areas left to self-seeders (like sweet rocket, Welsh poppies, columbines).

But there are also sculpted and formal areas, like the much-photographed white bench framed by white wisteria, which was visited by a hungry red admiral butterfly while I was watching.

espallier apples and chives at Hidcote

At the time of writing, we’ve still to visit Abbey House Gardens in Wiltshire, and it’s currently pelting rain here. But I hear the garden owners provide umbrellas, so even though the puddle outside my window is dancing with raindrops, we’re suiting up and heading out.

A note on garden-touring: it’s not so bad going around the gardens myself, although I felt more than a little guilty that my husband holed up in cafes rather than walk around with me.

But at this stage of the tour, I’m convinced we’re both doing what makes us happiest: having a few days of indulgent me-time, away from work and parenting responsibilities, and enjoying relaxing dinners and chats without thinking about email, deadlines or school lunches.

Being driven from garden to garden while I relax and take in the ludicrously gorgeous English countrywide feels terribly indulgent — I feel like a horse box, being lugged from place to place — but I’ll get over it. When a casual glance out the car window shows castle-like cottages draped with roses and flowers like something from a story book, it’s hard to feel guilty for long.

And we’ll be back at the deadlines and school lunches in no time, so we might as well make the most of it, dancing puddles and all.

white wisteria and red admiral at Hidcote


Have you visited any outstanding rose gardens you’d recommend I see? Let me know in the comments.


Nectar-rich versus Franken-flowers: Sarah Raven’s buzz


We’ve been drinking in the glory of high-def tv this week with the sumptuous floral close-ups of Sarah Raven’s latest Bees, Butterflies and Blooms episode. Unfortunately Britain’s insects are drinking very little in gardens that lean heavily on double begonias, busy lizzies and other flowers that offer no pollen or nectar. They are empty: their sweet nectary bits have been bred out of them, in exchange for extra petals and other showy attributes. (Jump to the bottom of this post if you want tips on how to choose flowers that are bee-friendly).

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Our garden here at Mercat Cottage is fairly buzzy with flowers that make insects happy, from the February crocus to the early November cosmos daisies. This flower choice was more through accident than art; so was our choice to put in a pond, which was really meant for the newts and slugivore frogs, but which I’ve learned is vital for bees, who consume litres of water. (In this week’s episode, Sarah Raven’s beardy garden naturalist told her she could bump up the wildlife value of her walled garden “two points” by adding water).

The “perfect for pollinators” initiative launched by the Horticultural Trades Association and the RHS, also discussed in this week’s show, was probably the single most important blow for Sarah’s campaign. Gardeners need advice at the point of sale, and the yellow and black logo will now make it easier to choose pollen and nectar-rich plants in the garden centre. It’s a shame it’s taken so long to do something so sensible; gardening magazines, even those I love, haven’t done enough to drive home the urgency of the biodiversity message. The magazine messages I remember about pollinating insects and garden plant choice have been along the lines of, “double plants don’t do much for bees.” After listening to Sarah, I think her alarmist opening gambit (“pollinators are in crisis and we gardeners have to act now”) is more appropriate at this stage of the game: three species of bees are extinct and hundreds more insects are on the brink because traditional habitats (country wildflower meadows) have been replaced by modern farming methods.

The millions of hectares of British back gardens could feed rather than frustrate pollinators who land on our flowers looking for a nectar payload, not just pretty colours. My husband calls the foodless plants — like the double begonias — “Franken-flowers” and he’s right. Over-bred and over-valued by gardeners craving a “wow” factor, they could easily be exchanged for colourful and nutritious alternatives, flowers that take care of the “wow” as well as the welfare of insects. Don’t forget, they’re the ones who pollinate the crops that feed our families.

“Why does biodiversity matter?”

It’s fair to ask the question, and I did once, when speaking to an ecologist. I’m a writer by day and was doing a brochure for a university wanting to attract more students to study science at third level. I asked him why biodiversity — multiplicity of habitats and species — is so important. He told me the stories you’ve probably already heard, but which were new to me in 2009, about the disappearance of bees in parts of China, where crops now need to be hand-pollinated by humans. That’s expensive — but it’s also the beginning of who-knows-what kinds of chain reactions in the environment.

Biodiversity, the ecologist said, is like the rivets in an airplane: lose one habitat or species, and it may not matter; but you never know which loss will trigger the catastrophe.

“What flowers should I plant to help bees and butterflies?”

In the cutting garden I’ve been planning as part of my New Year’s Gardening resolutions, I’ll have lots of sunflowers, lemon basil and zinnias. I’d thought about skipping the sunflowers, but now that I know the bees and other insects need them badly, they’re going to make the cut.

Sarah’s experts on the show this week made it clear what to look for when planting bee- and butterfly-friendly flowers:

  • Visible pollen: If you can see the yellow centre, there’s probably something there for bees. Bees need daisy-like flowers and other “singles” that aren’t so packed with petals you can’t see the flower’s reproductive bits.
  • Variety of shapes: Imagine a crocus, a foxglove, a daisy, a buddleia (butterly bush), an achillea and a lily. From trumpet shapes to goblets, flat landing pads to long clusters of close-packed flowers, all require the insect to work in a different way to get the pollen and nectar. This attracts and feeds a wider range of insects than loading up your garden with a single flower type or shape.
  • Early to late: Look for plants offering food in the quiet periods like February and October…fill any gaps like these with flowers guaranteed to offer nectar and pollen, so insects never go away empty-handed.
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  • No excuse for no water: If you’ve no water already, go outside today and fill a large drip tray or shallow bowl with water and put a stone in the middle for insects to land on. Tiny ponds are also cheap to buy and easy to maintain, if you’re feeling more ambitious.

Make a bee-loud border

Remember the Yeats poem about his desire to live in a “bee-loud glade”? Imagine if British domestic gardens were full of bee-loud borders. We may live in imperfect and troubled times, but still — what a wonderful world that would be.


For more flowers, try the kindest cut with cosmos – video blog


Click for larger image In all my soul-searching about how to get more flowers in the garden in late autumn for my daughter’s birthday, it never occurred to me that half hardy annuals like the cosmos daisies could be a star performer. I planted the entire pack of free seeds from my Gardens Illustrated magazine earlier this year, and that gave me about 30 strong plants. They are stunning! Despite three frosty mornings, they’re powering ahead, and I’m not sure whether that’s due in part to my zero-tolerance policy this year on deadheading. Or rather, live heading – I cut the first flower spike off every plant, which encouraged the cosmos to throw out sideshoot upon sideshoot. If you love cut flowers for the house, you may want to try this next year.

This is a power tip that I picked up from Lisa Ziegler, who runs a cut flower nursery in Virginia in US. She was on my favourite gardening podcast earlier in the year, HearSay with Cathy Lewis and Jim Orband “In the Garden.” Lisa’s advice to count up four sets of leaves from the soil and cut off the flower there has proved an absolute winner for me, and given enough cut flowers for every room in the house! I’ve done a short video to show you how many flowers I got from one of my plants in the garden.

What do you think? Leave me a comment & let me know. Apologies that the video is somewhat truncated at the very end – I had to edit out the audio from my husband, who at that moment came into the garden and shouted, “Where is the dead bird?” I won’t go into detail — suffice to say it involved our cat, my squeamishness, and the division of labour in our house.

How to get get more cut flowers by deadheading (video)