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.


New Year’s gardening resolutions I can live with


I’ve decided it’s sensible to keep my gardening New Year’s resolutions short and realistic, but still of a certain scope, so there’s some sense that I’m aiming high and not just planning more of the same in the garden this year. Click for larger image

Last year one of my key gardening New Year’s resolutions was to stop and sit in the garden more (done) and the previous year it was my own personal Eatin’ Project I was planning, trying vegetable growing for the first time (done).

Gardening resolution one – water those vegetables

Speaking of vegetables, this year I will do the edibles better, because I’m resolving to plan my watering properly. The beans and other edibles never had the best chance because my watering was so erratic, but 2012 is the year I will irrigate. Must find a good leaky hose supplier. Suggestions?

Gardening resolution two – force bulbs properly

I will not mess up my hyacinths next winter. This year I could have (just barely) have had them flowering for Christmas but I never brought them in from the cold conservatory to the warm sitting room – I never realized I had to until @imogenbertin set me right. Here in Scotland I have to plant the prepared bulbs in August, as soon as they are on sale, so I can get them into the light by October, and into the conservatory by November. Until now I’ve never known I needed to do a final step of bringing them into the warmth in December, but I will get it right in 2012.

Gardening resolution three – love my window boxes

I’ve never done window boxes well, but this year my mother-in-law gave me books on the subject, the bare windowsills of our roadside cottage here at the market cross are desperate for plant life, and I love the idea of challenging my worst gardening vice – I willfully, spitefully neglect container plants. So, window boxes it is. Secret weapon in the war against my neglectful side: when I prepared the new window boxes last week, I mostly used plants I’ve grown myself, so their said, thirsty faces should (I hope) move me more than the nameless, shop-bought trays of pansies I’ve watched die in my window boxes in the past. I’ve chosen vinca, fern, schizostylis, hosta, hebe, lamium and ivy, along with a rash of bulbs and tubers including cyclamen coum, muscari armeniacum fantasy creation, Kaufmanniana tulips Heart’s Delight, triteleia (formerly brodiaea) and autumn crocus to plug gaps between the plants.

Gardening resolution four – train a stepover apple

It won’t really be a stepover apple, because the single tier I’m planning will be about 90 cm off the ground, so I guess we can call it a leap over. I’ve Click for larger imagechosen the Apple Greensleeves on an M106 rootstock, and since it’s on the north side of the short fence, the horizontal cordon will only see the sun if it starts at 90 cm high. I’ll let you know how that one goes. I credit this resolution to Helen, who was tweeting about the stepover apples she was planning; it’s something I’d always wanted to do, and who was I to resist a three-year-old tree on sale for just 9 pounds sterling?

Gardening resolution five – easy cutting garden

Earlier on Stopwatch Gardener I video blogged about how to nip out cosmos to encourage more side shoots and robust flowering, and the US flower farmer Lisa Ziegler who taught me that technique has now inspired me to try her scheme for a 3′ x 10′ cutting garden. It’s meant to be a low-maintenance plot of zinnia, celosia, choice sunflowers and lemon basil. Any advice on telling my husband I plan to remove 30 square feet of lawn?

I really want to know what you all are planning for the new year — please drop me a comment below before you go!


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)


And so to bed: the drowsy winter garden


Click for larger imageMy list of what’s looking good in the garden this week is short, but I’m going to try to remember how stunning the last few stems of anemone coronaria and rosa “James Galway” are, and try to make more of them next November. I’m still looking for November combinations that please, to coincide with my daughter’s birthday at the end of October. With the advice of Clare from PlantPassion I think I’ve settled on fuschia as an anchor and potentially pots of winter-planted anemone coronaria to flower now, for a few shots of colour around the garden and in the last vases of flowers for the house.

The deep, relentless snow of last January means I’m holding more tightly than ever to the fading November garden, as damp and slippery as it is. I need to be willing to let it go to sleep completely for 12 weeks. I tell myself that it needs a proper rest after the hyperbolic show of growth of the last nine months. And I should be grateful for the chance to look past its outer self, with the x-ray vision autumn offers, and into its bones: at the camellia “Black Lace” that’s lurked behind the towering Nicotiana sylvestris and cosmos all summer, slowly budding up at the foot of the climbing rose. Admittedly it was a thrill to pull away the dying things two weeks ago and see that the winter scene was ready for me: the camellia, the red stemmed cornus, the six-foot tree stump that a reluctant ivy is finally embracing, and the lanky arms of Etoile de Holland stretching out above it all, finally getting old and woody enough to thin a bit.

Click for larger image
Yes, I suppose I do appreciate that my garden tells no lies in winter. I am still feeling my way towards a design for this garden that feels balanced and always offers some degree of visual pleasure — a snack if not a feast — and winter is a unique chance to check my work. I’ve stared at this space so hard, for so many years now, that even the wet branches and fallen leaf mush of the well-planted bits thrill me, because I can see what they represent.

Since I returned to a part-time schedule in July, my time at the desk is intense, working back-to-back on different client writing projects as I try to pack as much as possible into my hours. This has forced me to actively seek ways to relax during my 15 minute buffer breaks between projects. I make myself go outdoors, usually with clippers, usually to cut something I can bring back to the desk or leave outside on one of the small tables dotted about the garden.

Click for larger imageI only learn one or two things about gardening a year, and this is one of my 2010 discoveries: a vase of flowers left outside makes everybody happy. The flowers stay longer, the colours I like are brought closer together, the insects enjoy visiting them, and they make the seating places in the garden look so tempting that I’ve even sat in them.

I’ve shown a few of my favourite vases from the garden here. Which appeals most to you, if any? Do you prefer to cut things for a vase, or leave them to die naturally in situ?


A good death for roses


Click for larger imageOne consolation of November is the opportunity to look at the bare root roses which become available now. Our garden already hosts an embarrassingly large number of roses wherever there’s reliable sun, and many are true survivors, offering perfect flowers through November. As I mentioned previously, these sumptuous blooms look a bit wrong in the declining autumn garden, but I’ve solved the problem by using them as a cutting patch from October onwards. These last weeks Rosa Tess of the d’Urbervilles and R. James Galway have sat merrily on my desk and in the kitchen, alongside the last of the dahlias and spice-scented pinks.

If you are planning next year’s roses, one aspect worth considering — but which marketing materials rarely describe — is how the flowers fade and die. If you want to cut roses for the house, they will start fading the moment secateurs meet stem, so it’s worth knowing which roses age gracefully and ultimately enjoy a good death. All these have earned their place in my garden but vary in their end-of-life beauty:

  • Rosa James Galway: a nearly thornless climber from David Austin which for me has only the slightest scent in the garden. But in the vase, James Galway absolutely shines. It begins to give off a pleasant, old-Rose-meets-talcum-powder scent. Its baby-girl pink tones also fade to lavender, reminiscent of antique wallpaper. Best of all, even the smallest buds open, extending the vase life.
  • Jude the Obscure: also from David Austin, JtO has full, heavy heads of pale yellow-pink petals with an exquisitely fruity scent. They look a bit ponderous in the vase, but a single flower perfumed my office for days. The final petals actually gave off a final, perfect spritz of scent as they fell to the desk — amazing.
  • William Shakespeare 2000: I contacted David Austin to see if my experience of this rose was typical, and it seems it is. What a beauty this rose is in the garden — strongly fragrant, packed with red petals. But look away when it starts to fade. The petals tend to turn brown and cling on instead of falling peacefully one by one, so entire heads can rot on the stem. The vase life in my experience is not good.
  • Tess of the d’Urbervilles: a strong climbing red also from David Austin, with such lust for life that it happily endured six months shaded by scaffolding here. The flowers are perfection in the early stages and the vase life is excellent. But to me the scent is not very pleasant, and the petals eventually reflex back to an almost-puffball shape. But great for a mixed vase where other roses provide the scent.
  • Etoile de Holland: bred more than 70 years ago, EdH is famed as one of the best climbing reds. To me its scent is outrageously wonderful — a powerful, almost lemony aroma that, like Jude the Obscure, makes you want to eat the rose. The stems are short and the heads large, so arrangements need support. I put a dozen into a short, square vase topped with a plastic grid, and that worked. The flower form quickly declines from the stereotypical florist’s rosebud shape to a blown-open saucer, but together in a vase the scent of these roses is unbeatable.

Intensity and attractiveness of scent are subjective — one person’s wonderful is another person’s mediocre – but it’s easier to agree whether a fading rose is objectively beautiful or better off dead. Ask the growers you’re buying from this year what becomes of the flowers in the later stages, and inquire whether they have pictures to share. You’ll spend the next half-year looking forward to them, so it’s good to know what’s in store.