When we moved here from our Peckham garden with space to try a new plant palette, we set aside a section of the old trial garden to get to know a number of the David Austin Roses. I wanted to live with them day to day rather than vicariously through my clients’ gardens, so I took a trip up to the David Austin rose garden in Albrighton and spent an afternoon in the third week of June in the generous company of Michael Marriott, their rosarian. There is nothing like time spent with experts, or in seeing the plants right there in front of you, each with its own character and, once you had buried your nose in flower, its own perfume. Some spicy, others tangy and smelling of citrus or as fresh and clean as tea.
I had several requirements. I knew I would be using species roses in the wider landscape where they would sit more happily, but for cutting it was important that the roses were good performers and had a long season. I wanted plants that were disease-resistant, because I didn’t want to spray, and it was imperative that they had scent. What would be the point in having a bedside rose that simply sat prettily ?
I came away with a list of twenty four varieties ranging from white through cream and yellow, and then all shades of pink and on into apricot, orange and reds. Most were doubles with quartered blooms, because I wanted to have a little opulence, and it was also important that the foliage had good character. The first plants had five years in the old garden when I dismantled the trial beds to make way for the garden landscaping. At that point I rejected a few that were weak or not right here and replanted with new plants and a few new varieties up by the old barns. I like them here against the corrugated tin, planted in practical rows which suggest and allow for ease of picking.
The last nine years here they have shown me what they are made of. In general the yellows have done less well for us, but our West Country climate, with its heavy dews and year round dampness, may be the reason that a few have been prone to blackspot. The beautiful clear yellow ‘Graham Thomas’ succumbed here, though it has done well and been ‘clean’ for friends. ‘Charlotte’ has also failed and neither have been replaced because there is simply no point in having a sick rose when there are a host of others that are strong and healthy. I have struggled to keep a couple of reds and oranges too, but have been happy to spray twice with a sulphur-based fungicide early and mid-season to keep ‘Munstead Wood’ and ‘Summer Song’.
‘Munstead Wood’ is simply the best of the reds, deep and lustrous and beautifully perfumed like your memory of what a rose should smell like. Though not a strong grower, it responds well to being nurtured and I am prepared to do so for the reward. ‘Summer Song’ is perhaps my favourite of all in terms of colour, with a burnt orange flower and delicious zesty perfume. It too is weak and I would never recommend it in a planting scheme, but it can be forgiven for its less than athletic figure in the cutting garden. Cutting the roses regularly is a good opportunity to check on health and vigour. We dead head as we go to keep the flowers coming. I feed with organic chicken manure pellets after their first flush and this helps to keep them in good condition and plentiful right through to November. We have found that the Austin roses take a couple of years to settle in, but are fully up and running in year three.
Of those that have done well, ‘The Lark Ascending’ is by far the strongest and a firm favourite. Healthy and amassing a good six feet in a season, the foliage has the mattness of an old-fashioned rose. The flowers are delightful, semi-double, cupping open to reveal a boss of stamens they deteriorating elegantly. The semi-doubles and the singles last less well as cutting flowers but are better for pollinators and this combination of elements make it a good candidate for a mixed planting. The tea-rose scent is delicate, but its habits make it worth this minor compromise.
‘Mortimer Sackler’ is also open in character, with loose-petalled, shell pink flowers and an airy personality. Dark stems, delicate growth and fine foliage are more reminiscent of a chinensis rose. The scent is light, but it is a singularly graceful plant. Of all the David Austin roses that we grow, these last two are most relaxed in habit and would be easy in combination with plants like gaura or cenolophium. ‘Mortimer Sackler’ would also take well to being wall-trained.
‘The Lady of Shallot’ is one of the best cutting roses, strong and reliable and balanced as a shrub of about four feet. Lasting some time in a vase and beautifully proportioned, the soft orange is easy to use alongside pinks and yellows and its perfume, though recessive, is a fruity tea scent.
‘Lady Emma Hamilton’ is an excellent, strong-growing plant of similar colour to ‘The Lady of Shallot’, though a little more golden. However, it differs in the dark plum colouring that runs through the new foliage and tints the outside of the buds and then then suffuses the edges of each petal as the flowers age. The overall impression is rich and warm, while the zesty scent is strong and delicious.
‘Julbilee Celebration’ is an opulent rose and, although the weight of the flower tends to make for a plant that hangs its head (and more so in damp weather), its faded rose colour is unusual. There is enough salmon in it to bridge the pinks, but also a little yellow to act as a mediator between the yellows, apricots and oranges. The scent is proper old rose and, though it is a stiff, stocky grower, I like it immensely once it gets going.
I prefer strong pinks in a garden, campion pink or the electric pink of Dianthus carthusianorum. I do not gravitate towards soft, pale pinks but ‘Scepter’d Isle’ is a good clean pink and a very pretty rose in a bunch, although its scent, described as ‘myrrh’ is hard to pin down. ‘Gertrude Jekyll’ starts a strong deep pink fading as it ages and, although not such an attractive form as others, is by far the best of the roses for perfume. Pure rose and transporting. You only need a bud in a jar to work a room. She is the first of the roses to flower every year and reliable throughout the season.
‘A Shropsire Lad’ is by far the most vigorous with limbs that can easily reach six feet in a season and I suspect would make a better climber than a shrub. The flower is fully quartered when it is young, but loosens as it opens, with delicate, creamy flesh tones and a traditional tea rose scent.
Reaching to eight feet or so the clean, apple green foliage of ‘Claire Austin’ is a fine foil for the creamy white flowers, which are elegant and poised, but do bow gently under their own weight, so it makes for a better climber. I have grown it as such with some success in clients’ gardens, but it also makes a good, rangy shrub that would benefit from some support in a garden setting. The perfume is green and fresh and not remotely heady.
Although we grow two dozen of the extensive Austin range, my aim is to refine down to half that number, slowly letting the ones that reveal themselves to be right for our tastes to gently assert themselves. Cutting is a very nice way to do that. A regular connection and intimacy is always the best way to get to know the keepers.
Main image, left to right: The Lark Ascending, Claire Austin, Munstead Wood, The Lady of Shallot, Jubilee Celebration, Gertrude Jekyll (front), Scepter’d Isle (back), A Shropshire Lad, Lady Emma Hamilton, Summer Song, Mortimer Sackler
Words: Dan Pearson | Photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 25 July 2020