Coming Up Roses

Take a look inside rose expert Christine Allen's garden.

Credit: Stuart McCall

My favourite quotation comes from The Lady’s Not for Burning,a play by Christopher Fry. A young man is standing in a garden, talking through the window to a young woman he has fallen in love with at first sight. He plucks a rosehip from a rose bush beside the window and hands it to her, saying:

I can pass to you
Generations of roses in this wrinkled berry.
There: now you hold in your hand
A race of summer gardens.

When we moved to Killara Farm, our nine acres of wide-open Langley green space, my dream was to have one of those summer gardens, to cover all our fences with rambling roses, and to fill the ground between with big, bountiful old-fashioned rose bushes mixed with other shrubs and perennials.

I failed, at least partially, with the fence-covering idea, thanks to our flock of Romney sheep, which considered rose leaves a particular delicacy and conscientiously pruned back any canes that came within reach. With the rest I was more successful, filling the large, sloping field in front of our house with close to 200 heritage roses, mostly in a series of rectangular beds that echoed the straight lines of Lombardy poplars bordering our driveway. Farther from the house and drive, the beds become more relaxed and curved as the land falls away towards a group of birches that we planted to screen our property from ugly buildings across the road.

Lessons my garden taught me

1. Roses aren’t difficult; you just have to choose the right ones. Continual bloom makes huge demands on a plant’s constitution. Settling for a shorter flowering season has the reward of stronger, healthier plants.

2. Large shrub roses are ideal for underplanting with little spring bulbs like snowdrops and crocus. By the time the bulbs are dying among foliage that you can’t cut off if you want a good show next year, the roses are leafing out to hide the mess.

3. Most plants will tolerate being moved if you do it when they are dormant. Cut shrubs back to about the same length as the remaining roots, water them well in their new home, and be willing to accept the loss of a year’s flowers.

4. On the other hand, get it right the first time when siting oriental poppies, Acanthus, Yucca and Italian arum. They’ll all come through a move with flying colours, but every shred of root you leave behind will spring into vigorous life as well.

5. Harden your heart against plants that don’t perform. Move them once, but if they sulk under different conditions, throw them out or give them away. Sick plants have a way of making the gardener feel inadequate. Who needs it? There are plants, including many roses, that I am now content to admire in gardens other than my own.

Almost all of the roses began, not as wrinkled berries, but as cuttings from my previous city garden and from generous members of the Vancouver Rose Society. As ramblers are my favourite roses, they not only cover every fence that the sheep can’t get at, but also drape a pergola and an arbour in the middle of the garden, overwhelm my husband’s studio and provide summer shade on the long terrace that spans the front of our house. To keep those spaces interesting at times when the roses are not in bloom, I’ve chosen spring- and late summer– blooming vines to partner them: grapevines, honeysuckle and as many clematis as I can fit in.

It mystifies me that so few gardeners are willing to make space for the roses I grow, favouring more modern varieties with larger, brighter flowers meted out over a longer time. I prefer to have all those flowers blooming at once, weighing down the branches with their profusion and spreading their fragrance far and wide. It’s like eating the whole box of chocolates in one go, except that, without any effort on my part, it will happen all over again next year. In the meantime, I can live on the memory.

In any case, not all of these roses bloom at the same time, so I do get several months of pleasure, if not from the same plants. The first to bloom, before the end of May, are the old rugosa ‘Blanc Double de Coubert’, still one of the purest whites; Rosa primula, the incense rose, with single lemon-yellow flowers strung along mahogany canes and accented by the aromatic fernlike foliage that gives it its common name; and the expanding thicket of thorny R. pimpinellifolia, the Scotch briar, with its sweet perfume and simple cream flowers. This last is beloved by bees for its stamens so rich with golden pollen that it drips from the petals after rain.

After them come other rugosas, like tall, magenta-pink ‘Hansa’, smelling of cloves and cinnamon, and baby-pink ‘Fru Dagmar Hastrup’. These will rebloom, so they don’t have quite the generosity of the roses that immediately follow, but they make up for it by offering a different show of colourful foliage in gloomy November. Several of the species roses get a head start on the season, too, among them a crimson Rosa moyesii, grown from a cutting of a plant on an old Langley dairy farm, and sprawling pearl-pink R. x richardii, once called the Holy Rose of Abyssinia and so ancient its dried petals have been found in tombs of the pharaohs.

By early June, a whole host of gallicas, albas and damasks have burst into flower in all their fine array of pink, white and deep scarlet. Although the colour range is limited, the variation within it is amazing. Shapes vary too: some are simple flowers of five petals, others so densely crammed with petals that they curl back towards the stem as if facing into a stiff wind.

Killara Farm

With the exception of ‘Ispahan’, a glorious pink damask that will keep on flowering for almost two months, most of these roses will begin to fade by early July. As they do the big ramblers will come into their own, covering their foliage with thousands of flowers and casting their fragrance far across the garden.

By mid summer, only a few, more recent, introductions that have sneaked into my affections keep the flame alive. These are nearly all large, repeat-flowering, 20th-century shrub roses that have nevertheless stayed close to their wild ancestors, bearing five-petalled flowers that blend well among their much older companions. ‘Golden Wings’ has a prominent place by our front terrace where we can admire its soft-yellow flowers with their marmalade stamens at close range. ‘Sally Holmes’ anchors a bed among other plants that share its colour scheme of palepeach buds and blush-white open blooms. And I continue to tolerate ‘Mrs Oakley Fisher’, the only hybrid tea rose in the garden. Growing on its own roots, it’s a feeble little plant, but it has such lovely sunset hues in its simple flowers that it wins a reprieve year after year.

Many others have not been so fortunate. I have long since abandoned the chores of spraying my roses against disease, preferring to consign susceptible roses to the burning pile. With so many roses in commerce I see no reason to persist with coddling unhealthy ones when I could be sauntering around enjoying the ones that thrive. As for insect pests, I find that most of them fall prey to other denizens of the garden. Infestations of aphids bring swarms of ladybugs to feast on their favourite food. Chickadees and finches groom the leaves for caterpillars and other crawlies. Our runner ducks consider slugs a delicacy. If a problem does get out of hand, I’m afraid I just look the other way until nature restores the balance.

And there is much else to look at: this is not a rose garden, but rather a garden that has roses in it. Other shrubs precede the roses or follow them. Fragrant Viburnum x juddii blooms in April; Buddleja ‘Lochinch’ provides cool grey foliage and lavender flowers in the heat of August; Fothergilla monticola follows honey-scented cream candles with the most vibrant fall reds in the garden. Physocarpus opulifolius

Christine Allen

‘Diabolo’PBR and Sambucus nigra ‘Guincho Purple’ provide tall, dark-purple accents, and I really ought to add a golden-leafed form of one of them, but can’t quite find a suitable place. Gold doesn’t combine so well with the pinks of old roses.

Spring bulbs are ideal for underplanting all these big shrubs. Every year, I try to add more of them, especially miniature narcissus and snow crocus, which thrive under the naked, arching canes of my roses. Among them, my imaginary carpet of snowdrops is becoming a reality. After many years of learning the hard way that the dry bulbs rarely perform, I got some “in the green” from a generous fellow gardener. They have flourished and spread, especially since another kind gardener shared with me the trick of burying the seedpods without detaching them from the parent plant.

I used to have tulips, too, but these are not so long-lived and I got tired of having to remove and replace the scrawny survivors every year. A few, like ‘Spring Green’ and ‘Golden Melody’ seem more durable than the rest and have stayed, but nowadays when I’m tempted by glamour girls like sultry orange ‘Ballerina’, they go into pots and get dumped when they’ve finished flowering.

Perennials run the gamut from classic cottage flowers like primroses, columbines and bellflowers to foliage divas like hostas and heucheras. Lady’s mantle and hardy geraniums run riot. I particularly like all variations of blue, so there are delphiniums, salvias, monkshoods and catmints in profusion. Quite apart from their colour, many of these plants have spiky profiles that contrast well with the rounded shapes of the rose bushes.

There is also a sea of lavender: 64 plants in rigid formation, quite unlike the informality of the rest of the garden. The rectangle they occupy is a sheet of unbroken colour in summer, but every fall I clip each bush down to a rounded little mound, leaving one or two of the latest-blooming for the bees that so diligently work there until the withering of the very last purple spike. These neat hillocks keep attention from straying to the untidiness of other beds and come to sparkling life on sunny, frosty mornings.

Like so many gardeners I’m fatally tempted by new and alluring plants, and find myself inevitably coming home with a tray of half a dozen, all different. “Drifts of one,” a friend calls it. “They’ll bulk up,” I rationalize. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. So I fall back on annuals to provide the consistency and repetition that calms the eye and makes the garden a tranquil place. Self-seeders like cornflowers, poppies, love-in-a-mist, alyssum and a few biennials like foxgloves and mulleins disperse themselves as they please, usually better than I would have done although I can always pretend it was intentional.

I stayed away from ornamental grasses for way too long, reasoning that my garden was surrounded by fields and that it might look as if I simply hadn’t weeded. Now, however, I’m enjoying the slender, arching skeins of Stipa gigantea gleaming gold in evening sunlight, and the exclamation marks of stiff Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’ emphatically marking corners. Grasses die so elegantly, too, bleaching from summer greens to fountains of pale tan and caramel that ornament the garden all through winter. Touched by frost, they are among the prettiest of winter’s pictures.

Winter also allows many of the roses to shine again. The compensation for a short flowering is often a display of vivid hips, some as large as cherries, others a spray of tiny beads. They may be pumpkin orange, bright scarlet, green or shiny black, and the longest lasting will hold their colour well into the new year. As they shrivel and fall, I am already looking forward to the “summer gardens” that they promise.

The following plants are hardy to the zone number indicated: Buddleja ‘Lochinch’ – zone 6 • Fothergilla monticola syn. F. major – zone 5 • Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’ (maiden grass) – zone 5 • Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Diabolo’PBR – zone 5 • Rosa ‘Adélaïde d’Orléans’ – zone 5 • R. ‘Alain Blanchard’ – zone 4 • R. ‘Albertine’ – zone 5 • R. ‘Blanc Double de Coubert’ – zone 3 • R. brunonii – zone 7 • R. ‘Félicité Perpétue’ – zone 4 • R. ‘Fru Dagmar Hastrup’ – zone 3 • R. ‘Ghislaine de Féligonde’ – zone 6 • R. ‘Gloire de Dijon’ – zone 6 • R. ‘Hansa’ – zone 4 • R. ‘Ispahan’ – zone 4 • R. ‘La Ville de Bruxelles’ – zone 5 • R. moyesii – zone 4 • R. ‘Mrs Oakley Fisher’ – zone 5 • R. mulliganii – zone 4 • R. pimpinellifolia (Scotch briar) – zone 3 • R. primula – zone 5 • R. x richardii – zone 5 • R. ‘Sally Holmes’ – zone 6 • R. ‘Veilchenblau’ – zone 5 • Sambucus nigra ‘Guincho Purple’ (black elder) – zone 6 • Stipa gigantea (giant
feather grass) – zone 7 • Viburnum x juddii – zone 5