Roses and responsibilities

By ABBIE JURY

Temporarily stumped about where to place my last new rose, I have headed in to my computer.

On the way, I filled the dogs’ water bowl – a little ashamed after last week’s news story on water bowls for dogs. Alas, I did not wash it hygienically and then air-dry it or wipe it out with paper towels. When the dogs looked askance at me, I told them that if they were thinking of reporting me to the authorities for maltreatment, I would counter the charge by pointing out that all of them regularly drink from muddy puddles and the fish ponds. They were suitably chastened, even if the government advisory body responsible for this bizarre policy recommendation is not.

But I digress. We have had a magic run of weather for getting out into the garden. With the countdown under way to opening our garden to the public for the season (we always open at the beginning of September for the magnolias), the pressure is starting to come on. The winter cleanup is well under way. And the messy projects are now being either completed or moved down the priority list to be started “later – maybe next autumn”.

It takes me at least a week to do the winter cleanup on the rose garden – and that is a week of fulltime work, not just a few hours here or there. This was the first area of our gardens that I took charge of and I still retain ownership of it. It seems appropriate because it was indubitably Mark’s mother’s garden when she was alive. Mark will make suggestions of suitable plants to fill the occasional gap or to add to the overall picture but its management is my responsibility.

This is weighing a little heavily on me this year since a noted garden writer has described the sunken garden area, which is its centrepiece, as “the jewel in the crown” of our garden, and one of the single finest pieces of landscaping in a domestic garden in this country. Heady praise indeed, treated here with the usual self-deprecating humour.

I hasten to add that we give credit to Mark’s parents for the landscaping. The sunken garden is constructed from slabs of New Zealand granite and marble, including a few headstones that Felix collected from monumental masons in town. He did not steal them from old graveyards, as one wit suggested. The area was dug out by hand, long before the availability of useful little mechanical diggers. The raised beds in that area give a place for tiny treasures that would get swamped by the rampant growth above them.

On the level above is my riot of roses and perennials. This is not the old-fashioned type of rose garden where the roses stand in solitary splendour on bare earth with good air circulation and ease of access for spraying (a gardening style not seen much beyond rose trial grounds now). Our roses never receive spray applications, so I need lots of other plants around them to distract from the blackspot and the defoliated look as the season progresses. I prefer roses in a cottage garden context with lots of pretty flowers and rampant seasonal growth. Give me roses surrounded by cosmos, naturalised clematis, gypsophila, francoas (the “bridal veil” plants), simple pansies and lots more.

It is the one area of the garden where I feel I can indulge myself with a few punnets of annuals, where my petunias do not look twee (I am fond of petunias). Alas, one punnet last year, which I assumed to be an attractive annual with masses of simple white flowers and low feathery foliage, is promising to have introduced a rampant perennial of invasive weed proportions. I don’t know what it was, but whoever is producing this plant for the market should be shot. I will have to go looking to see if I can find its name. Each little plug of plant (and there were probably only six such plugs) seems to have S P R E A D below ground to become an alarming, metre-square mass of roots. And that is in only one season. Mark tells me he will tackle it with RoundUp.

This garden, which was landscaped in a formal design in the 1950s, had subsequently spawned two freeform beds on each side. Presumably Mark’s parents had run out of garden space and decided that the lawns looked too extensive. When I first tackled this area a decade ago, we removed one bed entirely and regrassed the area. The second bed has remained, an awkward addition to the formal layout. We had often discussed what was best to do with it. It was too good a place for dry-loving plants, such as South African bulbs, to part with and we did not want to reduce the garden area. We decided instead to formalise the bed. So the project under way now is to edge it in a rectangle so that it fits in with the hard-edged lines of the remainder of the area.

How easily that trips off the tongue. It involved gutting most of the garden bed. And it has caused headaches for our in-house garden construction expert, Lloyd. Formal this area may be, depending on straight lines and the occasional semi-circle. But straight lines are not synonymous with 90 degree angles and parallel lines. It was clearly laid out by eye in the first place, not by measurement and string lines. The new rectangular bed is probably better described as a rhombus. Optically rectangular is the best we can aim for, masking the lines being anything up to 30cm out from parallel. I keep reassuring myself that nobody will ever look at it as closely again as we are now, and that the illusion of formal lines is fine, given that the exact geometry is impossible.

But the roses are all pruned and tied down. Mostly David Austins in this area, they have a tendency to put out long canes. By far the quickest way to deal with these is to prune them back hard. But I bend them over in hoops in whichever direction they wish to go and tie them to wire stays in the ground. It is a tedious and time-consuming task, fraught with exasperation as the long canes grab me from behind until they are tied down. The rewards are worthwhile. All the eye buds on the hooped canes shoot and produce clusters of flowers, maximising the flower power of the plant. And let’s face it, the only reason to grow roses is for their flower power. You need a lot of space to do this – canes tied each side can make the rose three metres wide but there is plenty of room to grow other plants between the canes.

The joy in this garden at the moment is not the roses. It is the miniature and topiary camellias I use for winter interest. Camellia yuhsienensis is simply gorgeous and getting better every year. It is a cow of a nursery plant so it probably won’t ever get into widespread cultivation, but if you ever see one for sale, buy it. The problems in the nursery disappear once it is planted in the garden and it is a mass of simple, pristine white single flowers, so dense that the foliage is barely visible. The flowers resemble a small stellata magnolia and there are so many buds that it just keeps going for weeks on end. Every time I look at this garden, yuhsienensis prompts a sigh of pleasure.

Abbie and Mark Jury have a garden and nursery at Otaraoa Rd, Tikorangi.