23 May 2017

THE GARDENS OF THE ROSE


The Royal National Rose Society, the oldest specialist plant society in the world, announced recently that it had run out of money and had gone into administration. The feather in its cap, the glorious Gardens of the Rose (above) at its HQ in St Albans, Hertfordshire, will probably close.

The Gardens of the Rose is a living encyclopaedia of roses as well as a pleasant place for a quiet afternoon out. I’ve been  several times and I’ve bought roses there as well – after seeing the inspiring displays it’s hard to come away empty handed.

I grew up with a garden full of roses. My father was a member of the Rose Society, which used to send members a quarterly journal and the rose annual, a hardback book of a hundred and fifty pages stuffed with colour plates and articles about new cultivars and the problems of rose growing.

Gardening fashions change. My father’s garden was full of hybrid-tea roses, a type developed in the late 19th century, known for its large, rather stiff, long-lasting blossoms. To produce these blooms, the rose grower had to prune the shrub regularly every year. There are two kinds of pruners: axe-man and wimp; my father was an axe-man. About forty years ago, gardeners began to move away from the hybrid-teas to old shrub roses – lax bushes that didn’t require much pruning, with loose, soft-coloured blossoms. Some of them are very old: Rosa Mundi is medieval in origin.

Hybrid tea rose

The informal old roses are now more fashionable

A few years ago, the Rose Society did a trial of different kinds of pruning to see which produced the best display of blooms. I think they compared the careful pruning of the experienced gardener, going over with a hedge trimmer and doing nothing, and they found that the traditional method of the experienced gardener didn't make much difference. Which shows that long-established practices may be based on authority rather than observation.

It’s been obvious for some time that the Rose Society is in trouble. They were looking after only part of the garden and some of it was overgrown with weeds. I liked their simple, old-fashioned tea room, but it wasn't the sort of thing to attract new visitors and it needed to be modernised. There was a slight air of hopelessness about the place. Their website is down and their last Twitter post wished everyone a Merry Christmas.