It is autumn 1953 at Sissinghurst Garden and Jack Vass, Vita Sackville-West’s Head Gardener, sits down at his desk to look at the latest edition of Hilling’s Nursery Rose Catalogue. As he peruses the multitude of roses for sale, he puts a mark beside any that have already been planted in the garden, perhaps as a way of assessing how he can best add to Vita’s collection of old roses. He is probably surprised when the tally comes to 170. It is a big collection and he knows that at least 24 other roses that are not mentioned in the catalogue are also growing in the garden, bringing the overall total to 194. What he does not know at the time is just how important that catalogue and the markings he made inside it will become in the years to come. He is a Head Gardener just doing his job.
Now fast forward 60 years to Sissinghurst 2013 where another Head Gardener sits at his desk and looks at the list of roses that have come from that very catalogue. He does not know where the catalogue is now but knows that the list was made by Graham Stuart Thomas, who saw the Hilling’s catalogue when he was Gardens Adviser for the National Trust. He realises that many of the roses on the list are no longer growing at Sissinghurst, at least 100 are missing and although Sissinghurst still has approximately 200 roses in the garden, it is clear that at least half must have been planted after 1953. What is not clear is why the original roses were replaced with other cultivars. Were they prone to disease or did they just fall out of favour with Vita and subsequent Head Gardeners? He does not know, but resolves to find the missing roses and replant them in the garden thus increasing the number of rose cultivars and species to approximately 300 and restoring Vita’s original collection. In December 2013, he orders 101 different roses from Peter Beales Nursery. These include all of the missing roses except those that can’t be located plus a few others that sound interesting. They are due to be delivered in early February 2014.
Now it is February and despite the appalling weather there is an air of excitement at Sissinghurst as the long awaited roses arrive packed demurely in three large cardboard boxes. Over the past few weeks we have been preparing for their arrival like anxious parents awaiting the arrival of a new baby. Poles have been placed in the ground all over the garden indicating potential planting sites. These have been dug over and compost added. Other sites have been sterilised where necessary. Research has been carried out into the new roses and charts made containing a host of information about them so that the best site and conditions can be chosen. Our research has included notes on their history, growth habit, the final height and width, the type and colour of flower, the scent, foliage, hips, thorns and shade tolerance. In fact, we have tried to give as much information as possible so that the roses thrive in their position and look stunning with their companions in the garden. All this information has been typed onto Excel by Vicky, our administrator here at Sissinghurst so that it can be amended over time as we find out more about their characteristics.
But not all the roses are destined to go immediately into the garden. Those that need further observation will be planted in rows in the nursery so that we can assess them. Roses such as ‘Roger Lambelin’ have a reputation for being prone to mildew and other diseases so it is likely that we will observe it in the nursery for at least a season. Others need to be assessed for flower colour before an ideal place can be identified for them. For now though, they have all been unpacked and ‘heeled in’ in the nursery and if it ever stops raining we will soon have the exciting task of planting out a whole host of new roses. They may not look very exciting at the moment but hidden within these seemingly lifeless skeletons lie an extravaganza of colour and scent. It’s going to be an interesting summer at Sissinghurst this year….