In February last year, I wrote about a project we were undertaking at Sissinghurst to restore Vita Sackville-West’s collection of old roses.
https://sissinghurstcastle.wordpress.com/2014/02/13/finding-vitas-lost-roses/ The project was initiated by Troy, who had found evidence that, despite having about 200 old roses, nearly 100 were missing from Vita’s original collection. The aim of the project was to find and replant the missing roses. Thus, in February 2013 we found ourselves taking delivery of 3 large boxes containing the 100 roses. Many of you will remember the infamous winter of 2013 where the weather seemed to be the same every day for weeks: rain, rain and rain. We ‘healed in’ the roses in the nursery and waited until the weather improved. During this time, we took the opportunity to research the new roses, collecting important data that would help us choose the right position for each rose. By the time the torrential rain decided to end, it was already March and we raced ahead with planting. The information we had gathered was put onto an excel spreadsheet and used to help us make good planting decisions. We considered factors such as the eventual height and width of the Rose, its shade tolerance, the colour of the flower and its scent as well as other information. Having planted, we waited in anticipation to see how the roses would respond to their new homes. Many, such as Paul Ricault, romped away, shooting upwards with surprising vigour and even managing a good flush of flowers. Others found life at Sissinghurst more of a challenge and struggled to get established, putting on little growth. When winter arrived and rose pruning season began in earnest, we had a proper opportunity to assess their growth and health.
Some of the new ones, such as Alain Blanchard, Paul Ricault or Agatha were big enough to start training onto a structure. The smaller ones such as Cardinal de Richelieu or George Vibert were pruned and left as free standing roses and will be assessed in another year. Nearer to spring we’ll give all the roses a top dressing of Kieserite (magnesium) and sulphate of potash, as well as a good dollop of homemade compost.
We’re also continuing to plant more roses, particularly in the White Garden. Two weeks ago Wendy planted 6 more bare root roses in the White Garden including Mme Plantier, Boule de Neige, Blanche Moreau and Mme Hardy (described by Graham Stuart-Thomas as ‘one of the most superlatively beautiful of the old white varieties’). No doubt you will hear more about their progress throughout the summer.
However, it’s not just our new roses that need attention, and during the winter, I have been working on the information that we hold for our whole collection. Last year, our focus was very much on the new roses but now we want to ensure that we have the same information available for all our roses; not only to give them the best growing conditions but also to ensure that we have a complete record of our whole collection. In a historic garden such as Sissinghurst, it is so important to maintain accurate records of both past and present plants, not just for our own benefit but for future gardeners too.
With this in mind, the information that we collect on each rose starts with its full name and history (name of breeder, date and country). We then note its location in the garden, followed by the type of rose (gallica, damask, alba etc.), a description of its general growth habit, the final height and width, the type of foliage and prickles and any tolerance of shade. Finally, we focus on the flower, giving a description of the type of flower (double or single), its size and shape as well as the colour, scent and significant hips.
I use three sources to gather this information; the Peter Beales website, ‘Classic Roses’ by Peter Beales and ‘Rose Book’ by Graham Stuart-Thomas. These three sources allow me to build up a good picture of the rose in question with each source giving a slightly different emphasis to the description. The Peter Beale’s website is particularly good at giving a very short factual description of the rose and objective measurements such as a score out of 10 for the scent and prickliness. The Peter Beales book always gives a good all round description while Graham Stuart-Thomas gives very good descriptions of the flowers and his general opinion of the rose. He is particularly good at describing colour, using phrases such as ‘beautifully burnished with metallic tones’, ‘intense murrey-purple, dark and velvety’ or ‘glistening ivory white with a distinct pale canary-yellow flush in the centre’. His book gives a glimpse of someone who has real passion and knowledge of old roses. By using all three sources, I hope to write concise descriptions which capture the essential elements of each rose.
Once I have made notes on all the garden roses, we will create a ‘working’ catalogue which will be available as a resource for us to use when working in the garden. Often visitors ask us questions about a particular rose; whether it could be grown in their own garden, what conditions it likes etc. I hope that this resource will help us to give some really useful answers and allow people to feel more confident about growing old roses. As Vita once wrote ‘a collection of old roses gives a great and increasing pleasure.’ I think she was right.