Notes from the Rose Garden

In February last year, I wrote about a project we were undertaking at Sissinghurst to restore Vita Sackville-West’s collection of old 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.

'Mme Plantier', looking rather small, planted just behind Pyrus salicifolia 'Pendula' in the White Garden.

‘Mme Plantier’, looking rather small, planted just behind Pyrus salicifolia ‘Pendula’ in the White Garden.

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.

The two books that I have used to gather information

The two books that I have used to gather information

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.

Helen Champion




12 thoughts on “Notes from the Rose Garden

  1. Greetings from Wisconsin, USA. I love everything about this post! Thanks so much for sharing this blog – I’ve enjoyed for quite some time and wanted take time to respond to this post. I have a goal of visiting England in the next few years and visiting Sissinghurst is tops on my list to visit. I have been working on my own garden and really love the Old Garden Roses. Madame Hardy is one of my favorites. Thanks for sharing the background, history and visuals of this rose project. I just read Sarah Raven’s new book on the garden at Sissignhurst and I’ve been studying it in photo essays for many years. I’m really excited about all of the new roses you have going in. I was curious if you have planted Celsiana? I wanted to ask if you might be able to share or potentially write a future post about how you plant the roses and prepare the beds. I’d love to learn how you do it! Many thanks for this great blog!

    Warm regards,


    • Hi Cole, very nice to hear from you across the pond. I’m so pleased that you enjoyed this post and that you’re a fan of old roses too; they deserve to be more widely grown. I don’t think that we have ‘Celsiana’ in the garden but I see that Graham Stuart-Thomas describes it as ‘a very beautiful rose’ and that the flowers are ‘at all times extremely beautiful in a loose informal way’ so you are in good company if you are growing it. I do hope that you will be able to visit Sissinghurst soon, let us know when you visit so that we can meet you. Thanks for your suggestion for a future blog post. Strangely, this post was nearly about how to plant roses so it’s definitely on my list of blogs to write. Helen


  2. Hello
    We are doing a similar project for the Nancy Steen Garden in Auckland NZ
    We have approx 200 roses and have made a concerted attempt to name,label and record them in each bed.
    The Tea roses in particular do well in Auckland


    • Hi Chris, I’ve just been looking at the Nancy Steen garden on the internet as I’m not familiar with it and it looks absolutely delightful. Good to hear about your naming/labelling project as it’s such a valuable task to undertake. Although it’s time-consuming it’s nice to have everything recorded for posterity and to know that we have left everything in good order for future gardeners. Helen


  3. I think this is an excellent idea, one which I might try with my 50+ roses. I often find I dig up roses thinking that when they are not doing well they are not suitable for my garden, when all they need is a move or some different feed. Thanks.


    • Sue, I’m impressed that you have 50 roses, that’s quite a collection. Some roses are quite fussy about where they will or won’t grow or how they are trained so you’re not alone with that predicament! A lot of gardening is trial and error but collecting information about your roses will be a great way to help you understand each one. Good luck with your roses this year, hope they bloom well. Helen


  4. I am never quite sure which roses are best to train onto the hazel hoops as you have with one here. Do you just do it with the summer flowering types or can I have a go with continuous flowering shrubs which is what I mostly grow? Does your feed contain the same ingredients as something like Top Rose?


    • Hi Sophie, Vita recommended using this technique for hybrid perpetuals, it really depends on the growth habit of the rose as to the way we decide to grow and train it. Our fertiliser of choice is Kieserite and Sulphate of Potash – any ready formulated fertiliser made for roses would have similar ingredients. Good luck and thanks for your comment. Troy – Head Gardener

      Sent from my iPhone


  5. Hello from Germany,
    could you write something about how to prune and tie/ train the roses as shown in the pictures above? Which roses to train/ tie how?
    Thank you and kindest regards


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