Secret Garden Designs by Christina Oates BACK TO "Christina Oates - Garden Writer" Main Page


(published in the June 2000 issue of The English Garden magazine)

How can any gardener not fail to love roses? How can anybody resist the delicious blooms offered up each year for our delectation at the Chelsea Flower Show? Who could not put together a wish list from the enthusings of a rosarian such as Ken Grape. Well, I'm afraid I used to be able to do precisely that, and I remember reading gleefully about Christopher Lloyd's insurrection in ripping out the rose garden at Great Dixter.

In the 1960s gardens of my childhood, roses featured as standards lashed to posts in circular beds piled high with manure, or as groups of hybrid teas balefully displaying their ugly bare legs. Newly married in the late 1970s I tried my hand with 'Iceberg' roses which did sort of OK in London clay but, perversely, the air no longer polluted with coal smog allowed black spot free rein. Also aphids ran amok in the pre-environmentally aware ladybird-free zone.

The 1990s saw a move to chalky Wiltshire where I always used to say that we never grew roses - and I really believed it. However, a couple of years ago, I was caught out whilst walking around the rose garden at Mottisfont by exclaiming that although their R. 'Graham Thomas' was much bushier than mine, R. 'Gloire de Dijon' and R. 'Mme Alfred Carriere' (as well as half-a-dozen or so others) were doing just fine with me. I think what had been fooling me was that I had been buying and placing them not as "roses" but just using my usual design criteria of whether they were a good plant with perhaps more to give than flowers.

Since then, I have been less blinkered in my approach to using roses in my designs. Now that I realise that the secret is to use the right rose in the right place I actually find myself quite able to enthuse about them and can even contemplate creating a dreamy romantic 'Rose Room' in a tucked away corner space. With a bit of pre-planning and ordering of materials, it could be an achievable self-contained gardening project. The perfect aspect for this Rose Room would be south-west and, of course, two enveloping walls of 8' high velvety yew hedging will already be in place.

To delineate the other walls I would invoke the traditional system for growing climbing roses - stout posts and rope swags. These will form cornices to the Rose Room allowing the sky to be the ceiling. It is important to finish off the walls with wainscotting, and lavender hedges could not be more perfect. And, of course, there just has to be an arch forming the doorway.

It will be furnished with a corner arbour seat and ornamented with a stone urn on a pedestal in the centre with two tall metal obelisks to the sides. The floor covering will be crunchy gravel and the beds will have cosseting coverlets of spent mushroom compost. The framework is then ready for planting up.

First of all, as your guide, let the structures dictate the type of roses to select :-

Rope swags - the idea here is to train the stems horizontally along the ropes to encourage floriferous side shoots. Because flexibility is all important, the pliable stems of rambling roses make them ideal. A restrained choice would be the R. 'Sanders' White Rambler'. Also, because all stems which have flowered should be cut to ground level in the autumn leaving the new ones to be wound around the ropes, it means that the posts and swags are not carrying unnecessary, non-flowering weight.

Archway - here the stiffer more upright stems of climbing roses work best as they will not try and fling out an exploratory arm to catch you in a scratchy embrace. Even better would be the thornless fragrant R. 'Zephirine Drouhin'.

Arbour - a soft meringue of blooms hovering over the beams and shining out in front of the dark yew could be supplied by the noisette group of climbing roses which have small rosette blooms of delicate beauty and long slender growth. The original of this group is R. 'Blush Noisette'.

Obelisks - pillar roses (modern short-growing climbers) would welcome strong metal corsets. R. 'White Cockade' has long flowering Hybrid Tea blooms and its large dark green leaves are a plus in such a visible position.

Urn - this is where I would try out new introductions particularly from the patio rose group. I see that Ken Grapes sings the praises of a patio carpet rose R. 'Dick's Delight' which when grown in a pot displays its clusters of pink rosettes to the best.
Also I would dip into the groundcover section to choose a compact spreader to plant at the base of the urn (dig out the path base and replace with good soil and then cover with gravel so as to make it look as if the rose has self-seeded). R. 'Nozomi' is an old favourite.

Beds - here would be a good place for bushy well-bred New English Roses such as the peony-like flowers of R. 'Brother Caedfael' and R. 'Gertrude Jekyll' which has an exceptionally strong old rose fragrance. It is recommended that they are planted in groups of three to make one dense mound.

So, the roses are in place and all that is needed now are some judicious partnerings to smooth away any niggling design faults such as, dare I say it again, bare legs. What is required are frothy petticoats and fluffy slippers in the form of plants such as euphorbia, lady's mantle, lambs' ears, pinks, nigella, campanulas, lychnis, catmint, purple sage, and aquilegias.

As a final decorative touch I shall eschew the feng shui'd wind chimes and instead fix a lacewing chamber to an arbour post and I might even send off for some mail-order ladybirds - woe betide any aphids which dare spoil this rose heaven.


Although it is desirable to form walls to this kind of area, bear in mind the practicalities of having to trim a hedge and so do leave an access path wide enough to take a step ladder. Even if you don't put a mulch on the rest of the bed, I find it really useful along the base of the hedge to put down a length of water-permeable fabric mulch - tucked in with a half-moon edger and disguised with a thin layer of chipped bark. This makes a clean route along the hedge and of course it is also a boon come mid-summer when it provides a way of tending the overflowing border without wading into the middle. Another point is that not only does it keep competitive weeds away from the hedge but will also help conserve moisture around the hedge roots - all too often we forget that hedges are actually plants and need care and attention as well. I also find that the plants in the border grow better if they are give some space and air circulating around them - there is less of that leggy, leaning-forward to catch the light growth.

It is best to remember that whatever material you use and whatever knots you secure them with, you are eventually going to have to undo them, so tie them in well but don't go beserk. I favour using old tights (neutral coloured!) cut into strips about 200mm long. This material is very soft and yet very elastic and will not rot.

Throughout the summer gently wind the new growth around the post and ropes. By twining the stem, flowering shoots will be encouraged along the whole length and not just at the end. Use the strips of tights to make a figure of eight looping it first around the stem, crossing the ends over each other several times and then tying it around the post or rope with a reef knot and trimming off any excess. In this way you have made a buffer between the living tissue and the hard surface so that when the wind blows, the stems will not be abraded.

Be ruthless in the autumn and cut out those older stems which have flowered. The textbooks instruct you to untie all stems, lay them down on the ground, prune out the old growth and then tie back the young stuff. In practice I can never face doing all this. So I tend to identify the stems I want to remove and then, using loppers or even a small pruning saw, cut them out of the general melee in short manageable sections, eventually ending up near the base.

Climbing roses do not need such rejuvenating pruning as the ramblers but they must still be tied in securely. In this case try to spread the stems out as much as possible to give a good framework which covers the structure evenly. Because you usually only prune to remove dead and exhausted growth and withered tips, your ties will be in place for much longer so I still favour the strips of old tights but this time I actually use a bow to attach them to the wood. This can look a bit obvious so I try to position the bow as discreetly as possible.

The reason to use a bow is, of course, so that over a few years, the tie can be easily loosened to accommodate the thickening stem. Somehow, human nature is such that a few seconds loosening and re-tying a bow when walking past is so much more likely to be done than making the effort to go to the shed to find a knife and a new tie.

Another practical thought is to look objectively at any arch or arbour you are thinking of buying and try to judge whether not only the uprights but also the struts/latticework are going to be strong enough to support the plants long term. I've observed that chunky battens are more up to the job than flat slats.

Although these structures are fairly stable on their own, once they are supporting a plant the greater bulk means that they can be susceptable to a gust of wind and so it is imperative that they are well anchored. Choose ones which have good long legs - at least 450mm - to sink into the ground To save buckling metal struts or even breaking wooden extensions, knock in a metal rod first to dislodge any stones. Drop the obelisk into position, make sure it's upright all round and then ram soil back around the legs.

Like the obelisks, stability is essential so compact the surface on which it is going to stand very firmly indeed. Then place a paving slab in position and check that it is level - if you don't have a spirit level, then a wide shallow bowl of water filled to the brim will soon show you if the slab is skewiff. It is useful to have some sand with you as this can be sprinkled in layers to adust the level. This way you are not lugging around or running the risk of damaging your rather heavy and precious urn. The slab can usually be left in place to form a good solid base for the plinth - the top dressing of gravel (see below) will lap up around the sides and you won't notice it.

Because the rose will be in this urn for a long time as opposed to ephemeral annual planting, I advocate using a soil-based compost as this has so much more body to it and, if it does dry out, it can be easily re-wetted again. Watering is, of course, the key to keeping a plant happy in a container and I always take the trouble to "plant" next to it a section of plastic pipe (50mm diameter) which has had holes drilled along its length. This is positioned on a handful of gravel to stop the end blocking up and then the soil is filled in around it. This is a fast-track route to the roots for water and liquid feed which can all too easily rush down the sides of the pot where the soil has shrunk away. In years to come the roots will have filled the pot making it even more difficult to water and the pipe will come into its own as a life-saver.

I cannot abide walking over a gravel path which has so much loose stone that it feels as if one is trudging across a shingle beach. This is how I avoid it:

Copyright Christina Oates


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