GARDENING : A rose isn't simply a rose

Whatever Gertrude Stein said, there are posh roses and pleb roses. As planting time approaches, Michael Leapman offers guidance
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A SEVERE winter is not all bad news for gardeners. When the cold weather persists, spring arrives in less of a rush. We have more time to plan our campaigns and get done those things that have to be done before the sap rises unstoppably.

Roses are a case in point. Most years, mid-March is about as late as you can plant bare-rooted stock, at least in the south, without it being too far into its growing season. This year, you can leave it until the end of the month.

If you have not yet bought new bushes, the selection at nurseries and garden centres will be more restricted now than in the autumn, but some will be selling them off cheaply as the planting season nears it end. (I am not referring here to container-grown roses, which can be planted at any time)

Nor do you have to be in such a hurry to finish your pruning. Some do it in the autumn; but those who leave it until spring like to wait for the buds to swell, to make sure they cut above potentially strong shoots. That stage may be a week or two away.

When I went to see Roger Phillips, who runs the communal garden at Eccleston Square in Pimlico, south London, he told me he was expecting at least a two-week time-lag with his roses: he has about 400 bushes in the three- acre garden, representing more than 300 varieties.

"The 'Canary Bird' [a yellow shrub rose] will come first," he said. "In central London it is usually in flower at the end of March but this year it will probably be mid April. Then we have 'Maigold' [a climber] and normally by mid-May I'd have 10 or 20 varieties in flower and 150 by the end of May. But I may have nothing in May this year."

Early flowering is not everything and while waiting we can anticipate the colourful show by looking at The Quest for the Rose, a lavishly illustrated book that Roger wrote with Martyn Rix three years ago to accompany a television series. This month it comes out in paperback and I had gone to Eccleston Square to talk about it.

Since the book first appeared, the rose has taken something of a hammering from horticultural trendsetters. It has been depicted as a vulgar, ungainly plant, beset with disease and other afflictions and people are said to be uprooting them in their thousands. Yet with an estimated 20 million still grown across the country, the rose remains the most popular British flower.

Roger Phillips believes that what has happened is a polarisation of the market. Gardening has always reflected - even exaggerated - class distinctions and we now have two distinct kinds of rose grower, the posh and the pleb. You can tell which is which from a glance at their gardens.

"There are the people who buy the odd plant and then there are the real gardeners," he says. "Someone who has space for just six roses will have hybrid teas because you can get them everywhere and they're cheap. But as gardening interest has grown, keen gardeners have become more discerning and they go very much for the old roses: historical roses, shrub roses and climbers with little bunches of white flowers. If you look at the Yellow Book [the list of gardens open under the National Gardens Scheme] you will see that the owners rarely mention hybrid teas or modern roses as a speciality, but they often mention old roses."

The term "modern roses" is confusing. Since 1979 it has been the official name for hybrid teas and floribundas, introduced at the turn of the century. Nowadays, though, these are not literally the most modern sorts, for in the 1970s the grower David Austin introduced what he called English roses, an up-to-date improvement on the old-fashioned kind, with repeat flowering.

David Austin's roses are becoming more and more popular and figure prominently in The Quest for the Rose, along with the old roses, climbers, wild roses and shrub roses that Roger favours. Roger Phillips and Martyn Rix do not ignore hybrid teas and floribundas but they do not enthuse over them. As far as roses go, the authors are decidedly of the posh tendency.

The standard bearer of pleb gardening is Dr David Hessayon, whose "Expert" illustrated annuals for the uninitiated sell in their millions. In the 1995 edition of The Rose Expert he champions the hybrid teas as "the aristocrat of the roses" and estimates that modern roses outsell the old-fashioned group by some 25 to one.

Hybrid teas and floribundas are popular because they are vigorous and produce multi-petalled flowers throughout the season. Roger thinks those benefits have been achieved at the expense of scent and overall shape of the plant. He gave practical effect to his view when he took over the Eccleston Square garden 15 years ago and straight away dug up four beds of hybrid teas.

"The mania for the modern rose damaged the market long-term," he says. "The passion was for repeat flowering, but I don't think that is what you should put first. People love magnolias, for instance, and they don't repeat flower. Forsythia only flowers once in early spring and you see it everywhere."

All that is true, but most gardeners look for value and versatility from the plants they buy and the longer a rose is in flower the greater its value. We also often want plants to do a specific job. This explains the growing popularity of patio roses (average-sized flowers on low bushes), miniature roses (small flowers on low bushes) and ground cover varieties such as "Rosy Cushion", which will, with luck, lay a carpet of flowers over parts of the garden that are difficult to handle otherwise.

The Quest for the Rose is something of a hybrid itself. In part it relates the history of the roses and describes the authors' visits to several countries to track down its origins. That was the main theme of the TV series, but the book has a more practical value, too. With more than 1,000 pictures of roses and notes about their salient characteristics, it is a useful checklist for anyone planning a major new planting.

Before I left Eccleston Square, Roger gave me a short tour of the garden. One of his prize exhibits is a "Lady Banks' White Rose", grown from seed collected on his China trip. In the book is a picture of hedges of "Lady Banks'" growing wild by a Chinese lane.

The day before my visit, Roger had helped the gardener plant a bed of hybrid perpetuals and old-fashioned teas, the two old varieties from which the hybrid tea was bred. The perpetual is a large-flowered group in shades of red, pink and white. Teas are daintier and come in orange, yellow and pink.

In the middle of the bed, to show he is not unreasonably prejudiced, he has planted a hybrid tea climber, which he hopes will grow into the American maple behind it. He is fond of roses entwining themselves into trees and has several other examples in the garden: a blush pink "Cecile Brunner" growing into a laburnum; an apricot "Alche-mist" dwarfing a holly; a cream "Sombreuil" in a flowering cherry.

He has also planted climbers to cover the wire fence of the tennis court, but these are mainly hybrid teas. It is, after all, a communal garden and not everyone in the square is posh.

! 'The Quest for the Rose', by Roger Phillips and Martyn Rix, will be published in paperback by BBC Books on 28 March at pounds 14.99; 'The Rose Expert' by D G Hessayon, is published by Expert Books at pounds 5.99.

Eccleston Square garden is open on 28 April, when you can enjoy the camellias; for the roses wait until 9 June. Open 2-5; admission pounds 1.50, children 75p.

WHEN AND HOW TO PRUNE YOUR ROSES

Not all roses should be pruned in the spring. Here is a quick guide to when and how hard to prune them. The method is the same in all cases: make a sloping cut about a centi-metre above a strong bud.

HYBRID TEAS AND FLORIBUNDA BUSHES

Roses planted since last autumn should now be pruned hard down to about six inches above the ground. If planting now, prune before putting the bushes in the ground. Estab-lished bushes need less severe pruning. As a general rule, cut stems back to about half last summer's length, but use your discretion to make a pleasing shape. Old, woody stems can be cut right back to the ground and suckers removed. Pruning can be done in the autumn or the spring.

OLD ROSES, GROUND-COVER ROSES AND MINIATURES

These need much less pruning and the best time is the autumn, after they have finished flowering. Just take out weak-looking shoots; otherwise simply prune for shape. Do not prune before planting.

CLIMBERS AND RAMBLERS

The difference between the two groups is that climbers have indivi-dual, quite large flowers on stiff wood and ramblers have trusses of smaller flowers on more pliable stems. Ramblers should be pruned in the autumn and most of the old flowering stems cut out, because next year's flowers will be on new stems. Climbers do not need pruning except for shape and this can be done either in the autumn or spring.

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