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Gardening: Rose upon rose

No English garden is complete without a rose, but the choice is bewilderingly large. Here Sarah Raven advises on disease-resistant varieties that not only look and smell wonderful, but will flower through into the autumn without the need for chemical sprays
EVERY garden must have at least one rose. At this time of year they fill the air with scent, especially in the early morning and evening.

Roses may not strike you as neglected or criticised plants, but many gardeners complain that they are labour-intensive. They bang on about blackspot and mildew and condemn their short flowering season. But if you choose the right roses, and grow them well, they will look beautiful for months at a time. And if, like me, you garden organically, you can select disease-resistant varieties and avoid using chemical insecticides.

`Eglantyne' is one of David Austin's English shrub roses; it looks like a blousy, old-fashioned variety and smells as good, but flowers for longer. It's my replacement for the delicious old shrub rose `Fantin- Latour'. Some of these English varieties get exhausted by their long flowering season and are then prone to disease, but it's rare to see `Eglantyne' looking unhealthy.

If you want a deeper pink, go for the Portland rose `Comte de Chambord'. The Portlands are small-growing, healthy, strongly perfumed roses which flower month after month. For a deeper, brighter rose, you can't better the magenta Rugosa rose `Hansa'. All Rugosas have a strong resistance to disease and are covered in strongly perfumed flowers from early summer into the autumn, when the flowers are joined by large, shiny hips.

The more widely available, similar-coloured Rugosa, `Roseraie de l'Hay', is larger, growing to 6ft by 5ft, almost twice the size of `Hansa'. Its flowers have a tendency to droop, so it's worth trying to find `Hansa', which has more upright blooms. I also like `Rose De Rescht', another fairly disease-resistant rose. It has small, neat flowers in a rich pinky-crimson and, like the other Portlands, a long flowering season. Michael Marriott, at David Austin Roses, recommends the similar-coloured `Noble Anthony'. It has rich, blousy flowers with a wonderful scent. He has never seen an infected leaf on their plants.

Rosa rugosa `Blanc Double de Coubert' is an outstanding pure white rose. It is unaffected by disease, grows to 5ft by 4ft, and is covered with beautiful papery flowers for months. It has a powerful scent and will remain healthy even in the shade. If I had to choose one climber, it would be the lovely white `Madame Alfred Carriere', with its scented profusion of faintly pink-flushed, fully double flowers.

Crush aphids when you first see them, and they usually won't be a problem. If they persist, spray the plants with slightly soapy water. Failing this, use "soft soap", a natural Soil Association-approved insecticide which will kill only the bugs it comes into direct contact with.

If you do get an outbreak of fungal disease on any of the tougher varieties, spray the affected rose with skimmed milk (one cup to one gallon of water) at weekly to 10-day intervals. Peter Beales recommends this as the most effective organic treatment of black spot. A regular dose of bicarbonate of soda is said to work too.

If you do opt for a chemical regime, you will have to spray your bushes every two to three weeks from mid-spring, when the foliage emerges, right through into the autumn. Avoid using Roseclear, which contains an insecticide and fungicide mix. Aphids tend to be bad in May, so the insecticide may be redundant for the rest of the year.

You are better off with the fungicide Nimrod T to treat the blackspot and mildew, adding the systemic insecticide Pirimicarb as and when you need it. Unlike other insecticides, Pirimicarb won't kill the ladybirds and lace wings which help to keep aphid infestations in check. The chemicals circulate through the plant, wiping out infection like an antibiotic. Nimrod T is less refined. It acts like household bleach, eliminating good fungi as well as bad. It's much better to avoid the whole palaver by restricting yourself to disease-resistant roses.

Roses should be planted in a sunny, sheltered spot. It is often said that they will grow anywhere, but in unfavourable conditions they are more likely to suffer from disease. It's worth preparing your soil. Dig a large hole for every rose and put lots of manure into the base of the pit, making sure it is mixed in well to avoid scorching the roots.

You should water once a week during a dry spell by leaving the hose on the roots of the plant for 10 minutes. Alternatively, buckets of soapy bathwater will help to prevent aphids and save on water. To dead-head, it's neater to cut to the first healthy-looking bud below the flower stalk rather than snapping off the flower head. Do this as often as you can, as it will encourage longer, more prolific flowering.

The general rule for pruning is easy. Prune all the varieties mentioned hard in early spring, cutting the growth back to about a third and removing any diseased or dead wood at the same time.

Peter Beales Roses, London Road, Attleborough, Norfolk, NR17 1AY (01953 454707).

David Austin Roses, Bowling Green Lane, Albrighton, Wolverhampton, WV7 3HB (01902 376377). Both do mail-order roses