Everything’s coming up roses – and there's not a pesticide in sight

Pruning, fertilising, pesticides, fungicides – growing roses in grandad's day was quite the kerfuffle, admits Emma Townshend. But have things changed?
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The Independent Online

A friend of mine has been clearing out the house of his much-loved dad, who died last autumn. Everybody was invited to take a memento, so I asked if I could have a 1950s rose book by a Mr F Fairbrother, from a series of little gardening guides published by Penguin. (Mr Fairbrother was a grammar-school headmaster in Leighton Buzzard, but also president of the National Rose Society, so he should know what he's talking about.)

A friend of mine has been clearing out the house of his much-loved dad, who died last autumn. Everybody was invited to take a memento, so I asked if I could have a 1950s rose book by a Mr F Fairbrother, from a series of little gardening guides published by Penguin. (Mr Fairbrother was a grammar-school headmaster in Leighton Buzzard, but also president of the National Rose Society, so he should know what he's talking about.)

The book is a good reminder of a kind man, but I'm also enjoying it as a genuine historical document – mainly of the incredibly complicated way gardeners used to grow roses. Its pages are full of pruning methods, and the fertilisers, pesticides and fungicides with which you needed to fill your shed to prevent the onset of various diseases. )

If you had only this book to hand, you might imagine roses were tricky to grow. And the kind of roses planted in 1960s Britain were a bit tricky, it has to be said. I remember my grandad's rose garden, which comprised six or eight bright Hybrid Teas, needed hard pruning then spraying each year before flowering for a single dramatic burst in July. These roses had little scent, and produced huge hand-sized flowers at the top of shortened stems. After this lop-sided but dramatic display, the show was over for the year, and the rose beds remained twiggy bushes among bare earth for the rest of the season.

But today the rose world has changed. Hybrid Teas have gone out of fashion – possibly to do a retro return at some point soon. But in the meantime, you don't have to wait until "rose-planting season": you can buy roses to plant any time of year, growing in garden-centre containers. And newer roses have been bred to be far more resistant to pests and diseases, to need less pruning, and often, to repeat-flower, so that you will get a bit more of a consistent show through the summer.

One thing modern roses have inherited from the past, though, is old-fashioned glamour. Flowers are smaller and softer, covering a bush with sprays of blooms. Best of all, they reek of rose perfume, which has been bred back into them. The king of these new roses is David Austin, who has bred hundreds of gorgeous new varieties, none of which would look out of place on South Kensington's chintziest curtains.

My friend's father's house has been covered this month in roses, climbers and ramblers, rendering it chocolate-box pretty. Last summer, when he was already ill, he talked me through all the roses growing there: Félicité et Perpétue, Zéphirine Drouhin, Paul's Scarlet Climber, Albertine. Looking through Mr Fairbrother's book, I discover that all of them predate the World Wars. So while I celebrate David Austin's new roses, I can't help loving those old roses too. n

Best of past and present

Old roses

Albertine: Sturdy and fragrant, with plenty of flowers left on the bush even after you've picked some for your bedside table. £9.95 apuldramroses.co.uk

Paul's Scarlet Climber: A waterfall of deep-red blooms, with arching stems that will cover walls and fences as it climbs. £11.99, www.crocus.co.uk

New roses

Sceptr'd Isle: An exceptionally good new rose, with perfectly folded pink buds and a heavy, sweet smell with a touch of myrrh. £12.49, davidaustinroses.com

Princess Alexandra of Kent: Sunset colours, in frilled old ballgown pink, touched with a hint of tequila orange. Properly beautiful. £14.49, davidaustinroses.com

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