GARDENING / When everything's not coming up roses: The Banksian needs room to show off its charms. So a rose by any other name is a better bet in a tight space, says Anna Pavord

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The Independent Online
'PLEASE will you write about Banksian roses,' wrote Judy Martin from Notting Hill Gate in London. 'I long to know more about why mine has failed. I keep reading about how glorious they are and have never seen a single bloom on my (pot) plant. I've fertilised, sprayed and it looks worse than ever. The leaves die back before they grow and those that have grown are sick and drooping. Help]'

The mention of the pot rang a few alarm bells, but as there was not enough evidence in the letter to give any kind of diagnosis, I visited Ms Martin in her third-floor flat, where she lives with her husband, two young sons, two cats and 20 yards of overhung concrete walkway. It was here in a pot beside the door that the doomed Banksian rose had been planted.

'Not a good choice,' I said severely, though sympathising with the Martin vision of a romantic, scented bower to soften the brutal architecture of this Fifties block of flats. The Banksian rose needs space - not an option here. It also needs as much sun as it can get to ripen wood and induce flowering. In this particular spot it was unlikely to get it. And the pot itself did not look big enough to sustain a climber. It was a cylinder about a foot in diameter.

The best Banksian roses I have seen were in Italy, especially at the garden made by the expatriate Hanbury-Tenison family at La Mortola on the Riviera. There they smothered whole terraces with their pale yellow flowers. That gives a clue as to the conditions which make them happy.

The one you usually see is the double R. banksiae, but there is a single type that grows on the south wall of Mannington Hall in Norfolk. Occasionally, single and double flowers appear on the same plant. The first type of Banksian rose to arrive in this country, sent to Kew by William Kerr in 1807, was white rather than yellow.

Kerr was a Kew gardener turned professional plant-hunter who, with the blessing of George III, went to Canton as a collector for the East India Company. He stayed in China for eight years, sending masses of plants and seeds back to England. Kerria, a spring-flowering shrub, is named after him. His rose, however, was named after his mentor, Sir Joseph Banks, director of Kew.

The double-yellow Banksian came into this country in 1824 and is hardier than other types, although it still needs hot summers and frost-free winters to flourish. It is practically thornless, which makes it a pleasure to train and tie in. It is one of the earliest roses to flower - in May - and smells like violets.

I had a feeling that Ms Martin's Banksian did not like this billet in London W11. The fact that the leaves died back even before they were fully developed suggests that the rose had never found its feet in the tub. It was living off reserves and when these were exhausted, it collapsed.

Roses will grow in pots, but you need to choose varieties with care and use a strong, heavy compost, such as John Innes No 3. They also need to be watered and fed liberally. Good drainage is essential, so a thick layer of crocks, followed by some coarse compost, should be placed at the bottom of the pot.

Planting is best done in winter, so that the roots can sort themselves out before they are required to provide food and drink for the rest of the plant above. For anything other than a miniature or patio rose, you also need a very generous pot - not only to provide sustenance but also to keep the roots cool. Climbers will never flower as profusely in a pot as in the ground.

But a patio rose would not have suited Ms Martin. It would have spread its skirts too wide and snatched at her every time she approached the front door. In this space, it was up or nothing.

Where there was more width, I would have suggested 'The Fairy', which does not mind poor soil, adapts well to life in a pot, flowers for most of the summer and puts up with shade. It has clusters of small, rounded, pink flowers and is twice as wide as it is high. But even this would do best in a container at least 15-18in wide.

The Banksian rose flowers only once and this must be borne in mind if you are choosing a rose for a prominent position. They are not noted for general deportment. Without their flowers, they have little to offer.

Ms Martin's 'Crimson Showers' was making a much better job of pot life, although it is unlikely to attain the 15ft it would normally aspire to. Just as well, otherwise she would be pruning it dangling from a window cleaner's cradle. This is another rose that is tolerant of shade and poor soil. It has deep red clusters of flowers like little pompoms.

Shallow, bowl-shaped pots are not ideal for roses. Choose ones that are as deep as they are wide. And when you plant your rose, be strong-willed and cut it down hard. This is heart-breaking at the time but will pay dividends in the future. You will have forced the rose to throw strong new shoots from the base of the plant, rather than weak spindly ones from the tops of the shoots.

The nurseryman Peter Beales says this is the single most important thing about planting roses. He tried sending out his roses cut down like this but received complaints from customers who felt they were not getting their money's worth.

Instead of the Banksian rose, I suggested Ms Martin should try the climbing noisette 'Celine Forestier', an old French rose with muddled, but attractive, flowers of primrose yellow, deeper in bud. It is scented, flowers on and off through the summer and has masses of light green leaves. It rarely gets above 8ft. The modern climbing yellow miniature 'Laura Ford' is even neater but has no scent. For the Banksian, she will have to take a spring day trip to Norfolk. Or to the Cambridge Botanic Gardens. Or to Powis Castle, the National Trust's garden at Welshpool, where it grows magnificently on the terrace.

(Photograph omitted)