It seemed like a good idea at the time

For the Robinsons, rambling roses were more trouble than they bargained for. They aren't the first to suffer.
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The Independent Online
Repeat flowering is what everyone wants in a climbing rose. True or false? False in my case. I do not expect philadelphus or cherry or lilac to bloom twice, and do not see why we should necessarily expect it of all roses. But it seems I am in a minority. Because some roses have the energy to produce a second late-summer flush of flowers, those that do not are maligned as slackers and that includes most of the huge family of rambling roses.

But if the premise is true, why have modern rose breeders done so little work on ramblers? If the Wichuraiana rambler 'New Dawn' could learn the trick of repeat flowering, so could others. No breeder can take the credit for that breakthrough. 'New Dawn', with blush- pink flowers set off against leaves that look as though they are polished daily, turned up as a chance seedling in an American nursery in 1930, but the new dawn was a false one. As Peter Beales, the East Anglian rose-breeder says, the trail "came to a dead end". We are still waiting for a repeat-flowering 'Albertine' or a 'Sanders White'.

Bridget Quest-Ritson, who has recently moved her rose nursery from Corsley to Shrewton in Wiltshire ("not an experience to recommend", she says) puts 'Sanders White' high on her list of top ramblers. It is not one of the wild rampaging kind of white ramblers that eats garden sheds for breakfast, but grows to a manageable 12ft, with small white flowers held in clusters, each little bloom like a flattened rosette. The leaves are dark green and the stems are pliable.

That is an important advantage. Many modern climbing roses, especially the ones that started life as hybrid teas, have stiff, upright stems, difficult to bend over and tie in where you want. You see their legs much more than their faces, and they are not built to win a beauty contest on the strength of their legs.

Mrs Quest-Ritson specialises in roses grown on their own roots, rather than grafted on to rootstocks. The immediate advantage is obvious: no suckers. So why don't all rose growers do it? "It's quicker to get a rose to a saleable size if you graft it," she said. And borrowing another rose's roots lends vigour to some weedy types. "But there again," adds Mrs Quest- Ritson, "grafting sometimes gives roses a kind of false vigour. I think they are tougher, hardier, when grown on their own roots."

She sells the things she likes, which happen to include roses that the big growers have mostly forgotten about. She is keen on a Wichuraiana rambler called 'Alexandre Girault', raised by the French breeder Barbier in 1909. It has the dark-green, glossy foliage and malleable growth of many of its kind, and clusters of small, double flowers in a rich shade of pink. It smells of fruit salad.

Barbier produced a superb stable of ramblers to drip over the pergolas and arbours of Edwardian gardens. His first success was 'Alberic Barbier' which has neat scrolled buds opening to creamy white flowers. His last was the ubiquitous salmon-pink 'Albertine', more prone to mildew than 'Alberic Barbier'.

'Tea Rambler' is another Quest-Ritson star, a rambling rose bred in 1904. It will climb to about 15ft and has clusters of soft pink flowers, double, but not so well scented as 'Alexandre Girault'.

Mrs Quest-Ritson sends out her roses, mail order, only when they are dormant, between November and March. "They establish so much more easily then," she explained. "If you can plant in November, the ground is still warm enough for the roots to make some growth, then the roses get away much better in the following spring. If you plant in late spring, you have to treat the rose all summer as though it was still growing in its container. That means a good watering at least once a week."

About pruning, she is relaxed. So is Lt-Col Kenneth Grapes, secretary of the Royal National Rose Society. "You don't have to treat ramblers like raspberries," he says. "That used to be the advice. Cut out all the old growth. Tie in the new. But you can prune them much more lightly than that. It depends how much space you have got. And how much time."

Plenty of space, not a lot of time, would be Henry Robinson's answer. When he, his wife Susie and their young family moved into Moor Wood, north of Cirencester in Gloucestershire, their aim was to ungarden, rather than garden, the glorious sheltered valley that surrounds them.

Then a friend suggested that they should go in for ramblers. "It seemed like a good idea at the time," says Mr Robinson, with the heavy significance of a man who has since had other thoughts. Roses did not turn out to be quite the trouble-free option that he had dreamt of as a novice. But already he has the National Collection of rambler roses strewn over a wide area of the peaceful valley in which the house sits. They are planted on farm cottages, in copses and on orchard trees - 125 ramblers and 84 other sorts, all neatly logged on his computer.

Mrs Robinson organised the colours into different groups. Reds are down behind the dairy cottage, cream and peach colours in the wildflower orchard, pinks and whites in the remains of the Edwardian garden that sits on the other side of the valley, looking back at the house.

The garden opens to the public for the first time this month. "Oh, don't say we are a garden," say the Robinsons. "Visitors will expect edges and no weeds." Very well. The ungarden, tucked away in a fold of the Cotswolds at Woodmancote, is open 28 June (2-6pm). Admission pounds 1.50.

For a list of Bridget Quest-Ritson's rose catalogue, send 50p to: Corsley Mill, Highfield House, High Street, Shrewton, Salisbury, Wiltshire SP3 4BU.

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