‘Moses supposes his toeses are roses, but Moses supposes erroneously…’ So sang Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor in Singin’ in the Rain. They were just carrying on a long cultural tradition for, more than any other flower, the rose has played a part in our lives for many centuries throughout the world.
Every civilisation worth its salt, from the Egyptians and the Romans to the Chinese and Babylonians, has grown roses whether for distillation into scent, to provide petals for scattering at the feet of empresses or just to look good in a garden. In spite of all our technology and the general whizziness of 21st-century life, the magic still holds: we are all suckers for a perfect rose.
Oddly, for a plant so redolent of warm June evenings and the lazy buzz of bees, it is in the deep cold of winter that we should be thinking about roses. Not that long ago, all flowers were planted in the autumn or winter while they were, if not already dormant, pretty sleepy. Nurseries would dig them up and despatch them wrapped in newspaper to customers up and down the country. All this changed in the Sixties with the introduction of the plastic pot and the garden centre. Suddenly we could buy plants whenever we wanted and plant them out year round with no adverse effects.
Not so for the rose and bareroot hedging (hawthorns, beech, blackthorns etc) however.
There are sound reasons for this: roses planted bare rooted during winter will become established more quickly and grow better. This is because they can be moved around and stored with little stress or disturbance during the colder, rainier months when they are dormant. Not such fun for the gardener in the cold and wet but all that discomfort will pay off in the spring. As the soil warms up, the plant is already established and will usually flower well right from its first season.
‘Huh,’ you may think, ‘I don’t much fancy all that cold weather stuff, there’s no rush. I can always buy container roses in the spring.’
Of course you can, but there are around 800 varieties of rose available to order bare rooted but only a very small percentage of them will be available in containers and all of those will be the more commonplace varieties. If you buy bare rooted then your choice is much, much wider – and one of the great excitements of gardening is growing new and different plants. If that’s not enough to persuade you, here’s another reason: bare-rooted roses are more economical.
Choosing your wild rose
The next thing to decide is which of the aforementioned 800-odd roses to choose. We all know about the basic types of rose – the hybrid teas, the old-fashioned musk and Galicia roses, the floribundas and the miniature-flowered ground-cover numbers – but perhaps you would prefer something different.
There is a whole range of wilder roses that are just perfect for hedges or the more naturalised part of your garden; varieties that are perhaps a bit more resilient and much less likely to fall victim to black spot, rust and all the other annoying troubles that affect garden roses.
First among these tougher numbers are the rugosa roses. They are spiny-stemmed plants with wide-mouthed flowers, which are often scented and repeat flowering into the autumn. They produce wonderful plump, colourful hips, which extend the season and are excellent food for birds and other wildlife; also full of vitamin C, as those of you who were brought up on rosehip syrup will remember.
Some varieties (notably ‘Blanc Double de Coubert’, ‘Agnes’ and ‘Sarah van Fleet’) are double flowered but my favourites are probably the straight white ‘Alba’ or the pale pink ‘Fru Dagmar Hastrup’. Any of these will make a gorgeous thick, burglar-defying hedge about six feet high; for a smaller hedge, try Rosa x micrugosa alba, which is about 45cm (18in) shorter. To prune, just cut it back when it gets too big.
For the wilder parts of your garden – or to liven up a corner – there is a whole range of roses from around the world that are not used nearly enough even though they are mostly trouble free. I love the pale yellow Dunwich Rose with ferny foliage, which grows into a neat mound about 60cm (2ft) high and 90cm (3ft) wide; its ancestors lived on windy cliffs by the sea.
Other suitable wild things for small gardens include Rosa nitida (90cm/3ft high with spanky pink flowers, red hips and good autumn leaf colour), Rosa spinosissima ‘Mrs Colville’ with reddy purple flowers and the deep pink ‘Single Cherry’ (although be warned, spinosissima means what it says: very spiny!) or the grandly named double-flowered Rosa roxburghii ‘Plena’.
For something a bit heftier you could try the great Rosa gallica ‘Complicata’, which has big pink flowers with smiling yellow centres, or the truly gorgeous Rosa moyesii ‘Geranium’ with its brilliant red flowers and elongated orange-red hips.
If you have lots of space, go crazy and plant Rosa sweginzowii, which can get to about 3m (10ft) tall and will deter the most determined intruder.
Finally, may I draw your attention to a very special rose called Rosa sericea pteracantha? Not only does it have good creamy white flowers but it also has staggeringly beautiful translucent scarlet thorns that glint in the sunshine like burnished breastplates.
My only warning about most of these varieties is that – unlike many of the more domesticated types – they do not flower all summer. However, their fleeting moments will, I promise, be glorious and they almost all have magnificent hips as compensation.
For more on wild plants, find out about growing British wildflowers.
Golden rules for growing roses
There are a couple of golden rules about roses: they will not be happy in deep shade as they need about four to five hours of sunshine a day to thrive. Secondly, they love a bit of muck: plant them with some well-rotted organic matter and mulch around them each year, and they will be suitably grateful. And grateful and healthy roses can mean only three things: lots of flowers, lots of scent and lots of happiness.
Your bare-root roses will arrive in the post: plant them as soon as you can. If the weather is too vile or the ground is frozen, store them somewhere frost free but not too warm – you don’t want them waking up – until you can get them in the ground.
A scattering of mycorrhizal fungi (from all good garden centres) will help roses get established quickly. This is a prehistoric fungus that stimulates the plant to create a secondary root system, to extract water and nutrients from
the soil. Wet the roots of the rose and, as you hold the plant over the hole, scatter a handful of mycorrhizal fungi onto the root system before planting.
If the roots have been battered in transit, you can cut off the damaged sections without hurting the plant.
For more on growing bare-root roses, read Val Bourne's bare-root planting guide.