Troy Scott Smith extols the joys of deadheading roses.
When I returned to Sissinghurst in early spring 2013, I planted one of my favourite roses, the rambler Albertine, to climb up the front of our cottage. In just three seasons, it has soared to the first floor and now, when I sit at my desk, the delicate fragrance of its blooms a cocktail of freshly cut meadow grass and tinned pineapple streams in through an open window. For three weeks in June, the air at Sissinghurst hangs heavy with the lovely perfume of 100 roses.
Vita was particularly fascinated by plants with historical or literary associations, her passion for plants having been shaped by her love of the old Dutch flower paintings and by the plant species she saw on her travels to places such as Persia and the Alps.
The romantic associations of old flowers, with their connections to the past, to painters and far-away places, influenced her choice. Of all Sissinghurst’s flowers, it was the rose that most captured Vita’s imagination and so it is that roses are typical of its soft abundance, subtlety and romance.
Both Vita and Harold felt that Sissinghurst ‘lent itself kindly to their untidy, lavish habit; there was space a plenty, with the walls to frame their exuberance’; consequently, ‘roses may be found growing in a jungle, sprawling, intertwining, barely tamed and foaming in an unorthodox way’.
Vita’s earliest roses were grown in what is now the White Garden, but it wasn’t long before her collection outgrew that space and a new Rose Garden was created in the Rondel Garden in 1937 to accommodate them. Vita filled it with every kind of old rose, including masses of climbers that covered virtually every available wall.
Her diaries and notebooks have abundant references to roses and there are records of purchases from, among others, Bunyard of Maid-stone, Hilda Murrell, Graham Stuart Thomas at Hillings and Constance Spry. Relishing their colours, scent, form and beauty, she felt that their merits far outweighed their flowering only once during a season.
When we say ‘old roses’, what we mean are all those that were bred before 1867, when the first Hybrid Tea called La France appeared. They are divided up into several groups: centifolias, albas, gallicas, Mosses, Damasks and Bourbons. Unlike modern roses, unless judicious and skilled winter pruning is carried out, the blooms of all these old roses will be few and fleeting.
The technique involves pulling the long, supple wands of growth made this season down in an arc and anchoring them in position. This bending of shoots horizontally prevents the sap simply rising to the top of each stem; instead, flowers will be encouraged to break out from every joint. The basic principles of removing dead, diseased, weak and crossing growth remains the same and all of the remaining shoots should be shortened by about a third.
A proportion of the older wood should be removed completely to encourage strong growth shoots from the base. A balance bet-ween production of flowering wood and growth wood to form a framework is the desirable optimum. Remember, the harder you prune and the less bend you put on a shoot, the more extension growth will be produced. Those shoots bent more horizontally will be studded with flowers along their entire length.
With the old roses, it’s more important during the flowering season to make time to dead- head spent flowers for every perfect bloom, there will be another two or three that have finished and will be unsightly unless removed. At Sissinghurst, we’re fortunate to have two teams of volunteers who come over an eight-week period to help (the only criterion is to leave those roses that produce decorative hips later in the year).