Robin McKinley
Notes on the Roses

The Yellow Book, here in England, is a best seller every year. Itís a list of the private gardens open to the public in England and Wales, with a terse individual description and opening dates for each and a handful of photos of a few of the more spectacular, by the auspices and for the benefit of a big national charity organisation well staffed by overachieving volunteers. There are about 3500 of theseógardens, not volunteers, although maybe volunteers tooóand we and our garden have been in it (we open three or four times in the summer) since before I moved over here and married Peter and became part of the show. Iím not actually very good at being part of the show; I tend to hide in the shrubbery with my trowel and try to avoid catching peopleís eyes while Peter is out there exchanging witticisms with all and sundry, based on a common knowledge of all the effing Latin effing plant names, which I do not share, and making frequent references to his wife, which Iím sure many of our visitors go away suspecting is his little joke, and that I am entirely imaginary, and nothing to do with the scowling goblin in the bushes. Iím with garden visitors the way I am with book reviews or face to face meetings with readers: I forget the 1,000,000,000 nice ones to brood relentlessly about the dim, the daft, and the downright rude. Like the woman who rushed up to me after having one of these jolly Latinate conversations with Peter, as I stood there with a trowel in one hand, a bucket of weeds in the other, and dirty knees, to say, "Itís so wonderful that he does all this himself! Isnít it wonderful that he does all this himself?" (This on the whole is an even less attractive approach than that of the gentleman who asked Peter, of me the afternoon in question raising havoc with the roses Iíve managed to yank space away from the leeks and the broad beans to plant, "Is that your girlie in the vegetable garden?") It would be wonderful, if he did. Itís pretty wonderful that the two of us with a part-time gardener-shaped body and a certain quantity of effective blackmail applied to friends and family manage to do as much of it as we do, and itís still a large, untidy, out-of-control garden (although not as out of control as our large untidy house, but we donít open that to the public). People who like unbridled riot tend to like our garden. People who like orderly flower-beds, tasteful statuary, well-grouped shrubs and well-chosen specimen trees, and a general sense that anyone seems to have any aim in mind, tend to walk through it looking like prunes, and depart quickly.

A few years ago, as a combination FAQ-equivalent and a measured, thoughtful response to the fact that nothing short of chaining me to a short stake in the middle of the lawn was going to make me get out there and mingle, Peter and I wrote up Ďnotesí on the garden, copies of which are left at the front gate where youíre obliged to pay to get in and again near the entrance to the walled garden at the back of the house where the Compleat Ye Olde England-ee Cottage Garden Perennial Bed Thing falls on you with a hurrah, and if weíre lucky youíll be so busy being dazzled that you wonít notice that thereís still no discernable organising rationale about it beyond that the walled garden has, you know, walls, and that rather than sticking things in here and there at the point where we didnít feel like walking any farther carrying them, which mostly pertains at the front of the house, there in the back everything is crammed in as tightly as possible in the beds around the edges under the walls, and the double width middle borders down the centre. (The empty bits are mowed green stuff, to make them look like lawn. Very little of the mowed green stuff is real grass, but mowed weeds look remarkably grasslike.)

Anyway. Maybe Iíll hang some photos of the garden on this site some day. Meanwhile here is my essay on the roses. Speaking of garden visitors, very pleasing one opening shortly after weíd started having the essays available, to overhear between two giggling readers: "These people can really write, you know?" Well I hope so.

Where I lived in Maine the ground is frozen from about the first of November to the end of March, and roses are known, only half-jokingly, as annuals. I didnít garden in Maine; I had trees and boulders instead. I have always loved roses theoreticallyóin books, in art, in floristsí shops, in other peopleís gardens in other parts of the worldóand Peter, showing me around this garden for the first time, said, "I suppose you will want more roses." Peterís first wife, Mary Rose, had been a rose lover, and there were about seventy varieties here then. "More roses?" I replied. "Er. I suppose. Certainly." I put in something like fifty roses my first winter. There are over five hundred here now; I stopped counting two years ago.

We initially dug two new rose beds in the vegetable garden (to your right as you go through the door from the walled garden) with a trellis behind the farther one, where I was supposed to keep my new hobby, and out of Peterís more traditional beds and borders in the rest of the garden. That theory didnít survive the first year. Those vegetable garden beds have struck out in all directions sinceóplus I keep seeing rose-sized holes in the existing borders in the walled garden, and in the beds around the front of the house. Where there arenít enough holes, we put in new beds.

I started out believing rose labels and catalogue descriptions, and I started out mostly putting in repeat flowerers, especially modern hybrid teas and floribundas. There are still a number of roses here in the Ďif I had but knowní category, but until they positively expire I will probably keep them on. Then I began to be more suspicious, to disbelieve the amazing blooms in flower shows as having anything to do with what these bushes would do in my garden, and to realise that Ďneeds extra care to give of its bestí usually means Ďdead on deliveryí. I also stopped listening to people (chiefly my husband) complaining about what ugly bushes roses are out of their season, so that I could put in more of the (mostly) older, frequently bigger, once-flowering shrub roses. Peter really has only himself to blame: years before my arrival he put in the alba rose Konigin von Danemark which is probably my favourite rose of all time, for all that she has huge hooked thorns that impale you and tiny ones that get under your skin and fester, and is about seven feet tall and only in flower for three weeks in midsummer. But oh those three weeks.

I am still experimenting with care and feeding; I have many opinions but few conclusionsóyet. At present I try to give everyone a good thick layer of rotted muck [manure] sometime over the winter (earlier rather than later if I can manage it), and then the repeat-flowerers each get a handful of proprietary rose-food around midsummer. (This winter we didnít quite manage our farmyard muck delivery and Iíve been using that super-concentrated super-intensive super-expensive stuff that comes in bags, and unfortunately the roses seem to adore it.) I am inclined to believe John Scarman in Growing Old Roses that the old once-flowerers donít handle brand-name fertilizer well, and it is better to stick with muck for them. But I think I should be feeding them all even more, given the way I cram the bushes together, and maybe next year.... And yes, we do spray. This is an old garden at the bottom of a valley, and blackspot and aphis are savage; mildew and rust are merely bad. Iíve tried some of the more organic controls, thinking that if we could spray less often the extra labour would be worthwhile; but the things Iíve tried have not only not worked, they appear to have had no effect at all, which is disheartening.

I have never liked pruning hard, as some authorities recommend; it seems to me that youíre wasting both your own and your plantís time, since the first thing it will do is try to grow back out to the size it wants to be before it gets around to producing flowers, and not even the most besotted rose-grower grows roses for the bush. I am developing my own erratic, by eye, bush-by-bush method: a bush that is doing well and is happy will be tidied up and left, mostly, to get on with it; a bush that is not doing well may, one year, be pruned hard and fed extra, another year pruned lightly and not fed extra, a third year sworn at, and a fourth year put on the bonfire. But it depends: every bush probably needs a hard prune occasionally and every bush occasionally needs to be left alone. The only rule is there are no rules. I also try to take into account where a given bush is and how its neighbours are doing, whether I see it in other Hampshire gardens or other specialist rose gardens (one thing worth doing is visiting nurseriesí rose fields and seeing whoís doing well there), and how many conflicting descriptions I can find of it in my library of rose books and catalogues. I also keep my own notes; some roses do better in hot dry seasons and some (perversely) best love summers so rainy their flowers hardly have a chance to open between downpours.

The bottom line is, however, that my roses, like everything else in this garden, are rather out of Peterís and my control. This is to some extent as we wish it to be; plants have minds of their own and we donít always know best. But my apologies for the more conspicuous manifestations of my biting off more than I can chew.


I wrote this, I think, four years ago, and itís interesting to notice that my unmethodical methods are continuing to hem and haw and dither their way along. Iím a crunchy-granola organic dingdong by nature and this essential quality is slowly but determinedly reshaping my gardening practises too. I forcibly converted our vegetable growing to pure organics more or less immediately on arrival in England (I wasnít doing all the work, you understand, I was just having domination tantrums about how it must be done), but thereís a bit of a credibility gap there when youíre still spraying the bejeezus out of the roses which may be standing in the next bed over. Things began coming to a conspicuous head two years ago when I started having health problems that might, thatís only might, have some relationship with all the organo-phosphates and bug-spray floating around in the atmosphere. I canít do much about what the farmers are chucking into and over their fields all around us here in the agricultural sticks but I can stop dousing my own garden in weird chemicals. We didnít spray at all last year, and I stopped using brand-name fertilisers: which therefore includes not tossing in an extra course of the latter when I didnít get all the way round the rose-beds with the muck the winter before. (And if youíre not careful you can get waaaaay in over your head, trying to plan out the perfect rose diet. Thereís the this and the that and the other and the top up and the extra and the blah, blah, and blah, and theyíve all got funny names and the percentages of your desirables varies among your available sources, and you have to add them to the soil or the water or the spray-tank at precise intervals, and all the experts have a different idea about what works best anyway. You need a PhD in horticultural nutrition at least. Which I have not got. Disorganisation, incapacity and absent-mindedness are sometimes my friends.)

I had, to begin with, bought into the idea that you canít grow roses without chemicals. Thatís what the experts all say. Itís certainly true you canít grow some roses without chemicals, and Iíve pulled a lot of those out in the last two years, and some of them were very beautiful and much loved and I miss them. And this is still an old, disease- and bug-prone garden at the bottom of a valley, and not a great place to choose to try to grow healthy additive-free roses. But Iím trying. Iíd settle for spotty and erratic but alive.

(And just by the way, try talking to a professional rose-grower about the bad constitutions of many roses and the industryís dependence on us, its customers, being willing to drown their gardens in chemicals: and even a career politician well steeped in waffle and infamy couldnít tap-dance around an issue any faster. Iím sure there are exceptions to this rule. I just havenít met any yet. The only sign of progress Iíve noticed so far is that an increasing number of catalogue listings include the phrase Ďdisease resistantí. I havenít noticed that these roses are detectably more disease resistant, but I admit Iím a little cynical.)

Here are a few things I seem to be learning thus far: there are two kinds of roses. The ones that, when you jerk their chemical crutches out from under them, fall down in a heap and never move again, till you get around to hoicking the remains out and putting them on the bonfire (and then exchanging a lot of earth around the spot in case Ďreplant diseaseí isnít a myth, so you can put in a new rose and try again). And the ones that start out like this but change their minds and decide to try to survive. Iím still very much in the early stages of discovery; thereís a sub class of the former that take a while to die . . . and a sub class of the latter that die anyway. And which roses behave which way(s) are constantly surprising. The wizened little runts that have never done anything much may continue quietly to do nothing much. You have to remember theyíre there so you donít kneel on them when youíre weeding (ow ow ow ow), but they give you the occasional flower and I donít take anything out unless itís dead. Then the great boisterous hoodlums with a dozen stems as thick as the neck of a champagne bottle that rip holes in your favourite sweatshirts and bury the pansies you planted under them in several inches of flower-petals may keel over in a season. But I canít even say for sure that any of these are or arenít dying merely because Iíve stopped spraying and using proprietary fertilisers; they may be dying (or not dying) because of the particular weather weíve had (or not had), or the particular fluctuations in the wildlife, or because thereís some complementary (or anti-complementary) thing going on among some of them and their non-rose neighbours that Iím not aware of. They might have died (or not died) even if they were being sprayed and given the plant form of High Protein Extra Vitamins and Minerals Super Magnifico Boost Powder. Never try to become a gardener if youíre the personality type that must know things.

But one of the ideas Iíve been sort of slowly grinding my way toward is, if the reason old roses, bred and established before the modern chemical explosion of magic bullets, donít like proprietary fertiliser is because it encourages them to produce too much too weak growth that is then going to get nailed by some nasty or other . . . isnít this likely still to be happening in something of the same way even to modern roses which have been intensively bred to produce as many flowers as they can at the expense of everything else, including resilience and robustness? Iíd be happy to trade fewer flowers for tougher, more durable plants. (As my latest t-shirt says, Where is your fairy godmother when you need her?) Hmmmmmm.... One of the things Iím still struggling with is that it often takes a lot longer for anything to happen (except sudden death) than the experts tell you. But it doesnít take three months or six months or a year for even well-rotted muck and compost to make its presence felt, sometimes anyway: it takes a year. Or even two. Itís going to take a while to find out what happens when my roses really get all those drugs out their systems.

Ask me again in another couple of years.

Copyright © 2002 by Robin McKinley

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