Seeking rich, colourful reward for little toil? An old-school thorny friend sets the standard. By Helen Razer.

Coming up roses

Roses in full bloom at Flemington Racecourse, Melbourne Cup Day 2013.
Roses in full bloom at Flemington Racecourse, Melbourne Cup Day 2013.
Credit: Bryce Dunkley
I must have lived with roses for 20 years without giving them mulch or attention. Even left to the uneven care of a tenant, they produce a mild beauty that offers the investor good profit not easily lost to drought or mildew. Just $30 buys a standard rose – the popular bush grafted to height on the rootstock of another plant – and will establish and maintain a hint of Country Home in little more than a year of seasons.

Of course, these days the property investor prefers yuccas, birds of paradise and other “sculptural” monstrosity that cause me to crave a camellia or any retro planting from a garden where no one saw the need to seem sustainable. But, with or without river pebbles or ugly Murcutt flashes of corrugated iron, roses will survive on little water and bloom modestly through years of unconcern. 

Roses are tough. Modern hybridised varieties are bred to bloom big for a decade through difficult conditions, but heritage varieties offer more modest shows even through dry centuries. Co-founded by Pamela Puryear, a group of floral vigilantes called the Rose Rustlers seek and find old breeds growing in the hot ghost towns of Texas. Pamela reclaimed the China rose “Old Blush” still in flower next to an abandoned log cabin.

Roses survive drought and abandonment by settlers. What the forgotten cemeteries of rural Australia might lack in new, um, clients, they make up for in old cultivars. The nation’s best heritage displays are often left to the dead who enjoy near-forgotten roses such as spicy climber Cécile Brunner. 

This pink antique, also known as the “Sweetheart Rose”, is dainty enough to grow in a pot and modest enough to occupy a gentleman’s buttonhole through a lifetime of social seasons. Rare old-fashioned rambling roses can be ordered online from specialty local growers and they will outlast and outshine the hideous protea or any number of conspicuously “sustainable” plants.

Roses are, in fact, so indestructible that neighbour Iris doesn’t bother with them. Apparently, “roses are for loafers” and Iris is no bum. She likes the challenge of ongoing disaster and a plant that is beautiful, productive and drought-tolerant offers so little in the way of perennial despair. Iris is hardcore.

All she wants is an unattainable bad boy that withholds emotional reward. (I should point out that Ray, her husband, treats Iris and her garden with the greatest respect. A girl needs drama somewhere, I guess.)

A great garden mainstay that weighs the air with fragrance and its long boughs with blooms might not suit Iris and her program of grand suffering in the service of difficult plants. But agony is only for the greatest artists. The rest of us have roses. 

1 . When in doubt, cut it out

“Roses won’t die from a lack of attention or water but they certainly respond to both,” says Terry Freeman. The grounds and garden manager at Flemington Racecourse, home to the nation’s biggest race and its biggest public rose garden, has more than 16,000 plants in his care. Freeman has just overseen the season’s major pruning and now is the time for all of us to plant and prune our roses.

The rule “when in doubt, cut it out” should be observed by timid pruners, says Freeman. 

The aggressive pruning most roses enjoy is an yearly act of legitimate destruction that can be enjoyed almost as much as the flowers this violence engenders. My own experience as a terrible butcher has been that roses are pretty hard to kill. I once pruned my standards and climbers while drunk. I do not advise this but I can report that they can survive even the crudest amputations. And they love to have their blooms trimmed around mid-summer when the first show is done. Do this again in early autumn for an extended season that can last up to nine months.

But now it’s down to winter business. If you live with a rose, get a clean pair of secateurs; possibly a pruning saw to remove old, stubborn canes. First “remove the old wood,” says Freeman. “Roses flourish on new growth and, obviously, not on dead wood.” You will be looking to have no remaining cane thicker, he says, than a pencil. If you are pruning a climber, look to leave a pattern of canes arranged like a horizontally opened fan. For a bush or standard, you should take care to remove central canes. “If you open up the centre of the bush, it will receive more air and sun.”

A warm, well-aired plant is a more disease-resistant plant and you may not need to treat it for the common black spot. This is easy to diagnose – look for black spots – and easy to treat. Combine one part regular milk with nine parts water in a clean container and spray. Powdery mildew, which looks just like a powdery mildew, is a common effect of humidity. Commercial sprays are available. However, Freeman says the domestic gardener can combine five litres of water with three teaspoons of sodium bicarbonate, or baking soda, and 30 millilitres of white oil. You can make your own horticultural oil with soap and vegetable oil but this recipe uses a dilution based on the commercial variety.

A preparation like this may also kill aphids. Iris likes killing aphids, whose unctuous green evil claims a range of flowering plants, with her bare hands. But when I am invaded, I use pyrethrum. It degrades quickly and kills that menace called thrip. I think of these tiny bastards less as insects and more as a sort of haze of geometric hate. They appear in the air individually as a white line and collectively as a cloud of pale death. Try to target bad bugs directly with the spray, avoiding helpful insects such as lacewings.

You might also grow marigolds and decorative garlic near your rose as their natural pungency reduces the need for insect control. These, along with onions or chives, mask the rose’s scent. This year, I am martyring nasturtiums for the greater good. Sacrificial soldiers can be embedded a metre or so away from your prize plant. Don’t pop them directly underneath, as roses like to spread their roots.

Do remember this propensity when you are planting this winter, and give the thing a big pot or a nice hole. Right now, you can buy bagged roses at a garden centre for about a tenner or a heritage variety by mail order for about double that cost. Terry reminds us to be careful not to bend the bare roots upward; you can actually trim them if they’re a trifle too long. And never go off for a cuppa in the middle of planting and let the bare roots dry out. In fact, keep the thing in a bucket of water in the shade as you make a mound of dirt onto which you’ll place the centre of the plant, allowing its roots to trail out and down. Cover the root system thoroughly, gently and not, for grafted plants, above the graft. And mulch. You live in Australia, so this is compulsory. 

You can feed your roses a solid meal about a month after pruning or planting. I use blood and bone and a bit of potash because that’s what is in my shed and damned if I’m paying Those Prices for specialty fertiliser. Iris would laugh at me. You can use these multipurpose feeders or you can just use diluted seaweed or fish emulsion; apply it first to the base in winter and then in weaker solutions direct to the plant when she’s in flower. Or you can risk Iris’s derision and buy Sudden Impact for Roses as they do at Flemington. 

While my roses may not be spring carnival-ready, they are much improved. The plants I had neglected for so long persisted in my yard. But when roses began to be pulled from so many other gardens to make way for yuccas, I bought my first pair of loppers and committed myself to their surprisingly easy care. Whether you select dowdily named but delightful patio roses for your small space, or a grand old rambler to hide your piece-of-shit garden shed, roses will bring pleasure in most Australian climates for much of the year.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 28, 2014 as "Coming up roses".

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Helen Razer is a writer and broadcaster. She is The Saturday Paper’s television critic and gardening columnist.

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