A conversation with East London-based Landscape and Garden Design expert, Miria Harris about her
love of English Roses and how they play their part in a more urban landscape.
I once had one of my gardens described as a firework display in slow motion. A visual that struck a chord. The idea of a slowmoving theatrical performance is something that is always in my mind when I’m plotting out a garden. Gardens aren’t static, so you always must think dynamically when you design them. Very early on in my career as a landscape designer I decided that roses need not always take the lead role; that sometimes it is ok for them to be part of the chorus and play a different part. In truth, I very rarely treat them as specimen shrubs and allow them to dominate a scene. Instead, the position they occupy in the gardens I design is part structural, part perennial flower. I will often plant roses close together in groups of threes and, where space allows, repeat these groups across a planting scheme. I will hide roses in amongst ornamental grasses or herbaceous perennials and leave strict instructions that they are to be kept in check, each plant never allowed to get bigger than a handheld bouquet of flowers from the florist. In a front garden in Hampstead, Desdemona went head-to head with Lavandula ‘Hidcote’ in a battle for perfume. It could easily have been a draw, but in my mind, it was very closely won by the delicate citrus almond sweet fragrance of the rose.
The structural quality of the rose is something that I thought a lot about when I set out to design a ‘kind of’ rose garden in Spitalfields. For its sculptural, procumbent habit, I turned to Smarty. At the centre of this garden, its open form wild rose-like blooms spill over the side of a 14th century font in frothy bundles that suggest a cascade of water. It is a theme I returned to again recently with a formal garden I designed for an estate in Kent. Originally a fountain had been planned, but when the clients got cold feet about the presence of open water and their small children, a trio of Emily Brontë worked brilliantly as a stand in; still giving that dramatic moment while also adding a sensory dimension to the garden.
Roses are not all prettiness and scent though and should not be dismissed as such. They can work really hard in a garden. When I want bang for my buck and space is limited (as is so often the case with city gardens) I will look to The Generous Gardener. It is a climbing rose that very rarely gets sick, has some thorns, but not so many that arm-gaiters are required, and will flower in the shadier parts of a garden. I often plant it next to a Trachelospermum jasminoides; the star jasmine providing evergreen coverage, the rose pops of pink, and both offering their own unique but complementary fragrances. However, while the jasmine has a relatively short floriferous moment, The Generous Gardener, is like its name, very giving, repeat flowering with bee-friendly blooms throughout the summer and into the autumn. In the micro-climate of the city, it also tends to hold onto its foliage all winter, earning in my mind, if not officially, a semi-evergreen status in the garden.
Pictured above and below: English Shrub Rose Desdemona® (Auskindling)
Choosing the ‘right’ rose is not just about selecting one that will perform well. It is also about how much time, in busy urban living, you have to actually ‘garden’. Often, people rule out roses because they think they are too much work and don’t sit well with the whole low maintenance, high impact holy grail. Of course, many roses are delicate flowers, but there are increasingly lots to choose from that are tough as old garden boots, and just because some people get obsessed with picking aphids off by hand, doesn’t mean you have to. Pruning doesn’t have to be a burden either. You really don’t have to study books and watch lots of YouTube videos. My advice is to be confident. Don’t dance around the edge. Cut out the dead, diseased and weak wood, then you decide how you want the plant to grow (what shape, what size etc.) and don’t be timid about cutting some flowers for a vase. In true theatrical fashion, a perfumed rose will smell even more sublime as it gasps its last breath.