A rose for a tight spot

Hephzibah Anderson scents success in a pot

Root and Branch

If there isn’t a word for it, then there should be: that curdled mix of feelings — none of them noble — that ambush a gardener forced to watch others doing it all wrong. It’s especially potent when the gardener in question has no real garden of their own. That would be me.

Ordinarily, the allotment suffices with its serried rows of veg, its oral fringes — an extravagance according to most allotment societies — and my ever-evolving fortifications against pests earthbound and winged. At the day’s extremities, when morning dew still beads the tall summer grass or an autumn dusk sharpens the cidery scent of wasp-hollowed windfalls, it feels like the greatest gift.

I’ve been yearning for a green space to step straight out into, a place in which to potter as well as to toil

But lately, I’ve been yearning for a green space to step straight out into, a place in which to potter as well as to toil. Looking through the kitchen window, riveted as neighbours commit all manner of novice sins in their newly-discovered backyards — tender plugs planted well before the threat of frosts has passed, the slow, sadistic butchering of a young fruit tree — that longing has been making me mean.

So I’ve turned to the collection of mismatched pots outside the front door. Our house sits on the corner of a curved Victorian terrace, a spot doused in exhaust fumes come rush hour but which also enjoys full sun well into the afternoon.

This minuscule pavement garden brings out the best and the worst in passers-by, too: there are beer cans and kebab wrappers to be shed out on a Sunday morning, but then an anonymous note of appreciation will land on the doormat.

Acreage is one of the least essential requirements for pleasing planting — a pocket square of communal garden in the heart of Manhattan can enchant as fully as any château grounds — and at its best, this tiny patch has been fragrant with lavender and scented geraniums. Lupins and Abyssinian gladiolus have added height, with a clematis and passion flower arching upwards to tangle above the doorway.

It’s not just a summer garden, either: with conscientious care, feeding, and compost that’s replaced at least every other year, hellebores, primula auriculas and wallflowers will all flourish in pots during chillier months.

But in the spring rush to start seedlings off, my miniature oasis has languished. In particular, a gap has been left by the passion flower, which after a vigorous five years, finally succumbed to its pot’s sluggish drainage. And so, while it may not be the ideal place — roses can be prickly customers even without the added challenges of container-growing — now feels as good a time as any to install one of the plants that I’ve always held off  growing in anticipation of someday,
somehow, acquiring a garden: a scented rose.

Few flowers are as culturally freighted. A symbol of everything from wars and politics to eternal love, the rose twines through history, religion and literature. Here in the UK, it has long been part of our image of a certain kind of bucolic idyll.

While their names can evoke unbridled lust (the Cuisse de Nymphe Emue translates as thigh of an aroused nymph), roses attract a good deal of uptight snobbery. The so-called old roses are aristocratic in their lineage, but change came in the same year as the French Revolution, when the China rose, chinensis, arrived in Europe flaunting a novel trick: the ability to flower more than once a season.

In the centuries since, floral fashion has wended its way from hybrid teas, famed for the “bud flowers” so beloved by Victorians, to the gaudy yellows and vermilions of the disease-prone arrivistes bewailed by the likes of Vita Sackville-West. Along with subtlety, fragrance has been a casualty, but in recent decades, old roses have been staging a comeback.

One fan of their charms was champion rose breeder David Austin, who crossed gallicas, damasks and centifolias with hybrid teas and floribundas. I was sent to interview him some years back, and found a modest, quietly-spoken octogenarian, shy around the subject of beauty. The breeding process was savage: for every three or four new roses that made it into the company’s catalogue, around 80,000 fell by the wayside.

I learnt, too, that there’s an art to smelling roses, involving twirling the bloom between forefinger and thumb, swirling its fragrance like a fine vintage to detect notes of ripe peaches or green tea. It’s a David Austin rose that now sits on my doorstep. The Generous Gardener — my green-fingered atonement for all that green-eyed kitchen sink fuming — promises the palest of pink flowers, heavily scented with Old Rose, myrrh and musk.

She’s prone to a swarm of saboteurs named specially for her kind, including the rose leafhopper and the rose slug sawfly, not to mention black spot, honey fungus and the ubiquitous rose dieback, so I’ve given her the best start I can, topping off her compost with a mulch of well-rotted horse manure. It might even deter the litterbugs.

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