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David Austin's English Roses Battle for Perfection
By Norman Winter
Central Mississippi Research & Extension Center
Now that Mother's Day is over, I would like to pose a question. What is the perfect rose?
When I was executive director of the American Rose Society, I loved to ask that in a group because it was almost certain to start a skirmish. If there were a few more rose growers in the world, we could probably start a small war with the question.
Before we go further, let me explain that I grow hybrid teas, antiques, grandifloras, miniatures, floribundas and the subject of this week's article, David Austin's English Roses.
Even though I love antique roses, I wish they bloomed more. They have a fragrance that seems to be gone in many hybrid teas. I love the look of the old cabbage rose or Rosa centifolia that Josephine Bonaparte's artist, Pierre Joseph Redoubte, made so famous.
With these requirements, the only group of roses that can claim first prize in my book is David Austin's English Roses.
Austin has a new, revised book called David Austin's English Roses, published by Little, Brown and Company. What is most admirable about the book is that Austin himself grades his roses on a scale of four stars equals outstanding to one star being below average. Some catalogues could take a lesson from him.
He also rates fragrance in a similar fashion. But to really top it off are a few pages where he lists his roses that he no longer recommends. These roses are still for sale, mind you, and some are excellent here in the South.
Austin gives us an idea of his unique breeding style by grouping his more than 100 roses into five strains. The first he calls the Old Rose strain, and it has gallica roses in its breeding. Roses like Wife of Bath, Mary Rose and one of my favorites L.D. Braithwaite fall in this group. L. D. Braithwaite is a deep red that repeats nicely in my garden and holds its color well.
The second group is the Heritage strain. These roses are related to a popular floribunda Iceberg, and include Heritage, Perdita and the ever-popular Graham Thomas. The third is the Portland strain named after the Portland group of roses. Two of the famous roses in this group are Gertrude Jekyll and the Countryman.
Gloire De Dijon is the name of the fourth strain and an old noisette rose. Jayne Austin, Sweet Juliet and Evelyn are examples of this strain. Evelyn is heavenly in fragrance and was chosen by Crabtree and Evelyn to be used in some of their product lines. The final strain is Aloha, a modern day climbing rose. Charles Austin and my favorite, Abraham Darby, are examples.
The one thing I may disagree with the book on is the height Austin says his roses reach. In almost every case in the South, they get at least two feet taller than the book says.
David Austen also recommends placing the roses in groups of three to five bushes for the best display. This definitely works, but they also work as specimen plantings. The larger ones can be trained as small climbers or pegged to give a gorgeous shrub look.
There are scores of David Austin roses to try, and in my experience, there are few if any failures in his selections. As these are repeat flowering shrubs, one should aim at building a well-shaped bushy plant, while keeping in mind the natural height.
In Mississippi, it is probably best to cut roses back by 1/3 after the first year. In subsequent years, cut out weak, twiggy growth and dead or diseased wood. As the bushes age, cut out some of the older wood to its base to make way for new growth. Branches can be cut back by 1/3 to 1/2 if needed, but I prefer light pruning or selective pruning.
Roses need five to six hours of direct sun each day. Morning sun is essential, but afternoon shade is tolerated. Good air movement helps the dew and rain dry quickly, discouraging disease. Plant on raised beds with plenty of organic matter incorporated. Avoid planting under eaves or gutters where bushes can be damaged by falling water.
Plant your roses where they are easy for you to watch and enjoy. This will also keep you tuned to any insect or disease problems. Water with soaker hoses instead of overhead sprinklers to greatly enhance your success.