I’ve been doing a great deal of gardening lately. I am always amused at the contrast between my city and my country incarnations: in Paris, I never leave the flat without jewellery, carefully applied lipstick, and high heels (I do not think I own a single pair of flat shoes!), but as soon as I arrive at my parents’ home in the country, I discard all attempts at Parisian chic, sometimes going for days without makeup, and clumping around the grounds in wellies or grubby canvas shoes filched from the closet under the attic stairs. By most standards, our estate is a small one, but it is nevertheless big enough for three German Shepherds to run about in – and for my parents to greet the arrival of a third pair of helping hands with heartfelt relief.
Earlier this year, we were obliged to cut down the diseased row of Gowen’s cypresses that led from the gate to the garage after a snow storm blew three of them down onto our new fences. We had awful visions of more crashing through the roof of the garage or collapsing on one of the cars and decided to take drastic action. The area had lain fallow ever since, a mess of wood chips and tangled roots which the ivy was rapidly taking over. Then, last week, my mother and I suddenly decided it was time to clean up: while my father resignedly carted piles of debris to the bonfire in the wheelbarrow, we dug and ripped and pulled with an energy we didn’t know we possessed.
To our surprise, we discovered that the soil there was very rich. So, fired with landscaping enthusiasm, we got my father to drive us to the nearest nursery and proceeded to fill the trunk of the car with loot. My mother got rosemary, thyme, and lavender to keep away pests. My father chose a small purple-flowering crape myrtle, a tree which is very popular along main streets and around village squares in our region. I lobbied for purple daisies and crimson roses – a “Grand Huit” and a “Chrysler Impérial”, both deliciously scented. It took us three days of industrious digging to get everything planted, and by the end of them, even muscles I never knew I had were screaming in protest. The result, however, was entirely worth the effort!
At last, worn out and aching all over, but feeling very virtuous and self-satisfied, I collapsed into the white wicker armchair on the patio, determined to get up again only to refill my glass of chilled fruit juice. The dogs sprawled at my feet, panting as if they had been the ones wielding the spade. And on the table at my side was a pile of gardening books filled with glossy photographs and long Latin names. I heaved a sigh of content – for there is almost nothing I like so well as leafing through plant catalogues and garden magazines, pencil and notepad in hand, and thinking up new improvements to the garden. Almost nothing, that is, except looking through a book on roses. There are many flowers I like – geraniums, peonies, camellias, dahlias, and poppies – but give me a choice between all of those put together and a single rose, and I will invariably choose the rose.
Gardening with Old Roses is the perfect book for rose aficionados. Its author, British landscaper John Scarman, worked with David Austin Roses before opening his own nursery, Cottage Garden Roses nursery, dedicated to old-fashioned and forgotten varieties of roses: full-petalled, ruffled, deliciously fragranced, and possessed of such lovely names as “Fantin-Latour, “Cuisse de Nymphe” or “Reine des Violettes”, these roses were bred in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for rose lovers like Empress Joséphine and immortalized by Fragonard and Redouté. Generations later, they could still be found in the gardens of our great-grandmothers – or among the pages of Miss Read’s novels. Thrown into the shade by the enthusiasm for more reliable, repeat-flowering modern varieties, old roses nevertheless retain a great deal of charm and Scarman shows just how rewarding it can be to cultivate them.
Gardening with Old Roses is informed by Scarman’s work at the Cottage Garden Roses nursery but also in the show garden of his home, Woodlands House. It is organized in four main chapters: Designing with Old Roses, Planting with Old Roses, Directory of Old Roses, and Caring for Old Roses. While everything was of interest, I was particularly taken with the first two chapters, which contain many helpful tips on creating successful rose gardens (whether this involves training roses up arches or pergolas, sending them cascading from the branches of a tree, or determining which plants will best offset them in a mixed border). The texts are clear, detailed, and informative, covering a wide and satisfying range of situations. They are accompanied by over two hundred colour photographs taken by Scarman’s wife which make the book a pleasure to leaf through and dream over (an important part of the gardening process, in my opinion!). My mother has had her copy of Gardening with Old Roses for almost fifteen years and it is still one of the best books on roses I have ever come across. Each time I pick it up, I put it down again feeling immeasurably refreshed and inspired.
© Florence Berlioz 2011