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Meet Diana Robertson from Drum Castle Garden

July 21st 2016

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Roses are like spoilt teenagers

To flourish, they need your love and full attention, but don’t expect to win

It is said that if you want beautiful roses in your garden you must carry roses in your heart. For a non-rosarian like myself, this is oh so true. I was brought into the Drum Castle Garden of Historic Roses to build the new garden as a skilled landscaper and not because I was a rose specialist. That bit of specialism I have had to acquire over the last 27 years, sometimes painfully but more often with a great deal of pleasure and dare I say it, I have even developed a love for roses.

The perfume of some roses fills me with huge nostalgia for my granny’s garden in Sidmouth in Devon, where a Chinese bowl sat with dried rose petals on the sideboard throughout the summer months. The buds of other rose varieties such as ‘Celestial’, a delicate pink Alba, remind me of picking buds and wrapping the stem in damp cotton wool and tin foil to use as a button hole at various older cousins’ weddings, great for sniffing at when the ceremony became boring.

Hips were of course great for making itching powder with, although this natural pastime seems to have gone out the door along with ‘soldier’s bullets’ (plantain seed-heads); barley head arrows and blades of Yorkshire fog grass for whistles. To be fair, I did see some children painstakingly making daisy chains the other day and another group had foxglove flowers as finger nails or fairy hats. So, some connections with the natural world still run on in the young.

I have always loved hips, bred as I was to make my own way in life from the very tender age of 8 and already earning 3d a pound for rose hips picked from the hedgerows around Dalkeith. Rose Hip syrup was a much nicer preventative to coughs and colds than the dreaded spoon of cod liver oil! Hips these days bring joy as a food for birds and insects alike and my pleasure now comes from the remarkable colours and shapes of the Rugosa hips and flagons produced by some of the shrub roses.

Growing roses anywhere can be a challenge as the season before dictates how well ripened the wood is and how much black spot will overwinter on stems and leaves that refuse to drop. Hot sunny weather brings all the blooms out at once and allows the chemicals that make the smell to be at their most intense. Too much hot sunny weather encourages the bloom to fade too quickly. You can’t win.

If it is too wet, the buds will ball and sulk and black spot will flourish. If it is too dry, the mildews will be prolific and the leaves become dusted with mildew spores and shrivel. This is why it is sometimes hard to love roses. You pamper them and they respond like spoiled teenagers, moody and morose. The number of times I have had visitors say their climbing rose thrives on neglect, flowers profusely every year, yet it is cared for haphazardly…often true of teenagers too!

My recommendations are feeding up to flowering time with a foliar seaweed or comfrey feed, a base dressing of sulphate of potash to get early leaf drop in the autumn, good hygiene around the plants – clear up all those dead leaves, an early application of fungicide to reduce the black spot and heavy mulching so that the roots are never too dry, nor too wet.

At Drum Castle, we have a walled garden of around two acres which has been developed as a collection of historic roses in garden layout designs from the last four centuries. And we prune for shape here, attempting to create entirely self-supporting roses that will stand the whirlwind down currents that are typical of a walled garden in north-east Scotland. We prune out the dead stuff and cut back all the long leggy summer growths in July to encourage multiple side-shoots.

The roses at Drum are coming to their peak during July and will continue through most of August, whilst those further south are suffering from the heat. Gardeners are always optimistic that this season will be perfect.  If not, there is always next year. Don’t let this prickly diva spoil your fun. Roses are involved in creating some of the best memories in our lives; they must have sneaked into my heart somewhere along the line.

Diana Robertson is the Head Gardener at Drum Castle Garden of Historic Roses, Aberdeen and the Grampian, and a member of Discover Scottish Gardens

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