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The Garden in July 2024 - ‘Celebrating the Rose’

The Garden in July 2024 - ‘Celebrating the Rose’

Midsummer already- how on earth did we get here so quickly? July, the month of intense colours, full and exuberant beds and borders and also the delicious scents of summer. It is the time for sitting in the shade, for me at least, taking meals out of doors, entertaining in the garden or simply for absorbing the peace and stillness of the garden at the end of a busy day.

As in June, choosing just five plants that I wouldn’t want to be without in July is almost impossible but after a stroll around the garden I have decided on the Rose, much more on this later, Rose Campion (Lychnis coronaria), Hosta, Sambucus ‘Black Lace’ and a favourite group of plants which I could in fact choose in most months of the year- Hardy Geraniums.

Rose Campion or Dusty Miller is an erect, silver-green biennial or short-lived perennial with purple-red or pale purple flowers in mid-summer. The open, slightly reflexed, five-lobed flowers open singly but in long succession and produce lots of seed which will germinate often in unexpected places ensuring an abundance of plants for future years. The Hosta or Plantain Lily has become a very popular plant in recent times despite its reputation as snail food! Originally from parts of Asia numerous hybrids have been raised in recent years, mainly in the USA. They are grown primarily for their bold foliage produced in dense mounds of overlapping, ovate to heart-shaped or lance-shaped leaves which can be green, yellow, blue-grey or variegated. Bell or funnel-shaped flowers form in the summer on long, often leafless stalks mainly in lavender-blue colours. We grow ours in pots in which they have a much better chance of avoiding any hungry snails.

Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’ is a particularly good garden elder with its blackish-purple, finely cut leaves and gorgeous, large, flat heads of pink flowers followed by the usual small, black fruits of the elder in autumn. It will reach heights of 6-10 feet (2-3 m) in one season once established but it benefits from a hard prune in the spring, similar to the Buddleja, and is therefore suitable even for small plots.

Our Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’ with the lighter pink flower heads of Valeriana in the foreground


I have said and written lots about Hardy Geraniums in the past and here will simply say that they are hard to beat for amount of flower, range of flower colour, variations in size and spread, ease of growth, hardiness and resistance to disease and pests and that there is a suitable variety for every situation from full shade to sun and wet or dry. Just a quick look around the garden in the last days of June I counted about 20 different hardy Geraniums in flower just in our small plot! Having just finishing writing this section I have looked out of the study window and seen another plant which I should have included in this list- the Foxglove. These have been wonderful this year, flowering for most of June with their marvellous spires of bee-attracting purple. Admittedly, as we move into July the lower parts of the spires are beginning to produce seed but the tops and side shoots will continue to flower well into the month.

 Geranium ‘Jean Armour’   //   Geranium ‘Brookside’

Looking back through past July blogs, I see that in 2020 I looked at some of the plants doing well in our West Wales’ garden, in 2021 the blog came from the garden at Aberglasney in all its summer splendour, in 2022 I highlighted three wonderful summer plants -Dahlia, Penstemon and Salvia and in 2023 I was looking at some basic elements of garden design and showing how the versatile rose can be used in such designs. Back in June 2022 I wrote a whole blog on the rose, looking at the different types, their uses and their pruning methods and times.

This brings me nicely on to this month’s main topic and July’s talk, which was actually brought forward to the 29th June so that it could be part of the Old Railway Line’s 2024 Rose Festival. To help celebrate the wonderful rose in all its glory I thought I would use another celebration of the rose which is happening this year- the 50th anniversary of the establishment of a very special collection of roses in the National Trust garden at Mottisfont in Hampshire. Back in 1974 the Plant Heritage National Collection of pre-1900 shrub roses was established there in the old walled garden. The collection had been brought together by one of the world’s foremost rose experts- Graham Stuart Thomas. Born in 1909 in Cambridge he began to collect historic roses in his 20’s, often rediscovering them in forgotten corners of stately homes or acquiring them from specialist nurseries that had ceased trading. He died in 2003 after an illustrious career in horticulture and was particularly well known for his work with garden roses, his restoration and stewardship of over a hundred National Trust gardens and for his 19 books on gardening! In 1983 David Austin named a new rose in his honour and Rosa ‘Graham Thomas’ has since become one of the most popular and recognisable English Roses ever! It begins with clusters of red and yellow buds which open to shallow-cupped, pure yellow flowers with golden overtones which have an incredible scent of fresh, fruity Tea Rose perfume and to cap it all it is repeat flowering, blooming from June to September and often beyond.

The David Austin rose, Rosa ‘Graham Thomas’


Of course, the history of the rose goes back much further than the late 19th century shrub roses in Graham Thomas’ collection. Rose-like plants appear in the fossil record from around 30 million years ago and roses were often referred to in Greek poetry and Roman history. Queen Cleopatra carpeted her boudoir with their petals, so I believe, and the Virgin Mary is referred to as ‘a rose without thorns’. They were cultivated as far back as the 3rd century AD in China for Imperial gardens, carved into the ceilings of Middle Ages’ courtrooms and brought together after the end of the Wars of the Roses in 1485. European growers began breeding roses in the 15th and 16th centuries but the ‘golden age’ of roses is considered to be the 18th and 19th centuries when repeat flowering roses arrived from China. Modern hybrid varieties have been bred from these to flower from May/June right through to September/October. However, old fashioned roses, also known as historic or heirloom roses, which form the Graham Thomas collection at Mottisfont were bred from species roses which occurred naturally before gardeners started breeding the later hybrid roses. As such they contain the original gene pool from which all the later roses have been bred. They have graceful forms, soft colours and often a sweet scent but they only flower for a few short weeks in late May to mid-June after which that is it until next year!

Clearly Graham Thomas could forgive them for this and through the middle part of the 20th century he built up his very impressive collection. His connection with the National Trust began in the late 1940’s when he worked at Hidcote, the famous ‘Arts and Crafts’ house and garden in the Cotswolds, and by 1955 he had become the Trust’s Horticultural Advisor. Over the next two decades he worked at many of the Trust’s most significant gardens including Mottisfont and clearly, he decided that it would be the ideal place to transfer his collection to so that it could be cared for into the future and where people could come to appreciate the roses in all their beauty. During his early career Thomas wrote to Gertrude Jekyll and was invited to her home at Munstead Wood (now also a Trust garden). By then she was in her 80’s and had a formidable reputation for designing gardens as an art form rather than just a collection of plants. She prioritised shade and colour combinations and had such an impact on the young Thomas that he completely reconsidered his own planting principles which is clearly reflected in the walled rose garden at Mottisfont today. As such the roses are not grown in separate beds by themselves but instead are set amongst other flowers with complementary colour and foliage that show the roses off at their very best. The most important thing about Thomas’ ‘companion plants’ is that they flower at the same time as the roses, not over whelming them but enhancing the beauty of each rose, drawing the eye and setting the scene. Today there are over 1000 individual rose plants in the garden and over 400 old-fashioned varieties all reaching their peak in a few glorious weeks in June. The roses are happy to have other plants around them as long as they are given the space that they need and there is a thought that it actually benefits the roses as the surrounding plants keep the ground cooler as roses do not like hot roots. This, of course, might be a very important idea for the future success of rose growing as our climate warms. Unfortunately having built up the rose display at Mottisfont it is too late for a visit this year as their extended opening hours for 2024 ran from May 30th to June 29th!- but, of course, there is always next year!


A David Austin rose- Rosa ‘The Generous Gardener’  //  The simple beauty of the wild Dog Rose


Semi-ripe cuttings are a form of stem cutting which are taken in the summer, usually mid to late-summer, rather than in the spring as for softwood cuttings. The stems are firmer and more woody than in the early part of the growing season and as such are less prone to wilting. They are best taken from non-flowering shoots of the current season’s growth. Suitable shoots should offer some resistance to pressure when bent gently and should be beginning to harden at the base but are not yet brown and woody. As with all cuttings the stems selected should be strong, actively growing, healthy and showing no signs of pests or disease, cut from the parent plant with a sharp knife or secateurs in lengths between 2-4” (5-10cm) depending on the plant concerned and then placed in a plastic bag to conserve moisture before being trimmed. Some plants root best from cuts made just below a node, others do better if taken with a ‘heel’, a slither of the outer layer of the main stem. The lower leaves need to be removed to produce a clean stem, any heel trimmed to remove the thin end which is likely to rot and any soft growth at the top pinched out. As with other cuttings the compost needs to be ‘open’ to allow both air and water in freely which is achieved by adding grit, sand, perlite or vermiculite to the mix. Cuttings should be inserted to a third/ half of their length, then placed after watering in a propagator or plastic bag to conserve their moisture and kept in a cool greenhouse or porch until new top growth shows that roots have formed, after which they can be potted on. This may be as late as the following spring or even autumn so patience and good plant care are required. Clearly this is a longer process than with softwood cuttings and as such in my opinion it is a good idea to help the rooting process by using hormone rooting powder or gel.

There are quite a large number of plants which can be successfully propagated from semi-ripe cuttings, one of which is the rose. In the late-summer after the main flowering period mature side shoots can be selected that are still green, cutting just above a bud where the shoot below is beginning to turn woody. The soft tip is then trimmed off just above a bud and then the shoot that is left can be divided into 4”/10cm sections with a straight bottom cut just below a bud and a top sloping cut just above a bud. The cuttings can then be inserted into a sandy/gritty compost to around half their length and kept in a cool but frost-free place. Once rooted the cuttings can be planted in a nursery bed in the following spring to grow on. This method works best with species roses rather than grafted hybrids as species roses grow on their own roots. Grafted varieties may well root successfully but the new roots may not be as vigorous as on the original plant. In addition to roses there are several other, both deciduous and evergreen, shrubs which can be propagated by this method including Aucuba (Spotted Laurel), Berberis, Camellia, Daphne, Deutzia, Elaeagnus, Escallonia, Philadelphus, Viburnum and Weigela.

Other shrubs tend to be more successfully propagated if treated as softwood cuttings in spring or ‘greenwood’ cuttings in late-spring when the base of the cutting is beginning to become firm and slightly woody ie. beginning to reach the semi-ripe stage. Such shrubs include Abelia, Caryopteris, Erica, Forsythia, Fuchsia, Perovskia and Potentilla.

A large number of climbing plants also propagate well using the semi-ripe method, again from either nodal or heel cuttings. With longer side shoots, once the soft tip has been removed, several 4-6”/10-15cm cuttings can be obtained, each base cut just below a bud and each top just above a bud. With shorter side shoots it is possible to gently pull the shoot from the main stem with a small heel of bark where the growth hormones which assist rooting are concentrated. The ‘tail’ of the heel is best removed with sharp knife and then the cutting potted in the usual way. This climbing group includes Jasminium, Lonicera, Passiflora, Plumbago and Trachelospermum. Clematis cuttings are slightly different in that as either softwood in spring or semi-ripe in summer they are more successful from inter-nodal cuttings. Cuttings are made by cutting just above a node and then about2”/5cm below that in the section between nodes. One of the two leaves from the top node is the removed and the cutting potted up with the remaining leaf almost resting on the compost surface.

Semi-ripe cuttings can also be used to propagate many conifers and some broad-leaved evergreens such as Magnolia grandiflora and Prunus lusitanica. These are taken in late-summer or early autumn from stems that have virtually ripened ie. they have thickened and become hard and woody. Heel cuttings can be taken from small, healthy side shoots or 4”/10cm long cuttings can be taken from leaders or longer side shoots, trimming immediately below a node. With both types the lower leaves are removed and the remaining foliage reduced by a third to a half to reduce moisture loss. It is also worth pinching out any soft tip growth. To encourage rooting it is also a good idea to make two shallow wounds about an inch/2.5cm long on opposite sides of the base of the cutting and, as with other semi-ripe cuttings, to dip the base in hormone rooting powder or gel. The cuttings can be kept in a cold frame over winter but will root more quickly if kept frost-free. Rooting may have taken place by the spring but it could take until the autumn.

Finally for this month, July is a good time to plant autumn flowering bulbs, the more obvious ones being Colchicum (Naked Ladies), Autumn Crocus, Nerine bowdenii, Cyclamen hederifolium and the Autumn Snowflake, Leucojum autumnale. However, there are also other, more exotic, plants to consider such as the beautiful, pink Amarylis belladonna, the yellow Sternbergia lutea and the striking Tiger Lily, Tigridia pavona with its Iris-like orange to pink, red, yellow or white flowers with interesting central markings.

That’s all for now but I will be back in August with another blog and a talk on Saturday, August 3rd at 10am in the Wild Bird section of the Old Railway Line when I will cover a number of topics including my five plants that I wouldn’t want to be without in my August garden, softwood cuttings of Pelargonium and Fuchsia, collecting seed and pruning Wisteria, trained fruit and rambling roses.

Until then enjoy your summer garden and all its joys.


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