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Summer roses

Our spring order of roses has just gone in the ground.

Gloire de DijonDesprez a fleur jauneIn addition to planting Guy's medlar tree yesterday, we managed to get the roses in.

It's two years since I planted roses, and I've missed it. It was just too expensive last year, what with the recession and all. This year I opted for mainly yellowy-buff colour roses: Gloire de Dijon, Goldfinch, Desprez a fleur jaune and Alberic Barbier - the last one supplied free by David Austin, as they supplied Auguste Gervais in error for this rose a few years ago. 

All of these roses are notable for their scent, and they're all strong growers, going to at least 15 feet as climbers, and perhaps up to twice that, but they're all been planted as shrubs, mixed in with coloured-leaved elders and cornus wands, purple berberis and philadelphus, so it remains to be seen how big they'll get. This latest planting means there are now 44 varieties of roses in the garden, most of them species and ramblers.

Guy's tree, meanwhile, is tree number 5 in the new 'orchard' that we're planting out the back of the house. Two trees - an oak and a walnut - self-seeded here, and this year we've added an apple and a greengage. By the year's end, I hope there will be nine trees, mostly small, and mostly floral so that we can look down on them from our bedroom window, which is three stories up. 

Medlars, in case you're not familiar with them, are an old orchard fruit not much grown nowadays. One reason they fell from popularity is that you can't eat them till they're rotten - you have to leave them to 'blet', like persimmons. When the skin goes translucent and the flesh goes pulpy, they're ready, and it's best to dig the flesh out with a spoon, and eat it with cream. 

I've wanted a medlar tree since I was a little girl when I used to play in my uncle's orchard, and it's a fine ornamental tree too, with a shrubby, olde-worlde shape, beautiful flowers and leaves that turn yellow in autumn. The fruit itself resembles a large green rosehip, and goes under the more colloquial name of 'open arseholes' - an accurate description, it has to be admitted...

It was a close-run thing between the medlar and a nashi pear, which is another fruit I've always wanted in the garden. More commonly known as an Asian Pear, a nashi is round like an apple but tastes like a pear, and the specimen I saw also had attractive bronzed foliage and masses of white blossom, so would make a good garden tree. Ah well, maybe next month... 


Garden pleasures

Today is a sunny but coolish day - perfect for making flower syrups

Pauls Himalayan MuskToday I'll be indulging in one of my favourite pursuits of the year - making flower syrups.

I do this perhaps six days a year, when the elderflower and roses are in bloom. Elderflower syrup is one of those glorious gifts of nature - the plant itself, in the green version, is as tough as old boots and will grow on any wasteland or crack in the paving into which it can set seed. In its garden varieties - sambucus nigra Guincho Purple, sambucus nigra Aurea and the various variegated and lacinated varieties with their cut leaves, it's also a beautiful shrub, and flowers equally well.

The syrup has a wonderful, evocative smell and taste and I generally make enough to get myself through the winter. 

The recipe, if you want to try it, is quite simple:

Eight heads of elderflower

Pound of sugar or a one-pound jar of honey

Juice of one lemon

Gather the elderflowers in the morning after the dew has risen but before the heat of the day gets up. Strip the flowers off and pick out the insects and dead blossoms. Place in a glass or ceamic bowl, mix in the sugar, add the lemon juice and give it a good stir, then store somewhere sunny, covered in clingfilm, for 24 hours. It should liquefy, but if it doesn't, add a little water or alcohol to get it going.

Strain off the juice and bottle it. I use small Schweppes Tonic bottles and freeze them until needed, only unfreezing one at a time. Wonderful over ice-cream, or with gooseberries to add a muscatel flavour, as a winter cold cure in hot water, or with fizzy water in summer. It also makes a good flavouring for kir with a cheap white fizz. If you don't want to freeze the syrup and you're using sugar, bring it to the boil for a minute or so, then bottle in glass bottles. You don't need to do this with honey, as it's a natural preservative. 

You can do the same with the berries come winter, cooking them up for 10 minutes or so, straining and bottlling while hot, but for some people the berries are purgative and I am one of them. If they don't affect you, however (and most people are unaffected), they are very high in vitamin C and make a good cough syrup. 

For the rose syrup the method is the same but you need an awful lot of rose petals - about eight good handfuls, which would mean decimating the average garden. Luckily I have whopping great rambler roses some 20ft high and wide, and highly scented species such as Rosa Californica Plena, so more than enough to go round. The rose syrup makes a particularly special kir. Pull the petals off the rose rather than removing the whole head, if you can. 

As a final tip, if you gather the flowers in a colander, it gets rid of most of the insects and spare pollen, thus saving you fussing later. 




The love of roses

I ordered my roses the other day, and it suddenly feels like spring is on its way

blog imageThey won't actually arrive for ages, of course. They're bare-root jobs from David Austin in the UK, and they won't come until March or April. But in a bitter February, with frost on the ground every morning, a girl can still dream.

When we moved to France, I had no idea what an obsession the garden would become. I would never have thought I'd become a bulb catalogue sort of person, the kind of woman who ordered gardening books on Amazon. I associated that with old ladies in straw hats, but one of the enjoyable things about being in my 40s is that I no longer feel the need to apologise for loving my garden.

Gardening is one of the most rewarding, contemplative experiences open to anybody. From a windowbox to a 2-acre orchard, planting things and nurturing them and watching them grow keeps you in touch with the seasons and the cycle of life.

Vita Sackville-West, for all her accomplishments as a writer, was far greater as a gardener, and I like to think there's a connection between her and me and all the women gardeners of the past and present. All sharing those private moments out in the twilight, dead-heading and listening to the birds.

blog imageI am not a bedding-plant gardener. I am lucky enough to have a large garden, and shrubs and trees are what interest me, and of shrubs, above all, roses. Which is strange, because I grew up almost hating the things.

My friend Julie's dad had the archetypal British rose garden - serried ranks of what I now know to be tea roses and floribundas with their angular petals and brilliant colours, each in its naked patch of earth, pruned to within an inch of its life, not a weed in sight and not a greenfly either. Freud would have had a field day.

blog imageI never knew then of the existence of the Old Roses - Ispahan, Duc de Guiche, Belle de Crecy, with their furling petals. Or the striped roses like Rosa Mundi or Ferdinand Pichard. Or the once-flowering ramblers beloved of the Edwardians, or the sweetbriars with their apple-scented foliage.

I'd never heard of the viciously-thorned rugosa roses whose leaves turn yellow in autumn, or of the gigantic Rosa Filipes Kiftsgate, whose original plant at Kiftsgate Court is now 40ft high and 60ft wide. But the more I read about roses, the more I wanted them, and slowly, gradually, five years ago, I began to plant.

blog imageI don't have much money to spare on the garden, but there are now 35 varieties of rose, and 17 of them are species roses - the wildest forms of the rose. They are all very beautiful in their different ways, but it is a beauty that has to be looked for. Rosa Pendulina is the smallest, with her purple stems and sparely-carried bright magenta flowers like corn cockles: Rosa Filipes Brenda Colvin is the largest, and her thuggish behaviour takes over more of our fallen pear tree every year - much to our delight, I should add. Rosa Rubiginosa (the Eglantyne of Shakespeare) fills the garden with the scent of Granny Smiths apples after rain, while the amusingly named Rambling Rector, who smells of white linen, covers the ground with thousands of tiny, perfectly heart-shaped petals at the end of June.

blog imageAll of my roses are my favourites, and I'm glad to greet each in turn as they flower, but my favourite-most favourite is Rosa Roxburghii, currently in her third year. She is a small rose (for me) at only seven feet when fully grown and last year, for the first time, she flowered, exchanging, after all-too-brief a period, her modest crumpled petals for enormous hips covered in spines - hence her other name of the Chestnut Rose. The whole of the bush is gnarled and ancient-looking, and her leaves are tiny and frondlike. When she's not in flower, I think many people wouldn't take her for a rose at all, but for something more exotic, perhaps Japanese in origin.

It is very pleasurable to think of gardening when you cannot garden, because of frost or snow or - in my case, a streaming cold. So although I only ordered yesterday, I am already planning my next order, to be fulfilled in autumn.

To order David Austin roses, click here.




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