Great Britain was awash with patriotic fervor last year as our queen celebrated her 90th birthday. But there was another national treasure celebrating the same milestone—and just like the queen, David Austin, rose breeder extraordinaire, still went to work every day at his Shropshire HQ, continuing his lifetime’s quest to create the perfect rose.
We take a tour of this vast operation with senior rosarian Michael Marriot, who has worked alongside the rose breeder for three decades, to find out what makes the English roses so very special.
Photography courtesy of David Austin Roses, except where noted.
Each year 450,000 roses will be crossed, creating 150,000 seedlings that are initially grown in huge greenhouses before 10,000 are selected to grow on. It takes eight years, and a long process of elimination, to release new roses to the market. From those initial seedlings, around three new roses will be eventually released. Each rose has its breeding name (which always begins Aus-) and a commercial name (e.g. ‘Munstead Wood’).
The long selection process puts each rose through its paces because while great beauty is fundamental, each new release must prove itself with an abundance of practical qualities such as good disease resistance, wonderful scent, repeat flowering, and strong growth.
Alongside the garden rose breeding program, the company now breeds roses for cutting too—new hybrids are developed in a similar process although with slightly different criteria as vase life is a key factor—and cut roses will then be grown commercially with partners in California, Columbia, and Ecuador.
The newest garden, in the two acres of formal rose gardens at David Austin, mixes roses with other perennial plants, which, says Marriot, is a much healthier way to grow than in a monoculture. He recommends planting in groups with each shrub 18 inches apart to create a pleasing mass of flowers. Soil health is everything—annual mulching is key to good rose health. Pictured: ‘Gertrude Jekyll’ (Ausboard) planted alongside Epilobium and Geranium ‘Brookside’.
Climbing roses are no different from shrub roses; they simply have the ability to scramble and wind up pergolas, posts, and structures. As well as Austin’s own roses, the company sells many other popular roses including ‘Mme Gregoire Staechelin’ (in the UK only). It’s seen here climbing across an arch at David Austin HQ. There are magnificent climbers at every turn in the gardens.
Marriot suggests that after 20 years they are often best replaced. And contrary to received wisdom, he also (controversially) believes that it is possible to plant new roses where roses have previously been growing—but a nutrient-rich, healthy soil is essential.
For more of our favorite garden roses, see DIY Climbing Roses: From Trellis to Vase on Cape Cod and Gardening 101: How to Prune Roses.
Finally, get more ideas on how to plant, grow, and care for our favorite flowering plants in our curated design guide to Perennials 101.