Looking at our roses

Mottisfont Abbey craftsman gardener Jonny Bass takes time to smell the roses (here a ‘Blairii No 2’ old-style rose) while on a working visit to Queens Park’s Jessie Calder Memorial Garden during his Winston Churchill fellowship study tour
Mottisfont Abbey craftsman gardener Jonny Bass takes time to smell the roses (here a ‘Blairii No 2’ old-style rose) while on a working visit to Queens Park’s Jessie Calder Memorial Garden during his Winston Churchill fellowship study tour

When New Zealand heritage rose enthusiasts go on garden pilgrimage in England, Mottisfont Abbey is sure to be high on their list.

Its garden history starts with a 13th century priory, and scenes from its lavish Georgian landscapes will be familiar even to non-travellers from those terribly English calendars once so popular.

Amongst the modern designers who have also made their mark there is Graham Scott Thomas, who brought his collection of old roses to Mottisfont in the 1970s.

Scott is credited with saving these pre-1900 roses through collecting at a time when they weren't fashionable, and he installed his treasures in the huge old walled kitchen garden (1.4 hectares) at Mottisfont.

He designed a setting for them, underplanting with perennials and companion plants and allowing roses to drift up into trees, creating what Heritage Roses past president Fran Rawling calls a quintessential English garden.

One of those gardens that are the "holy grail" to New Zealand heritage rose enthusiasts.

"We all know it and many of us have been there."

So what has a gardener from this home of heritage roses to learn from New Zealand?

A lot, according to Mottisfont craftsman gardener Jonny Bass.

He was in Invercargill last week as part of a study tour funded by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, which sends British citizens abroad to do something useful for themselves and their communities.

Besides New Zealand, the two- month itinerary takes in California and New York.

Despite his laconic description of the trip as an opportunity to "come and see what everyone's up to" during the quiet season, he admits the fellowship has a rigorous approval process, so the trip has to provide demonstrable benefits.

It's all about getting out and about and expanding his knowledge and skills, studying roses and working with the people who grow and care for them - growers, collectors and botanic gardeners, he explains.

"You can always learn from someone else.

"Just because we've grown a certain way for 35 years doesn't mean to say it's the best way of doing it."

With his boss at Mottisfont, David Stone, retiring next year, taking with him his lifetime of knowledge and skills - he's been there since 1978 - Jonny is eager to learn as much as he can.

"It was a perfect opportunity to see what grows well, and how well."

New Zealand has a reputation as a great rose-growing country, and has a similar climate, but growers all have different methods and have knowledge he can tap into.

The first notebook is already full, and the trip hardly begun.

He had spent the morning in Queens Park's Jessie Calder Memorial Garden, trading ideas an experience with Queens Park gardener Brett Cordes.

It's a very different garden, presenting roses in a formal display with a large number in one area.

Some of them very rare, even some Mottisfont doesn't have, Jonny notes.

The size and health of china and tea roses was also noted.

But what has really impressed him at this point in his travels was the New Zealand register of heritage roses, and the efforts to source and spread roses so there's more than one collection.

So far 250 roses have been saved in New Zealand, through being found and identified.

"It's astonishing - incredible," Jonny says.

Fran had taken him for a field trip out of Dunedin and given him a feel for the thrill of the chase.

"We came to a screeching halt," he relates with glee, chortling over Fran's advice to have a high-viz jacket and clipboard at hand.

"Then you can get away with anything, no-one takes any notice."

There's every chance there's still more roses to be found in England, given the number of derelict houses and cemeteries.

But a lot of people in large properties can be very private - and grumpy, Jonny says.

So maybe that advice for the modern cloak of invisibility could be as handy as any cultivation tips squirrelled away in the notebook.

Pushed to name favourite roses, Jonny nominates 'Lady Waterlow' for the sheer beauty of the bloom, and 'Adelaide d'Orleans' for its colour, "a wonderful pink, just to die for."

So what about that job title - and the hat?

"Craftsman" gardener was a new position at Mottifort, he says.

"[It indicates] we are working at a craft - it's not just a nine to five job."

It doesn't involve living in a chocolate box cottage, but staff do work the garden with traditional hand tools.

"You couldn't get a tractor through those 18th century gates anyway."

But in his spare time this gardener who looks as though he could have wandered out of some era in the garden's historic past has very modern interests: classic cars (especially VWs), tractors, hunting, fishing, shooting (but not riding) and photography.

"I don't watch very much TV," he explains helpfully.

And has he found what he came for?

"Yes very much so. And more."

Folllow Jonny Bass on the blog detailing his trip


The Heritage Rose Society is interested in hearing from anyone who has, or knows of, an old rose that is, one that's known to be 60 years old or have been in a family for three generations. Contact Ann McKenzie 03 246 9506.

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The Southland Times