10 things I learned from the experts at David Austin Roses

Every garden needs roses because they are, well, so wonderful but unfortunately they have a reputation as being “difficult”. The reality is they are really easy to look after.  I enjoyed a day at David Austin Roses along with other gardeners (including those from the National Trust, English Heritage and Sandringham) learning from the rose experts and here are 10 things I think you need to know.

1. The very best time to prune shrub roses is January

You can prune a bit earlier if you have a lot of roses or may have issues with high winds but this will be at the expense of flowers. You can also prune later but by then buds will be bursting and pruning after February will result in weak growth and also the plant may get knocked back by late frosts. So really, January is the very best time (but a few weeks either side isn’t a problem).

2. Be tidy when pruning

When pruning also remove all the old leaves still attached along with any leaves left on the ground.  The old leaves and cut stems may contain the usual diseases etc. so removing everything ensures the rose starts the year with a clean slate.  Everything removed should either go in your brown bin or be burnt – don’t put them on your compost heap.

3. The kiss of life for a rose on the edge

Roses are really really tough but they need attention to deliver their best.  If a rose has a long gangly wooden stems then perhaps it is time to take drastic action and apply the kiss of life (or death).  So what is the magical kiss of life… simple… easy… just 1 minute of your time… cut it down to ankle height (so around 15cm or 6″).  This will either result in the rose bursting back into life with the kind of zeal it hasn’t shown for many a year or… it will just give up.  If the former, great, if the latter… you have just brought forward what was going to happen anyway and saved yourself a whole heap of time. You also have the opportunity to get another rose (see next two points!).

4. Yes, you can plant a rose where a rose was

Forget what you may have heard, you can plant a rose where a rose once was providing you have been tidying up after pruning.  Pretty much the main reason roses “die” is because they aren’t being looked after (pruned, fed and watered) – not because of some mysterious disease that infects the ground for generations to come.  When replacing a rose, be sure to really put some effort into getting the soil in the best possible condition.

5. Choose your rose with care

One (of the two) secrets to growing great roses is carefully choosing the variety.  Do not, whatever you do, go down to your local garden centre, online or wherever and choose your new rose by looking at the picture and reading the blurb (we are all – and I mean all – guilty of this).  If you want a great rose, not just a good rose and certainly not a poor rose, you really need to do some research and once you have done that, do some more just to be sure.  At the end of this article I have noted some varieties that David Austin recommend.

6. Plant your rose with care

The second secret to growing great roses is to make sure they are in the right place.  They don’t like competition – trees, shrubs, perennials should really not be in the immediate vicinity and they like a moist soil.  Roses do best in a humus rich (aka lots of organic matter), water retentive soil with a pH of about 6.5.  To be honest don’t worry about the technical stuff, if you can keep the competition at a distance and the soil moist your rose will be very happy.

7. Never plant a rose in the summer

With summer in full swing and a gap in the garden that needs to be filled it can be oh so tempting to buy a new rose.  Don’t – please don’t.  Roses need time to get comfy and extremes of a British summer are not that time.  So avoid the temptation or if you are really taken with a particular rose, buy it but keep it in its pot, in a sheltered position, give it a good water regularly and then plant it in Autumn (October or November).

8. When you plant a rose, keep the label safe

I can’t stress this enough – please keep the label or at least note somewhere of your rose variety.  When it comes to dealing with problems with roses one of the quickest ways to getting answers is by knowing the variety of rose being dealt with. There are thousands of varieties of rose and no gardener will ever be able to look at every rose presented and be sure of its variety – and so any problems it usually faces.

9. Be brave

It can be tempting when pruning a rose to nip a little bit off here and there. Please don’t – you need to be taking off at least 1/3 off the stem. Yes how much does vary a little bit depending on the type of rose (shrub, species, repeat etc.) but in all cases (except climbers and ramblers) taking a third of should be the minimum.

Roses in our gardens often have very personal memories associated with them, an anniversary, a gift, a companion but if you want the rose to thrive you need to be brave and so every January, take a third off to the closest bud.

10. Finally and most importantly, before you start pruning, think about what you want to achieve.

Nature doesn’t prune roses – only we do and we do it for our own benefit.  So, before you reach for those secateurs and get stuck in take a moment to think about what you are wanting to achieve.  As minimum it is going to be keeping your rose healthy so cutting out the dead and  diseased stuff and getting that nice open network of stems and branches.

If you want to bring back a rose that has been neglected you need to approach things differently (see previous tips).  Or, and I think this is probably the case, you are hoping for a rose that offers a mass of wonderful flowers and scent then all you need to do is… be patient, be thoughtful, be caring and your rose will not let you down.

Below are roses that were mentioned on the day as ones recommended and ones to avoid.


  • Olivia Rose Austin (Shrub) – Pink – Great disease resistance
  • Vanessa Bell (Shrub) – Yellow
  • Graham Thomas (Climber)
  • Francis E. Lester (Rambling)
  • Buttercup (Shrub) – Best for fragrance


  • Madam Alfred Carriere – this grows too quickly
  • The Dark Lady – A black-spot magnet unless grown in very hot climates.

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