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Gardening: roses

As you toast the Bard's Immortal Memory tonight, take a moment to reflect on his fondness for more plants than John Barleycorn.

Admittedly, for Robert Burns, the rose and humble daisy were love tokens not horticultural gems, but he did wax eloquently to Mrs Dunlop on New Year's Day, 1789: "I have some favourite plants in spring, among which are the mountain daisy, the harebell, the fox-glove, the wild briar rose, the budding birch, and the hoary hawthorn, that I view and hang over with particular delight."

The wild briar rose was a sweet briar or possibly a pimpinellifolia. Both are pink or white. So, as my thoughts turn to my colourful summer garden, not a cold muddy one, I can't help but wonder which cultivated red, red rose Burns had in mind in his poem.

Cultivated Rosa gallica, R x centifolia, R damascena and a few pimpinellifolias were grown in this country at least as early as the 17th century, so they were probably the poet's choice. In Early Scottish Gardeners, garden historian Forbes Robertson tells us that red and double velvet gallicas were grown in the Edinburgh Physic Garden in 1683 and that there were lots of scarlet gallicas and some single and double velvets at Cullen House in 1760. Centifolia "Province" and damascene "Belgick" were yet more red possibilities. These early roses grow almost anywhere. My pimpinellifolias and gallicas survive in fairly poor soil.

Pimpinellifolias are fine shrub roses. They sucker freely - I've found some popping in a nearby veg bed. And they'll form an ever-widening hedge, dense enough to keep adventurous poultry out of the kitchen garden, but you do need to control it. Gallicas are much better behaved. They climb to between one and two metres, have a metre spread, and need hardly any attention.

Species roses do, however, have two major drawbacks: their flowering period is brief and many are prone to blackspot. There is no completely effective organic control for blackspot and it's virtually impossible to eradicate once established. The fungal spores produce black, disfiguring spots on leaves and stems. The spores fall to the ground at leaf drop, overwinter, and are splashed back on to new buds in spring. It's claimed that many modern rose varieties have good blackspot resistance, but treat this information cautiously. Blackspot (Diplocarpon rosae) hybridises readily so it keeps producing new strains that will defeat most resistant varieties after a few years.

Blackspot attacks stressed plants, so the richer and moister the soil, the better the rose will fight off the disease. A weekly spray of baking soda - two teaspoons per 500ml water - is worthwhile.

Mulching also helps roses that grow from a main stem. Put a thick layer of newspaper on moist soil in late winter and cover it with muck, rough compost, green waste or leafmould to prevent spores from being splashed up. But the forest of stems you get with pimpinellifolias makes this treatment impossible. Reduce the problem by pruning back all growth to ground level every three or four years. Established plants do recover.

Gallicas are less susceptible to blackspot and the stems aren't as closely packed, so mulching is easier. If you have a suitable spot - a hedge or wildflower area or near a pond - several varieties produce a brief but magnificent mass of red roses. R gallica "Conditorum" has fine semi-double, ruby flowers, and though weakly scented it's less thorny than many. With rich crimson petals and stronger fragrance, "James Mason" is a stunner. But the deep crimson semi-double petalled "Tuscany Superb" is perhaps the showiest of all. Burns would have approved.

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