There was a time when I would sit up late in bed, reading novels. As a reviewer, this was often for work, but that didn’t diminish the pleasure of ending the day in another world. Of late, however, I’ve hurried through ordinary books the way you rush the main course in expectation of pudding. The reason? I’ve discovered the joy of gardening catalogues, and of roses in particular. As a result, my evening ritual is extended to include a last look at roses that ramble over walls, or join hands to form hedges. I linger over clustering floribunda and hybrid teas, but my favourites are those that please bees or butterflies, and have the sweetest fragrance. They’re so seductively described, the bedroom seems to fill with their scent before the light goes out.

We have a country garden, but only in the most prosaic sense. Chocolate-box we aren’t. All around are plots so lush and well-tended they could be entered at Chelsea. Our patch is not in their league. Looking out to hills at the back, it opens onto a field, where sheep huddle at night under a blackthorn by our gate, leaving wisps of wool every morning. Chicken wire intended to keep out rabbits has been gnawed by marauders for whom our mossy, tufty grass is irresistible. Nor can we grow a dense hedge to discourage them because, we’ve been told, the horses who share the field with the sheep would bring our wooden fence crashing down as they leaned over to munch it. And needless to say, nothing can keep out the nettles, which wave wildly at me after it’s been raining, like kids on a school bus.

Burying myself in a rose catalogue is a definition of day-dreaming. The David Austin Handbook of Roses, gifted by a green-fingered friend, is jam-packed with temptation. One of the delights of summer is to be taken around this friend’s delectable garden. A riot of sweet peas, foxgloves and hollyhocks, with soaring old trees casting welcome shade, its walls are swagged with clematis and honeysuckle. Thanks to her, I now go to sleep in the company of roses called Roald Dahl, Tam O’Shanter or The Pilgrim, after the Canterbury Tales. There’s Gabriel Oak, hero of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, or the mercurial Eustacia Vye, from The Return of the Native. Planted together, would they get on or would the results be another tragedy? I seem to remember Darcey Bussell was once asked if she would rather be given a damehood or have a rose named after her. She now has both.

Vita Sackville-West was a self-confessed sucker for catalogues. The doyenne of Sissinghurst Castle, in Kent, which she turned into a horticultural paradise with her husband Harold Nicolson, she also wrote a very practical gardening column for The Observer. Early in the autumn of 1950 she complained that catalogues were arriving by every post. “It is difficult to keep one’s head. I always lose mine.... Experience tells me that I ought to resist, but, like the poor mutt who falls to the card-sharper in the train, I fall to every list offering plants I cannot afford to buy and could not cultivate successfully even if I could afford them.”

She was at work when nurseries were only reluctantly opening their doors to amateurs and garden centres were almost unheard of. Catalogues were the way to buy seeds, and seedlings, and set your plot up for the coming year. Many folk in Hoolet have their own greenhouses and potting sheds, but it’s as much as I can do to plant something bought in a pot and keep it alive long enough for it to learn to fend for itself. I speak encouragingly to each new arrival, hoping that snow and wind don’t kill it before the roots have taken, or some night-time critter digs it up for a taste of bonemeal in which it’s bedded.

When it comes to roses, I was cheered by the poet James Fenton’s advice. He wrote a book about growing a garden from 100 packets of seed, but with one important caveat: “I do not propose that you start your roses in this way: That would be, as Peter Pan says of death, an awfully big adventure.”

Seed catalogues are for experts and connoisseurs, a higher level of botanical sophistication and dedication than I ever expect to reach. The New Yorker writer Katharine S White was a devoted gardener at her Maine farmhouse where she lived with her husband, E B White. I have a collection of her gardening columns, Onward & Upward in the Garden, which are surprisingly and disappointingly dull. Occasionally, though, she surprises me.

Among her prized catalogues were those by the Californian rose expert, Will Tillotson. He had a very distinctive style. Indeed, as you find your feet in this new field of prose, you discover all these writers become as identifiable as Ernest Hemingway or Muriel Spark. Thinking up new ways of conveying the essence of hundreds of roses must be challenging, and Tillotson once showed the strain: “Oh gentle reader,” he wrote, “forgive me if you are ‘sleepy’ or bored or annoyed. The tired catalogue writer has emptied his sack of adjectives at your feet.” This phrase was used as the sign-off to his last catalogue, printed shortly after his death. It was a poignant envoi.

The David Austin Handbook is also posthumous, carrying the news of “Mr A’s” death at the end of 2018. He was a Shropshire Lad, which might explain the profusion of literary names and references in his glorious collection and the clarity of the puffs for each plant. As with all plant catalogue writers, the descriptions are as glowing as if each specimen was one of the author’s own brood.

I don’t think of myself as particularly impetuous, but I anticipate a moment when, like Sackville-West, I too might lose my head. The rosette-like variety named after Anne Boleyn would be fitting, but I’m drawn to the simpler kind that remind me of dog-roses found in hedgerows: Open Arms, Rosa complicata, Morning Mist, Fru Dagmar Hastrup, or Rosa rugosa alba, the one known as The Jacobite, with its old-fashioned fragrance, innocent white flowers and wicked thorns.