The best laid plans . . .

PUBLISHED: 16:38 04 February 2009 | UPDATED: 15:46 20 February 2013

Sub-zero temperatures, rain, snow and frost have played havoc with Ross Barbour's planting schedule at Ragley Hall

Sub-zero temperatures, rain, snow and frost have played havoc with Ross Barbour's planting schedule at Ragley Hall

Sub-zero temperatures, rain, snow and frost have played havoc with Ross Barbour's planting schedule at Ragley Hall.

Sub-zero temperatures, rain, snow and frost have played havoc with Ross Barbour's planting schedule at Ragley Hall.

'The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men,
Gang aft agley'
(Robert Burns- 1785)

Perhaps one of the most fundamental challenges facing any gardener is the creation of interest all year round. This is a dilemma which we have worked hard to resolve at Ragley over the last ten years. During this time the gardens have been subject to extensive development in the pursuit of spectacular displays which will produce rich tapestries of colour, texture and scent throughout the seasons.

The ongoing progression of the garden at Ragley may be both relentless and inevitable, but things don't always go according to plan. Take for example the recent major changes to the Rose Garden. I was hoping to have all the herbaceous perennials planted before the Christmas break. But first it was too wet, and then it was frosty, so it didn't happen. Typically, through the Christmas holidays up until Hogmanay the weather was perfect, dry, and almost frost-free. In fact, I was very tempted to call the gardeners to see if they might come in to do a bit of planting! By the beginning of 2009 I wished that I had picked up the phone as a further cold snap delayed the planting yet again. The cold weather also meant that a delivery of 200 bare-root roses was delayed, because the growers were unable to lift them from the ground.

Such are the frustrations of a head gardener - you just can't manage the weather. You have to merely accept and crack on with other tasks, hoping you don't miss the crucial time window that would postpone some jobs until the following year. Strangely enough, I think this is one of the things I love most about my job. No two years are the same with each one bringing its share of gardening disasters and equal delights.

In this case we were quite fortunate because bare root roses can be planted from November through to February. So it's not too late if you can find them. Planting them is quite easy with just a couple of key points to note. First, trim back the stems and roots by about half. Then dig a hole roughly twice the width of the plant's roots and the depth of a spade's blade. At this stage you can also improve the backfill with the addition of organic matter. Next, place the rose in the centre of the hole and, using a small cane to identify the top of the planting hole, ensure that the graft union (i.e. where the cultivar joins the rootstock and the point from which the branches originate) is below soil level. Finally, back fill gently with the excavated soil.

The formality which previously characterized the Rose Garden may now be gradually disappearing. But its essence still focuses on the roses. There were 400 new bare root roses planted last year, along with some 250 or so of the original specimens. However, the individual beds, an old fashioned and out of date monoculture, producing sad disease and pest ridden specimens requiring copious applications of nasty chemicals, are all but gone.

When planting the roses we have been applying mycorrhizal fungi to their roots in order to help prevent replant-disease, an ailment to which members of the Rosaceae family are especially susceptible. The disease occurs when the plants have been growing in the same soil for a long time and results in stunted and poor growth or even death of the plant caused by poor root development.

Mycorrhizal fungi can be found in most garden centres or online. This naturally occurring organism attaches itself to the roots of the plant, creating a symbiotic (friendly) relationship in which the mycelium (fungal roots) spread through the soil enabling the plant a more efficient uptake of water and nutrients. In return the mycorrhizae absorb carbohydrates from the plant. The mycorrhizal fungi have helped establish the roses both old and new with minimal losses, fantastic growth, and it would seem less of a problem with the dreaded blackspot!

Dates for your diary

Winter Garden Tour Saturday 21st February 2009, 11am-3pm. Enjoy an informative tour with the Head Gardener followed with a two-course lunch and then the opportunity to explore the gardens at your leisure
Price: £26.95 (£21.95 for season ticket holders and RHS members)

National Garden Scheme open day 8th February 2009, 11am - 3pm. Alpine Garden Workshop Wed 18th March 10am - 3pm. Find out how the new Crevice Garden is being created, then have a go at making your own miniature version to take away. Includes a two-course lunch and full access to the gardens.
Price: £26.95 (£21.95 for season ticket holders and RHS members)

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