Creating A French Picking Garden (Easily)

As many gardeners know, gardening can be addictive. One minute you're happily potting up geraniums  in a couple of blue and white planters you bought on discount in a closing-down sale; the next you're digging into your newly mown lawn to create a perennial flower bed. 

Then you begin to visit open gardens. And the more gardens you visit, the more addicted you become.

 Suddenly, you're out there at 5AM on a summer's morning, quietly dead-heading the roses and hoping you're not waking the neighbours with the watering.

{All photos mine}

This happened to me this year. After visiting the magnificent walled rose gardens of Mottisfont in England (Nat Trust link) (Blog Post), I became obsessed with the idea of creating a picking garden. Or, as a friend romantically put it, a "rustic French rose garden". Only with bush roses, because fancy French ones didn't seem to do well in our Mediterranean-style heat. (Or my amateur hands.) 

Our lovely gardener Geoff had also told me about his former employer Dame Elizabeth Murdoch's walled cutting garden, which was designed to change colours with the seasons. (Cruden Farm link)

Dame Elizabeth wanted a cutting garden rather than a cottage garden, because the former is designed to be picked, with flowers that suit vases (such as roses), and plants that are grown in narrow beds, for ease of access (and cutting).

It was, he said, one of Dame Elizabeth's favourite places.
(How wonderful it would have been to have worked with her...) 

A rustic French picking garden, I thought naïvely, with the enthusiasm of a novice. 
How difficult could it be?

So, on a perfect Sunday in early spring this year we drove up the mountain to Monbulk, where, hidden away behind the myriad nurseries is one of the prettiest rose farms in the state, Newstead Roses (link).

 This week, my mother visited the famous Ruston's Rose Farm in Renmark, the largest rose garden in the Southern Hemisphere, and told me it was looking a little unloved. (Could also be the heat?) There are no unloved buds here at Newstead, where every pot looks like a contender for Chelsea.

If you're a serious rosarian, you need to get your sweet derriere up here, pronto. 

It is truly glorious. You will adore it, I promise.

This is Dave, the head rose gardener. 

He speaks French to his French roses "because it encourages them to bloom". 
His pronunciation of Côte d'Azur (a yellow rose inspired by the Riviera city of Nice) was so perfect, I made him say it twice. Côte d'Azur. 

He was as gorgeous as the roses.

He'll also pick out the most scented cultivars for you.

He's generously written all the roses on little signs at the end of each row, to make selection easier. 

I was after the elusive Christian Dior and Paris de Yves Saint Laurent roses. 
Which seem so rare they could be a myth.

We bought a few roses. Then a few more. 
Then we drove home to inspect the borders.

This was the target. A sad patch of empty garden in our empty suburban backyard. 
Which we originally moved to just so I could have a garden. 

It was time to face the dirt.
(Note: The raised beds have been properly screwed together since then.)

I like pink, so we bought bright, Schiaparelli-esque numbers: Queen Adelaide (above); Princess Anne (a beautiful David Austin); Gertrude Jekyll (one of the highlights of Mottisfont); the Eiffel Tower (very vigorous), Madame Isaac Pereire, and Paradise (below).

Also William Morris (a pretty pale orange rose that reminds me of the designer's muted palettes), Queen Elizabeth, Charles de Gaulle, Brother Cadfael, New Dawn, and to really mix the colour palette up, a rose called (rather worryingly) Sexy Rexy. 

We also planted salvias, dahlias, lilies, lavender, geraniums and other hardy French-style flowers. 

Just in case the roses failed. 
Which was highly likely.

So many salvias...

Then we all waited.

The gravel was laid a day before this photo was taken. It makes the garden look like a rustic French potager but it also reflects the heat onto the underside of the plants. A gardener at Versailles told me this.

 I don't know how true it is but those gardens in our neighbourhood that have gravel on their paths and even in the garden beds grow roses as big as dinner platters.

(NB You're meant to paint your trellises, gates and arbours French blue too, but we choose French grey. It will match the timber of the raised beds when they age.)

The thing about roses is that they don't like a lot of fuss. They actually hate attention. 

Just mix the soil properly and remember your "$5 hole-for-a-$2-plant" mantra. 
(I've forgotten the proper soil formula, but just toss some heavily composted soil together with a little dynamic lifter and manure and water in with Seasol. I throw some slow-release fertiliser on a month later, after the roots have settled. Some people put the fertiliser in the hole first, but it's up to you.)

Roses also seem to prefer the morning sun—at least here in our Mediterranean climate. 

And for some reason, our pale roses like a little shade in the afternoon. 

That's another tip from Dave, the rosarian: choose roses that suit not only your area but also your backyard's microclimate.

Spray for black spot and pests if you need to. (I use garlic spray for the latter, and try to prevent black spot by having little half-trellis boundaries—rather than hedges—to allow cross-breezes. There's some good black spot advice on sprays here—link

The lovely thing about rose gardens is that they teach you patience. And of course humility. (Because not everything will grow like you hope it will.) Wisdom, too.

 I tend to think a lot in this garden. 
I make business decisions and then, doubting myself, think: how can I make this business model (or project / plan / business relationship) work better? Surely, I think, studying the salvias, there's a better way? Then I go back to the business decision and consider it again.

Inevitably the business decisions mulled over here are the best ones made.

Eventually, three months, a lot of heavy spring rains, and some hot, sunny days later, there was some action in the gravel...

The Pinkie roses erupted.

So did the Pierre de Ronsard.

And the Charles de Gaulles in the obelisk beds were enormous.

The thing about picking gardens is that it doesn't matter how much you pick; there always seems to be something left in the bed to rise up the following week. I always feel guilty and leave something on the stems but lately I've noticed that the more I cut this cutting garden, the better it gets. The roses seem to love the pruning.

It's incredibly easy to create a rustic French picking garden. 
If I can do it, with my novice gardener's ineptitude, you can too.

But the best thing about picking gardens isn't the outdoor work. It's filling the vases inside, at the end of the day. That's my favourite part, I think.

Such simple pleasures.
And such unending gratitude.

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