Creating the perfect romantic rose garden
Cradled in a dip in ancient chalk downland and at one with its surrounds, this fluid Dorset garden is a sumptuous blend of romance and scent. Words Troy Scott Smith. Photographs Jason Ingram.
Name Upper Sydling House. What A farmhouse with a romantic garden that connects with the surrounding landscape. Where Dorset. Size Three acres. Soil Stony brash with a high water table. Climate Temperate, with warm summers and mild winters. Hardiness zone USDA 9.
Nestled in a fold of hills in deepest, rural Dorset is the picture-postcard village of Up Sydling, where wisteria-clad, flint-and-thatch cottages straddle crystal-clear, fast-flowing chalk streams. It is here, along a lane edged with high earth banks, that you eventually reach a cobbled ford, whose joyful margins burst with yellow flag iris, beyond which lies the garden of Susanne and Alastair Cooper. When the Coopers arrived here in 2005, they had no links with Dorset, but were looking for somewhere with multiple habitats where Alastair could farm organically. A passionate conservationist, Alastair immediately began to convert the farm to organic status. It is testament to his vision and hard work that everything looks organised, productive and healthy.
The farmhouse Upper Sydling sits in a valley surrounded by curvaceous hills; the light here seems to have a verdant luminosity, where lines are lengthened, and detail exaggerated. The landscape is everything and all views reach out towards it. Layered hedges along field boundaries, copses tucked into creases and veteran trees standing isolated link this ancient landscape back to the house and garden.
Susanne has always been fond of flowers, particularly peonies. “I’m mad about them, even though the blooms are so short-lived,” she says. A garden style of loosely interconnecting rooms (but more relaxed than, say, Sissinghurst) provides her with the intimacy and shelter to indulge her passions. The garden was not always like this, however; the current Rill Garden was originally an indoor swimming pool, the walled garden the site of lambing sheds, and outbuildings for food processing occupied a concrete yard to the side of the house. The Coopers initially worked with designer Simon Johnson on a framework for the garden. The walled Cutting Garden was the first thing they built. Cruciform in layout, at its centre is a dipping pool and fountain with four clipped hornbeams. Very much the beating heart of the garden, the Cutting Garden provides the flowers for the creative workshops that Susanne hopes to resume this summer. A way of sharing the garden with like-minded people, these days provide the chance for participants to see the garden and learn new skills.
Although this sufficed in the early years, a visit to Hanham Court, the then home of garden designers Isabel and Julian Bannerman, piqued Susanne’s interest in gardening further and confirmed the kind of garden she and Alastair wanted – romantic and intimate, full of roses, peonies and scent. In 2011, the Coopers presented the Bannermans with a brief to do just that. Since then, Susanne, an accomplished colourist, has refined the planting palette, finding out what works well aesthetically and in keeping with the garden’s organic principles.
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She is also experimenting with a sprinkling of rewilding in the borders, with feverfew, forget-me-nots, campions and honesty. “We’re using more annuals now, mostly grown here, to extend the season,”she says. She has also simplified certain smaller areas of the garden outside the original brief, with the aim of creating a contrast with the blousy and colourful herbaceous planting elsewhere. The result is subtle yet striking; muscular yet free-flowing.
The effect on entering the rose garden is one of tight design offset by loose and fluid planting. The Bannermans’ touch is everywhere, from the clipped yew balls, acidic-yellow euphorbia and bearded irises to the eryngium gently self-seeding in the gravel, adding a softness and spontaneity to the planting, and an oversized copper planter stuffed to the gunwales with tulips. The built structures are typically Bannerman too, with beautifully crafted flint walls topped with green-oak balustrade. Sixteen beehive yews stand guard, and scented shrubs such as lilac and philadelphus provide the structural framework for perennials, annuals and bulbs to foam in contented exuberance. There is a contrast of textures and materials, but all is restrained; informal uniformity is the abiding feel.
The spring layer of planting segues effortlessly into summer, when Susanne’s beloved roses take centre stage. Spilling from every nook and cranny, sometimes alone, sometimes in a huddle, but always spectacular, hundreds of plants explode into bloom through June and July. Reflecting on the process of making a garden, Susanne admits that it takes time: “Sometimes you have to accept that something won’t work where you want it to – this is the hardest lesson.” Not that you’d know it from seeing this garden, with its unerring sense of proportion and detail that takes nothing away from its surroundings.
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12 Key Roses
Rosa ‘Königin von Dänemark’
This old alba cultivar from the early 1800s has fully double, quartered blooms of pale pink with a strong scent. Grey-green, healthy foliage is held on tall, slightly arching, thorny stems. 1.5m. AGM*. RHS H7, USDA 4a-9b†.
Rosa ‘Madame Hardy’
A damask rose of antiquity and great charm. Highly fragrant, pure-white, double blooms with a green button-eye. Prefers an open sunny site, but is usefully tolerant of poorer soils. 1.2m. AGM. RHS H7.
Rosa Apple Blossom (= ‘Noamel’)
A very vigorous rambler with clusters of apple-blossom pink flowers with crinkled petals. Not much scent, but useful for growing on pergolas and pillars as the stems have few thorns. 3m. RHS H6.
Rosa ‘De Resht’
A Portland damask rose with repeat-flowering, fuchsia-red, fully double, pom-pom shaped flowers. Highly scented with healthy, abundant, rough-textured foliage. 1m. AGM. RHS H7, USDA 4a-9b.
Rosa ‘Charles de Mills’
The rich, sumptuous, velvet-purple colouring of this rose was loved by Vita Sackville-West, who once said they should be approached as though they were textiles rather than flowers. 1.2m. AGM. RHS H6.
Rosa gallica ‘Versicolor’
A very old gallica rose, striped pink and white. Once it flowers in early June, it associates well with Gillenia trifoliata and Alchemilla mollis. Bears small, oval, persistent hips in autumn. 1m. AGM. RHS H7.
A highly recommended musk rose, whose flowers are pink with salmon shadings and a definite silvery finish. Repeats well through the year. The foliage is crisp, mid-green and attractively crinkled at the edges. 1.5m. AGM. RHS H6.
Rosa ‘Bobbie James’
Named after the Hon Robert ‘Bobbie’ James, who designed and planted the gardens at St Nicholas in Richmond, North Yorkshire in the early 20th century. A tall, rangy rambler with clusters of white flowers. 10m. AGM. RHS H6, USDA 3a-8b.
I fell in love with this rose when I saw it growing over the side of the dipping pool in the walled garden at Mottisfont Abbey. Masses of cupped, semi-double, clear-pink flowers borne on lax trusses through summer. 1m. RHS H6.
Rosa ‘Ferdinand Pichard’
A hybrid perpetual, raised, like many in this group, in the 1920s. A bicolour with double flowers in pleasing crimson, pink and white colouring. Tolerant of poor soils, but requiring a sheltered position. 1.2m. AGM. RHS H6.
Like most old roses, ‘Ispahan’ flowers once, but it starts early and can last for several weeks in bloom. A strong growing plant with numerous, mid-pink flowers among healthy foliage of soft green. Highly and deliciously scented. 1.2m. AGM. RHS H6.
*Holds an Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society. †Hardiness ratings given where available.
Further details on Susanne’s workshops are available dorsetwalledgarden.co.uk