La vie en Rose

Do roses grow well in a Mediterranean garden on the French Riviera?

RRoses, these thorny, but smooth-petalled and perfumed flowers have been an integral part of our culture for thousands of years. Ancient Sumerians adored them cultically, in China roses have been cultivated since 2700 B.C., the Egyptians dedicated the red rose to their goddess Isis. Greeks crowned their glorious warriors with them, and the infamous Roman emperor Nero indulged his guests at the legendary “sub rosa”-party with rose petals, rosewater, rose oil and rose wine. In the early age of sail roses became the export hit of the Orient and, when the “War of the Roses” was finally over, England made the rose its national flower.

Roses inspired art, music and literature: Botticelli’s “Primavera” strews roses from her ruffled sheer white dress, “Sleeping beauty” was dead to the world for a hundred years behind a hedge of roses, Gertrude Stein bewildered us with “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”, Richard Strauss sent us the “The Knight of the Rose”, Saint-Exupéry’s “Little Prince” worried about his rose, Hildegard Neff asked whether “Red roses are to rain for me”, pretty good noise was served by Guns ‘n Roses and Edith Piaf’s “La vie en Rose” feels for many French people like a national anthem.

Is there any other flower that has achieved such popularity?

People who deprecate roses, claim that they are intricate, require a lot of work and are prone to diseases. This, with all due respect, is pure nonsense. Roses are quite hardy – a true pleasure for eyes and nose and near the Med they bloom nearly throughout the year. I would like to encourage you to plant and enjoy roses on the French Riviera and I would be delighted to tell you what you can do to make it work.

Choose the right spot.
Your roses need sun, but here in the south: rather not the entire day. Ideally your roses would soak up the sun during mornings but enjoy half-shade or shade during afternoons. Trees or large bushes delivering a “dappled shade” help create a climate that is appreciated by roses, ensuring they don’t get burnt in the sun.

Prepare the rose before planting.
You should water your bare-root or container roses for approximately half an hour in a bucket. With container roses press the root ball gently and loosen the roots a little, if the root ball is compacted.

Make your rose a nice bed.
Dig a really big hole. Roses withstand poor soils, even barren, sandy or clayey. For drainage reasons put some stones into the planting hole. Add some sand, after that compost and good soil. Create a tiny knoll and set the rose with spread roots on top. Check the correct height: the bud union must not sit too high or too low: ideally it sits just above ground level. You can add some root hormone, but please mix it with the soil, so it doesn’t touch the sensitive ends of the roots. Now you can fill the hole with the rest of mixed soil and compost and press gently. Water your rose and – job done!

Correct irrigation.
In the south of France I recommend installing an automatic irrigation system (like Rainbird, Hunter or Gardena). Uncomplicated to install they cater for your plants when you are not around. If you prefer not using such a system, please note that all your plants, not only roses, need to be watered daily between April and October and even twice a day in July and August.

Prune properly.
You can prune your shrub, climbing or rambling roses between January and March. Each type should be cut in the – individually – correct way: you can find tutorials on the Internet, or you get a professional to do it. During the blooming period deadhead roses regularly by cutting the spent blossoms with stem exactly 3-5mm above the next shoot, using sharp and clean rose secateurs (it’s easier wearing reading glasses). Cut slightly diagonally, so that rain water can run down easily. If you leave longer stems, they will blacken and die back.

Pests and Diseases.
When your roses suffer from pests or diseases, they need help. Avoid aggressive pesticides and try first to treat them with Savon Noir, Curd Soap or Bouillie Bordelaise. If you are still struggling to solve the issue, take some of the infected leaves to a local garden centre and ask for advice. VillaVerde stores in Antibes, Fréjus and Cogolin all offer this service.

Which roses should I buy?
I would always recommend investing in roses that bloom a second time (and keep on blooming!) as those will bring you joy right through to December. I consider a distinctive rose scent just as important, and if you feel the same, I recommend fragrant David Austin roses, such as “The Generous Gardener” and “A Shropshire Lad” (both climbers) as these are some of my personal favourites.

A last tip: Do you like the song “La vie en rose”? Jack Nicholson’s cover version is without equal!