Our top rose gardens in Kent

Paeonia 'Felix Crousse' in the Rose Garden in June at Sissinghurst Castle Garden, Kent

Each year, the sudden burst of colour in our traditional English rose gardens announces the arrival of early summer. Turn your back for a week, and one could believe that an exuberant firework display has gone off in the garden. Head Gardeners from three of Kent’s top rose gardens let you in on the secrets of their success.

The Rose Garden at Sissinghurst

Troy Smith, Head Gardener

Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson bought Sissinghurst in 1930 and created a garden over 30 years. He was the designer and she planted the spaces. It was a partnership of two talented personalities on a journey to create something beautiful together.

Push open a large oak door to the Rose Garden and you’re ambushed by the scent, colour and exuberance. That was Vita’s style; she gardened with this idea of romance and luxuriousness describing the roses as foaming and frothing.  We only grow old roses, bred before 1867. They can be tricky, but Vita really loved their habit and the romance connected to them in the stories of their centuries old origins. 

The first plant Vita ever planted here was a rose. Even before the deeds were signed she installed a creamy white rambler on the wall of the South Cottage, Madame Alfred Carriere. It’s still there today, 80 years later. She also loved rich, deep purple varieties such as Charles de Mills and Cardinal de Richelieu. She grew them all in one area complimented by other perennials including bearded iris and delphiniums. Everything flowers at the same time for that intense, explosive spectacle of colour and scent.

Pruning is particularly important with old roses. We try to maintain their vigour, constantly cutting out old material to encourage new growth. We try to remove all the fallen leaves to prevent the spread of disease. It’s about good husbandry, trying to keep the plants and the soil healthy, always proactive rather than reactive. 

The Rose Garden in June at Sissinghurst Castle Garden, Kent

Troy's top tips for roses 

• If you love old roses, but are nervous about growing them, try musk roses. Repeat flowering, wonderfully scented and disease resistant, they still maintain characteristics of those older varieties.
• Dead head regularly. It keeps the bush healthy, encourages repeat flowers, but importantly keeps them looking great.
• If you’re spraying, cease during flowering time to avoid residue on the flowers and clouding the scent.
• Take inspiration from other gardens. Why not join the Historic Roses Group, a great organisation, full of helpful people and a good source of support if you’re trying to grow or identify varieties.

Lady Clementine's Rose Garden and the Golden Rose Avenue at Chartwell 

Tim Parker, Head Gardener

Lady Clementine’s garden is a traditional English Edwardian style rose garden. You enter through a beautiful archway in the wall to discover big, solid beds of roses. Very symmetrical and very ordered it’s probably the most formal area of our gardens. It’s split into four sections with herbaceous and perennial borders around the outside and blocks of around 500 mostly pink roses towards the centre. At the apex of the cross you’ll find wisteria which is extremely unusual. Nepeta lines the cross section to set off the pink and balance the colour palate. Keep an eye out for the classic pink parfait roses.

The Golden Rose Avenue bisects the Kitchen Garden. It was gifted to Sir Winston and Lady Clementine on their golden wedding anniversary by their children, accompanied by an album so that they could see how it would look in bloom the following summer. Chocolate bar beds run the length of the avenue. Lamb’s ear and nepeta alternate along the path in front of low blocks of roses with taller varieties staked behind them, giving you a real punch of gold. A low lime-green beech hedge provides the perfect backdrop. Look out for the masquerade variety which starts out yellow but turns red.

It’s an absolute privilege to work here; we’re looking after a really significant piece of modern history. I love it because it was two people away from the public eye, indulging their passion for the outdoors and making the best of a garden they loved. It’s a challenging site to work in but that just adds to its charm. It’s an unbelievable location with a magic about it; Sir Winston said that a day away from Chartwell was a day wasted, I understand what he meant.

Lady Clementine's Rose Garden in summer at Chartwell

Tim's top tips for roses 

• Make your February annual prune before bud break to avoid brushing off any of the newly formed buds
• A good, thick mulch can help prevent a lot of weeding later on in the year
• Always prune to a bud rather than leaving a long stem, and try to make sure that the bud you choose is outward facing
• Look after your soil; get that right and everything clicks into place around it, it’s your most important resource

The Rose Garden at Emmetts Garden

Matthew Scott, Head Gardener

Frederic Lubbock had this garden designed for his wife Catherine. It’s a very traditional rose garden and the most formal area of our whole site. Visitors approach via the top of the Rock Garden but views on the approach are blocked by conifer hedges so it’s not until you’re actually on the raised flagstone path that you get the full effect. 

The colour and scent hits you all at once and there’s a lot to take in. We’ve reduced the height of some of the hedges so you’re also gifted views across the Kent Weald. The colour scheme is very traditional with pink and white blooms. Look out for a floribunda named fragrant delight, a salmon pink flower that, as the name suggests, is heavily scented. New for this year we’ve introduced a variety around the fountain called English Miss, very pale pink, almost white, with a lovely scent. Butterflies love the garden and we also have a healthy crop of bright dragonflies drawn by the fountain.

Whilst they’re only in bloom for the summer months, roses are a year round job. In winter we mulch all the beds, followed by a good winter prune to remove any dead, diseased or dying wood. We also take out some of the thicker, older growth to ensure new fresh chutes can come through. The lawn’s an important part of any rose garden and that’s our focus for autumn with scarification in spring to get rid of the thatch. Then it’s general mowing, edging, weeding and dead-heading in between.

Pond and fountain in the Rose Garden at Emmetts Garden, Kent, in June

Matthew's top tips for roses 

• Good pruning is really important, always follow the three Ds
• Use good, sharp, clean secateurs so you can get a good cut and the plant heals quicker
• When you’re mulching, make sure the mulch doesn’t sit too high up the base of the main stem as it’s likely to burn off in summer and rot
• Prune at the shoulders not at the fingertips