In search of the most heavenly roses for a church garden

This summer, despite the swings of heat and rain, roses in terrestrial gardens were heavenly. Which of the newer roses are particularly good? What roses would be heavenly around a newly built church? These questions are quite varied but I have just taken them to the show gardens at David Austin’s Roses in Shropshire and put them to the top professionals.

Why did I ask this question about a church? It was given to me by a Greek Orthodox monastic priest trained over years in a monastery on Mount Athos in northern Greece. We met in a question and answer session, courtesy of the FT. If you’re wondering what comes out of FT Weekend’s events, one answer in the heavily trafficked House & Home section is connecting with readers I’d never meet otherwise.

During my talk at the Washington DC Festival in May, my eye caught the monk’s black hat and beard in the fourth or fifth row. Then he asked a test question: What roses would be best for the garden he’s planning for a new church north of Boston? Which varieties fit with the Geoponica, a 10th-century AD Greek text giving advice on gardening?

I’ve read the Geoponica, but I can’t remember it, especially after a flight to Washington. I vaguely invited my questioner, Father Andrew Bushell, to stop by Oxford one day. A week later he emailed me with appointments in June. At the Chelsea Flower Show, I consulted with David Austin Junior, the manager of the rose growing business, who was already flying solo before his father’s death in late 2018. We decided on June 16 before Father Andrew planned to fly to Poland to help with a refuge for young Ukrainians.

We drove from Oxford in my car, the atheist driving the orthodox monk, and as we sped down the freeways I learned more about Father Andrew and his career. As he told me, he had worked in management consulting at McKinsey. In the early 2000s he became a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and the Levant. He then ran an investment fund specializing in US utilities, which grew to over £2.5 billion in assets under management.

After the death of his wife, he decided to become a monk. He joined a monastery on Athos and learned how to separate sea salt from sea water. He had already taken brewing lessons from monastic houses in Europe that combine spirituality and drinking: they taught him how to brew beer like the brands they sell on their sites.

Father Andrew Bushell alongside Rose Harlow Carr

After eight years, the leaders of the Orthodox Order of Athos sent him as “Protos,” number one, to the St. Paul’s Foundation, a loose group in the United States that, like the apostle, is trying to spread the Christian religion. Father Andrew brought donors and a plan for a church in honor of St. Nicholas to be built in Marblehead, Massachusetts. He plans to add a rose garden dedicated to Mary, Mother of God, as Our Lady of Consolation.

In this time of contention, Orthodox Christians will unite in a garden, enjoying roses and buying beer brewed by their church. Proceeds will help fund expenses, a booze-to-rosary loop. The saint is the patron saint of seafarers, brewers and repentant thieves. Roses have been closely associated with Mary since the fifth century AD.

As we skirted West Bromwich I learned more about orthodox views
in divorce and remarriage. Second marriages can be blessed by priests, but in Father Andrew’s community, divorced people must accept a “certificate of spiritual death,” he says, the prelude to a new life. A gust of wind promptly blew these divorcee’s notes off the dashboard and out the car window, leaving us in danger of an unknown death. Without a satnav we made it to Bowling Green Lane, Albrighton, but only by intuition, signage and, in my opinion, luck.

The rose gardens, David Austin told us, were at their peak. It was a very hot day, but I can’t disagree. Under a shower of roses, Father Andrew unrolled plans for his garden on a table and noted that Austin’s birthday in August falls on the Feast of the Dormition. In response, Austin noted that a sea breeze near Marblehead would be beneficial for roses, but that truly old-fashioned varieties were unlikely to thrive.

From his marketing department, Liam Beddall then settled down to provide extensive advice. Austin and I then went out to meet Carl Bennett, director of rose breeding under two Austins, father and son, for more than 30 years.

The Pilgrim

The Pilgrim © Jonathan Buckley

Eustacia Vye

Eustacia Vye © Jonathan Buckley

Austin Senior’s legacy is alive and well. The nursery’s new yellow rose, Bring Me Sunshine, traces back to crosses he made at least 13 years ago, one of the many pedigrees Bennett has in his head. The transition went smoothly as Austin Sr. increasingly took a backseat, trusting Bennett and his abilities. Bring Me Sunshine’s buds open with centers that are more orange than yellow, but then fade to a densely leafed yellow that its breeders consider superior to the popular Graham Thomas. So I asked Austin and Bennett the impossible to name their top picks among bush roses and vines for FT readers.

As climbers, they highlight the beautiful yellow, the pilgrim; the pale yellow and white Malvern Hills with clusters of loose flowers; light pink Mary Delany, a “qualified multitasker” as they call it; the long-blooming deep pink Gertrude Jekyll, which they value more as a climber than as a shrub; and creamy white Claire Austin, which has round, cupped flowers.

For shrubs, they choose Olivia Rose Austin, pale pink, thrice flowering and my personal favourite. Bring Me Sunshine also stands out for her new yellow, as does Desdemona, which opens to a clear white and is a top choice for growing in pots. Small flowered Elizabeth is also in frame, a new one that I thought was too small and too busy but has won me over in beds in the show garden.

They also call Lady of Shalott for pots, one whose flowers combine orange and reddish yellow to a beautiful effect. For health, they emphasize Eustacia Vye, a very full, well-scented pink whose vigor struck me throughout the garden. It’s one we can all easily grow.

Back with his plans, Father Andrew completed his lengthy investigation. We digressed on the Communion of Saints, which he thought a Catholic friend of mine in Paris was orthodox and non-Catholic about, and then we went out to admire the pink flowering Harlow Carr, which was grown as a regular small tree. Somehow I forgot to tell him my personal choice of church climber.

Rose Félicité Perpétue is white flowering, heat tolerant and pays homage to two Christian martyrs killed in Carthage in 203. In her journal, which she kept in prison, Perpetua described a journey to paradise that she seemed to have in a vision. It was a walled garden of free-blooming roses, similar to the garden Fr. Andrew wishes to establish on earth.

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