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Perched on the Swan River escarpment at Claremont in Perth is a college for young ladies that’s surrounded by roses. Standing like a queen, at its centre is the same building that opened its doors to students in 1908. More than 100 years later, it’s surrounded by the modern school grounds necessary to service the needs of over 1,000 students. And it’s these grounds that have been the responsibility of Barry Burgess for ten years: he’s Grounds Manager at Methodist Ladies College, and the man with the magic…

“We’ve roughly 25 acres running from the Stirling Highway to the Swan River which we manage with a team of three full time.” Listening to Barry describe the sort of items that end up on the teams to do list, it’s obvious that the team gets thrown a fair few curve balls. From their base, a purpose-built space beneath the tennis courts, “We all head out first thing at six to check over our areas because a lot can happen between then three o’clock the day before when we finish work. Like this morning: we discovered that overnight, the two Moreton Bay figs sitting near the lawn we call The Great Court had dropped their figs all over it. It needed to be sorted quickly because today’s the day a photographer with a drone is to take a shot of the students standing on the lawn, throwing their hats up in the air.”

The original building still dominates the school along with the main drive – though there have been many additions in the years since.

With many, many left-field moments like this routinely shaking up the maintenance schedule, it’s good that the school’s landscape has easily managed bones. There are the old Araucarias at the front of the ‘blood-and-bandages’ school building, a wonderful paring of the heritage red brick & rendered Federation style architecture and the original landscaping. A hundred years later, Barry arrived and taking inspiration from historic plans, began planting the avenue of Chinese Tallow trees that now sweep up the main drive in an unbroken line. Hedges are used throughout, and together with the lawns, form the bulk of the team’s workload. But there’s one area Barry claims mostly as his own – the many, many roses.

Blood-and-Bandages Heritage Architecture

Here a close up of the blood-and-bandages heritage architecture, clothed in roses.

Since his arrival, the number of roses growing around the school has leapt by two thirds, and it takes him all July – working steadily – to give them their major annual prune. Apart from mid winter when the daffodils and iris take over while the roses regroup from their big cut, during the rest of the year it’s the roses that fill the spaces around the school with glorious colour and heady scent. Not that they remain outside because Barry also takes it upon himself to pick the roses for the college’s vases. “Our Principal, Rebecca Cody, is a big fan of the roses.”

Naturalistic Loose Planting

From a landscape view-point, Barry uses roses in many ways. Here above, they form part of a naturalistic loose planting; below they are clipped and regimented for a completely different effect.

Barry's Roses
Barry may have the magic touch but it’s boosted by expertise gained from a lifetime of growing things. At 73, Bazza as he’s known to the students, was once an engineer before establishing and running a plant nursery for 30 years. Along the way he built up a stud Limousin cattle herd, put 40 acres under vines (winning a few bronzes at the Swan Valley Show for his wine), and for the last ten years, managed the complex landscape around the college. So when he offers these tips for growing roses and having them perform almost on command, you feel it’s worth the read.

Barry’s Roses

1. Preparation: Whenever Barry plants a rose he digs a generous hole into which he tosses a handful of blood and bone. He then starts filling the hole with alternating layers of landscapers mix and animal manure. When the actively growing potted rose is tipped out of its pot, he’s careful to disturb it as little as possible, setting it onto the most recent layer (which needs to be landscapers mix to avoid burning the plant’s roots), then back fills the remainder of the hole.

2. Settling in: Barry waters his freshly planted roses in with a seaweed tonic. “It makes the plants produce new roots, takes away the shock, and then they’re off.”

3. Pruning: All the roses are given a hard prune back over July. But thanks to Perth’s climate, the potential flowering rose season is a long one, prolonged by Barry’s own approach. “I’m a big believer in heavy dead-heading and by that I mean that I cut a dead flower head off, right back to a strong green five leafed shoot.” Barry’s proven that a rose bush given this treatment will put on another show of blooms between 30 – 40 days later, information that’s useful if used in conjunction with a school calendar filled with highlights and periods of student absence.

4. Pests: Barry plants any rose that he thinks is lovely without worrying if it has a reputation for black spot or aphids. As it turns out, he tends not to encounter problems given the roses have a premium set-up from the point they hit the ground. When they’re pruned, they also benefit from a spray of ecological miticide and fungicide.

5. Water: Barry’s approach is the same across the campus. He makes good use of the school’s two bores delivering water via inline systems, always to mulched beds. “Mulch conditions the soil and reduces the evaporation.”

6. Politeness: With only a hint of tongue-in-cheek, Barry says the roses work hard to put on their show because he talks to them. Offering words of encouragement he works through the beds, tending them, as the scratched state of his arms bears witness.

Daffodils and Iris

Knowing the roses need a serious cut back in July, Barry interplants his beds with daffodils and iris so that there’s always something lovely to look at. (You can spot the remnant daffodils at right.)

Barry Burgess Photo

Barry Burgess is the rose whisperer.