The late Apple founder chose to line the driveway with English roses named Constance Spry -- a pink, myrrh-scented climber bred by Austin. The grower has created more than 200 flowers, though they all owe their existence to the lowly spud.
Austin was just four years old when he persuaded his grandmother to let him plant a few potatoes on the edge of a field hidden by a hedge.
“I was so keen,” he recalls. “She gave me a patch in the garden. It kept expanding.” It’s still growing more than 80 years later.
Ditching tubers for roses, Austin transformed his grandparents’ Shropshire farm into the hub of a multinational operation. He is now 86 years old, still trying to combine the fragrance and shrubby growth of old roses with the color range and repeat-flowering stamina of modern varieties.
His blooms go as far afield as Bhutan and Russia. Constance Spry was his first hit back in 1961, and it typifies the traits he breeds for -- traits he sums up in a single word: charm.
“You either know it or you don’t,” he says.
We’re sitting in his wood-paneled living room with Michael Marriott, the company’s head rosarian and technical manager of 30 years. The weather is aptly English, birdsong drifting in from the sodden show garden where petals scatter the lawn.
Breeding roses, despite their ephemerality, is a savage process. For every three or four new roses that finally make it into the company’s catalog, around 80,000 others will have fallen by the wayside during the eight-year trialing process.
As well as pleasing the eye and tantalizing the nose, they must be pest-resistant.
Those pests aren’t always who you’d expect. In Albrighton, Austin’s peacocks have acquired a taste for the buds. Or perhaps they’re simply bored of being upstaged. At his Japanese office, it’s wild boars that have been running amok in the densely planted beds.
As he tells it in the latest edition of his best-selling book, “David Austin’s English Roses,” the rose has always held a special place in gardeners’ hearts. It was prized medicinally as well as ornamentally by the ancients, and has been used as a religious, historic and political emblem around the globe.
Of course, roses are also intensely romantic.
“It’s funny, I never quite liked the word romantic,” Austin says. “It suggests something that’s purely in your head, as if the object itself isn’t very beautiful.” If ever he had given flowers to his late wife, Pat, she would have wondered what he’d done wrong.
If he weren’t breeding roses, he would probably be driving a combine harvester, he says. In his tweed jacket and plaid shirt, he certainly dresses the part of the gentleman farmer. He has the manner, too -- modest and sparely spoken, with a thoroughly unsentimental respect for nature.
While he speaks of his roses like children - “You can see the parents in them” -- he certainly doesn’t talk to them like Prince Charles advocates.
When I ask whether an eye for beauty is something he’s had to cultivate, he smiles coyly. “I think I was always a bit that way. I was dyslexic and the one thing I could do was draw.”
Breeding plants is more of an art than a science, he says. Pollination is even done with a paintbrush. What science there is seems decidedly low-tech. In a greenhouse made tropical by a hissing humidifier, clothes pegs prove crucial to the grafting process.
Elsewhere, workers extract seeds by pummeling the hips with wooden mallets, thumping along to a radio that plays R&B. The cut-flower testing shed looks like an art gallery, its white benches lined with beakers, a single pink, peach, or yellow stem in each.
Marriott’s official duties include -- yes -- smelling the roses. On a tour of the garden, he casually beheads samples, shaking water from them like umbrellas before burying his nose in their petals, twirling them slightly beforehand as if preparing to taste wine.
Their scents encompass musk and tea, guava and lychee, and the gray sky makes their colors pop, myriad shades on every bush. The closer you look, the more variance you see. Here is the Kew Gardens rose with just five petals to each bloom, over there the Spirit of Freedom, which packs as many as 200.
There are aspects of the business that irk Austin. Picking the name of a rose, for instance, is “absolute murder.” Yet he doesn’t envisage retiring for another decade, if then. As he puts it, “There’s no end to beauty.”
“The English Roses” is published by Conran (320 pages, 30 pounds). “David Austin’s English Roses: Glorious New Roses for American Gardens” (160 pages, $9.95) is published by Little Brown. To buy the book in North America, click here.
To contact the writer on the story: Hephzibah Anderson in Shropshire, England, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at email@example.com.