© Janet Davis

Until recently, roses—especially modern roses like hybrid teas, floribundas and grandifloras—were often kept segregated from other garden plants in ghetto-like rose beds, unwitting victims of their own high-maintenance reputations and prima-donna bad press. 

After all, the thinking went, don’t modern roses look ugly in spring after that drastic spring pruning?   And what about all those insect pests and  fungal diseases like black spot and powdery mildew?  Won’t they spread to or from other plants and be that much worse in a mixed border?  Besides, isn’t it better to let roses be appreciated on their own, rather than force them to mingle with hoi-polloi like daisies and delphiniums?

Those are all valid questions, but not the serious issues they’re often thought to be.  It is true that modern hybrid teas, floribundas and grandifloras need spring pruning to remove winter-damaged wood and promote vigorous growth and abundant flowering.   But as long as sufficient sunshine reaches the newly-pruned canes to kick-start vegetative growth and promote budding, isn’t it preferable to camouflage that little pile of naked, thorny sticks with some low-growing spring perennials and bulbs?  And later, when the bushes are in flower, wouldn’t it be nice if those gorgeous blooms could enhance those of their neighbors and contribute to the garden’s design as a whole?  

Thankfully, the gardener’s palette is not restricted to these three types.  There are thousands of shrub roses, both modern and old-fashioned, that once established, require only the same pruning as other shrubs, i.e.   removal of the oldest canes every few years, thus making them excellent choices for the mixed border.  

As for insects and disease, roses grown in rose beds are, like all monoculture plantings, sitting ducks for pests that thrive on host-specific plants. Spores of the fungus that causes black spot can easily spread from rose to rose during irrigation or rainy weather, and insects like Japanese beetle, aphid, midge, spider mite and leafhopper have no trouble migrating from one bush to the next.  But when roses are mixed with other plants, these pests are physically cut off from the next easy conquest.  And if problems do occur, spot organic treatments can be administered, rather than wholesale spraying of an entire bed.   Thankfully, most rose catalogues and reference books recommend disease-resistant cultivars that make life easier for the gardener intent on treating roses like the rest of the garden flowers.

As for isolating roses in rose beds to show them off, few home gardeners these days have the space or resources to keep the “queen of flowers” in its own exclusive realm, especially when it can be put to such good use as a companion. 

Here are some tips for partnering roses with other garden plants.  

Species Roses with Spring Shrubs and Perennials

Three spring-flowering species shrub roses have yellow blossoms:  pale-yellow Father Hugo’s rose (R. xanthina),  semi-double ‘Harison’s Yellow’ (R. harisonii) and bright yellow ‘Austrian Briar’ (R. foetida).   Their early bloom makes them good candidates for a mixed shrub border where they combine nicely with weigela, lilac, fragrant spring viburnums, bridalwreath spirea, deutzia and tree peonies.    Underplant them with late-season bulbs such as viridiflora or fringed tulips and Allium aflatunense ‘Purple Sensation’ as well as spring-blooming perennials like lungwort (Pulmonaria spp.), gold alyssum (Aurinia saxatilis), moss phlox (Phlox subulata), Geranium x cantabrigiense ‘Biokova’, sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum), candytuft (Iberis sempervirens) and rockcress (Aubrieta deltoides).   

A species rose with a slightly later season, around the time of beauty bush (Kolkwitzia amabilis), is the Red Leafed rose (Rosa glauca, formerly R. rubrifolia).  Very hardy and quite shade-tolerant, this tall arching shrub is grown not so much for its sprays of small, single-pink flowers as for its purplish-gray foliage and reddish-violet stems, which make it an effective contrast to green foliage.  It would make a lovely backdrop to a pink garden scheme, perhaps as a host for the mauve-pink clematis ‘Hagley Hybrid’.   With its abundant clusters of orange-red fall hips, R. glauca is useful in naturalistic wildlife gardens, where it combines well with low-maintenance perennials and other berried shrubs. 

Partners for Shrub Roses

The romantic, often perfumed old or “antique” roses include Albas, Bourbons, Centifolias, Damasks, Gallicas and Mosses and the more modern Hybrid Perpetuals and Hybrid Musks.  For the most part, colors range from white and cream through all shades of pink to deep crimson and all look wonderful near plants with silvery-gray foliage, such as Artemisia ‘Silver Mound’, ‘Silver King’ or ‘Valerie Finnis’ and lamb’s ears (Stachys lanata).  Their main flush of bloom occurs in late spring or early summer, depending on the region, but a few continue flowering sporadically throughout the season while others repeat in a second modest show in late summer.   

Modern shrub roses, on the other hand, are complex hybrids of species and modern roses.   Included are the Canadian-bred Morden and Explorer series as well as the David Austin-bred “English” roses and the so-called landscape roses bred by Meilland, Kordes and others.

Shrub roses combine easily with the huge cast of sun-loving perennials and biennials that also bloom in early summer and share the same love of reasonably-rich, adequately-moist soil.  They’re perfect for cottage-style gardens where informality is key, or they can be used in the front, middle or back of a perennial border, depending on their size. 

For planting near antique roses like white ‘Blanc Double de Coubert’, striped pink-and-white ‘Rosa Mundi’, pink ‘Fantin-Latour’ and velvety-red ‘Tuscany’, think of old-fashioned, early summer perennials in similar hues of white, pink and crimson.  Choose painted daisy (Tanacetum coccineum), Shasta daisy (Leucanthemum x superbum), pinks (Dianthus spp.), meadowrue (Thalictrum spp.), columbine (Aquilegia spp.), gas plant (Dictamnus albus) and late-season peonies. 

Blue, lavender and purple flowers mix exceedingly well with soft-pink old roses like ‘Madame Ernst Calvat’ and ‘Konigin von Danemark’.  Consider blue flax (Linum perenne), columbine (Aquilegia spp.), lavender (Lavandula), peach-leaf bellflower (Campanula persicifolia), Geranium ‘Johnson’s Blue’, Siberian iris (Iris sibirica), catmint (Nepeta x faasennii), veronica and false indigo (Baptisia australis).

Self-seeding biennials such as foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), rose campion (Lychnis coronaria) and sweet William (Dianthus barbatus) have long been grown in cottage gardens with antique roses.  Nurture them in an out-of-the-way spot the first summer as they form their foliage rosette, then move them into their flowering positions near the roses the following spring.

And if a sweet-scented garden is what you long for, pair fragrant old roses with perfumed lilies such as white Lilium regale or lime-loving Madonna lily (Lilium candidum).

Modern Shrub Roses

Modern shrub roses are complex hybrids of species and/or old roses with modern roses (especially floribundas) that give them added qualities such as cold-hardiness, disease-resistance and often repeat or continuous bloom.  Thus, they are generally better for a low-maintenance garden than old roses.  Some, like the David Austin-bred “English” roses extend the color range into peach and yellow, the popular ‘Graham Thomas’ being a good example. 

The Canadian-bred Morden series includes roses like ‘Morden Blush’ with flesh-pink blossoms that are enchanting near purple balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflorus).  ‘Morden Centennial’ is a tough shrub with double, clear-pink blooms that look great near a summer phlox like ‘Bright Eyes’, whose light-pink flowers with a cerise “eye” pick up the rose color.

The magenta-pink flowers of the big Explorer shrub ‘John Cabot’ or the Rugosa Hybrids ‘Roseraie de l’Hay’ and ‘Hansa’ can clash with other plants.   Avoid hot colors (red, orange and yellow) and think instead of rich purples like Delphinium ‘Black Knight’ or tall, white-flowered perennials like snakeroot, Cimicifuga racemosa or billowing Crambe cordifolia.

All of the early-summer perennials listed as partners for old roses can be grown with modern shrubs, of course, but because of the longer bloom season, later-blooming perennials and shrubs can be tried as well.  Consider baby’s breath (Gypsophila paniculata) near creamy-white ‘Seafoam’; blue monkshood (Aconitum napellus) near light-pink ‘Bonica’; purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) beside pink-and-cream ‘Carefree Wonder’; and blue mist bush (Caryopteris x clandonensis) with single-pink ‘Nearly Wild’.

The small polyantha rose ‘The Fairy’ has sprays of pink flowers all season long that contrast well with the vertical spires of Veronica ‘Sunny Border Blue’ and, later, with reddish-pink obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana).

Hybrid Teas, Grandifloras and Floribundas

For the most part, hybrid teas, grandifloras and floribundas are shorter than shrub roses, but their long stems make them excellent as cut flowers.  They generally start flowering a little later than old roses, but bloom continuously into fall, making them good companions for annuals and summer and fall perennials, especially low-growing ones that hide their bare canes. Best of all, they extend the color range into bright yellow, orange and scarlet, creating opportunities to pair them with other hot-colored flowers.

The yellow daisies of Coreopsis ‘Zagreb’ or Anthemis ‘Kelwayi’ would be cheery companions to an award-winning floribunda like orange ‘Brass Band’ or golden ‘Sunsprite’, while a taller daisy like Rudbeckia fulgida ‘Goldsturm’ would bring out the heat in red roses like ‘Parkwood Scarlet’ or ‘Satchmo’. 

The floribunda ‘Iceberg’, touted as the best white rose ever, is good in an all-white scheme or paired crisply with perennials like red beebalm (Monarda didyma) and blue Veronica longifolia.  And the classic, high-centered blooms of the tall grandiflora ‘Queen Elizabeth’ will still be opening when the pink and white September blossoms of Japanese anemone  (Anemone x hybrida) emerge.

Annuals can be tucked in under roses to provide long term colour where it’s most needed.  Generally, those with small, informal blooms like diascia, nierembergia, nemesia, larkspur (Consolida ambigua), Chinese forget-me-not (Cynoglossum amabile) and love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena) are preferable to stiff, gaudy annuals such as marigolds, red salvia or bedding geraniums which compete too much with showy rose blossoms. 

Roses and Herbs 

Since monks tended their cloistered gardens in the Middle Ages, roses such as the apothecary rose (R. gallica officinalis) have been grown alongside medicinal and culinary herbs, often in formal parterres.  But whether a classic knot garden sculpted in boxwood, germander and rue or a casual contemporary planting of rosemary, oregano and thyme, roses and herbs marry exceedingly well.

Shrubby lavender (Lavandula spp.) is a familiar rose companion and its blue spikes are especially sumptuous with deep red roses.   Similar in effect but much hardier is blue catmint (Nepeta x faassenii), particularly choice cultivars like ‘Dropmore’.   Where hardy, the silvery foliage of lavender cotton (Santolina chamaecyparissus) complements roses but care should be taken to choose a rose color that won’t clash when the bright yellow flowers of the santolina emerge.  The frothy chartreuse flowers of lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis) look sensational under roses, especially dark-red ones.  Self-seeding borage (Borago officinalis) lends a clear blue to enhance yellow, peach or red roses.  Sages, including tall blue Salvia x superba and cultivars like ‘May Night’ go well with roses; effective as groundcovers are  low ones with decorative leaves like golden sage (Salvia officinalis ‘Aurea’).

Climbing Roses with Flowering Vines

One of the best ways to grow a clematis vine is to let it piggy-back on a climbing rose.  For obvious reasons, the best choices are those summer-blooming clematis from pruning group 3 that get cut back hard in spring, e.g. purple ‘Jackmanii’ and pink ‘Comtesse de Bouchaud’ or Viticella hybrids like ‘Venosa Violacea’ and ‘Polish Spirit’, all of which can be paired with modern climbers that flower through the summer.  (Although large-flowered late spring clematis like ‘Ramona’ and ‘Nelly Moser’ are beautiful, their habit of blooming on old wood means that necessary spring rose pruning must gingerly avoid snipping the clematis.)   In my own garden, I grow clematis ‘Hagley Hybrid’ with the reliable climbing rose ‘New Dawn’.  Even a late-bloomer like sweet autumn clematis (C. terniflora) with its September clouds of tiny white blossoms on 15-foot (5 meter) stems makes a charming counterpoint to a rambler like pale pink  ‘Clair Matin’ whose long canes reach skyward in fall.  

Certain species of honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.) are fragrant and make a heavenly bower with perfumed climbing roses.  Passionflower’s intricate flowers would steal the show and wisteria is too vigorous to admit enough sun for a rose to thrive, but morning glory (Ipomea spp.) and sweet peas (Lathyrus odoratus) are fine annual vines to grow through climbing roses. 

Roses and Grasses, Both Tame and Wild

With the growing use of ornamental grasses in gardens and the increasing trend toward naturalistic gardens or meadows, certain types of roses are set to play an exciting role.  Key to success is picking the right rose, i.e. tough species or hardy shrubs that convey an informal look.  It’s in the nature of roses with a suckering habit—like hybrids of R. rugosa which is native to grassy coastal sand dunes in Asia—to spread, so they naturally fare better against the root competition of grasses in a meadow garden. 

Look for roses that form hips in late summer, creating an ornamental effect and providing valuable winter food for birds and wildlife .  Hip-formers whose leaves also color in autumn are Rosa rugosa and its hybrids ‘Hansa’, ‘Fru Dagmar Hastrup’ and ‘Scabrosa’.  Certain native roses have leaves that color in fall and look at home with grasses and wildflowers.  Included are small, spreading R. nitida, native from Newfoundland to New England and bearing single-pink June flowers; trailing (to 15 feet or 5 meters); Prairie rose, R. setigera with its clusters of single-pink blossoms in summer; and tall, pink-flowered R. palustris, one of a few roses for damp soil. 

Adapted from a story that appeared originally in Canadian Gardening magazine

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