COMPANION PLANTING (by David Stevens)
I'd wager that there is not a gardener-or a non-gardener, for that matter-who is not familiar with the rose. It is arguably the world's most popular, widely used and best-loved plant. They are just gorgeous.
I am not a rosarian as such, but a designer with a great love for this wonderful plant. As a designer I am primarily interested in the way we create the bones of a garden and furnish it with plant material, bringing it alive in terms of personality, colour, fragrance, texture, shape, form and all those other things that make a successful composition work so well.
However, it continually amazes me how unimaginative many people, including designers, are when using roses. There is so much scope and so much fun to be had with them; it would be a shame not to take advantage.
The traditional method of display, which was certainly current when I was starting out on my career some 40 years ago, was to use roses in blocks of single varieties laid out in geometric patterns. Popular in both public and home gardens, segregation seemed an integral part of rose growing. In the last 15 years the variety of roses coming onto the market has increased dramatically: climbers, hybrid teas, groundcover roses, modern shrubs, miniatures, patios, and the list goes on. These new options have encouraged more mixing and matching, but I feel a great deal more needs to be done. Roses deserve better settings in beds big enough to accommodate larger varieties as well as other shrubs and hardy perennials.
But dedicated rose growers-those of us passionate about perfection-feel growing roses along with other plants will not result in perfect blooms. While I agree, I also think the use of roses as companion plants-with one species enhancing others-far outweighs any downgrading of quality, vigour or disease resistance, all of which can be minimal given the right growing conditions and choice of varieties.
But I am quite prepared to put up with a degree of mildew, blackspot and aphids. (I am an organic gardener and refuse to spray any plants.) So if my ‘Ballerina's, planted in a drift of a smaller Pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana ‘Pumila') and underplanted with Geranium sanguineum ‘Album', develop a spot of mildew in late summer, so be it. The combination of plants looks terrific.
An expert rose grower would say, probably quite rightly, that the mildew was a result of overcrowding. But if we can put up with roses that may not be perfect all season, it opens up a wide world of design options.
With any planting scheme, first check out the characteristics of the plants, including roses you are going to use. In most of my schemes I use floribundas and shrub roses, along with some of the groundcover types; whatever you choose, research just how tall and wide they will grow. Look also for the length of bloom period and disease resistance, the latter being even more important when using roses in mixed borders.
Although the flowers are the obvious joy of roses, do not be blind to the many varieties that produce fine hips, foliage or even thorns. For impressive thorns, try winged thorn rose (Rosa sericea ssp. omeiensis forma pteracantha); the large, translucent, red thorns on young wood are stunning. I have grown it with tall perennials such as a goldenrod (Solidago ‘Loddon Gold', for example) and the sulfur green bracts of Euphorbia polychroma. For best results prune this rose hard to ensure a good supply of new wood.
Most rose foliage is an excellent foil for other species, particularly if the plants are healthy. I just adore rugosas; those wonderfully wrinkled leaves form a great overcoat. Rugosas are pretty big plants so need an equally big border. I have a great drift of ‘Alba's set in front of a purple-leafed elder (Sambucus nigra ‘Guincho Purple', or substitute with S. racemosa ‘Plumosa' in colder climates) and shrubby white willows (Salix alba var. vitellina ‘Chermesina'), underplanted with Geranium x oxonianum ‘Wargrave Pink', which seems to flower forever. The pure white blooms of ‘Alba' sing out against the purple, while winter hips, borne in great abundance, carry the tune later in the year.
When choosing bedfellows for ‘Iceberg' roses, a lighter touch is called for. I love ‘Little Titch' catmint (Nepeta racemosa ‘Little Titch') beneath, interweaving the darker blue of Anchusa azura ‘Loddon Royalist' through the roses, all against a backdrop of Mexican orange blossom (Choisya ternata) with its glossy evergreen foliage. In colder climates, substitute smooth witherod (Viburnum nudum).
Advances in the development of new hybrids make the job of selecting roses for mixed borders a bit easier. For example, David Austin has been a pioneer in developing modern, repeat-flowering, fragrant shrub roses. In my view they are ideal here, as many are upright in habit and benefit from material grouped around them. Roses with upright habits are the best choices for mixed beds. A popular favourite-mine, too-is ‘Graham Thomas'. Its golden yellow is fantastic with the tall spires of dark blue delphiniums and the hazy blooms of Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia). I have set ‘Palace Purple' heucheras below, together with waves of silver lambs' ears (Stachys byzantina).
The possible combinations are limited only by your imagination. My advice is to get out into your garden and start mixing it up.