Q: I love the blooms of roses, but the plants look so stark growing alone in a bed. Can I combine roses with other plants for a better effect? — Burl Salmon, New Haven, Conn.
A: Yes, you can. A backdrop of brown soil does nothing to enhance the queen of flowers. The right companion not only beautifies the rose display, but also acts as a living mulch and a weed-suppressing carpet. Before you choose and plant companions, consider how much maintenance your roses will need. Hybrid teas, grandifloras, floribundas, climbers, and miniatures all require regular primping and pruning, as well as winter protection in cold climates. With all this activity in the bed, companion plants should be confined to the front or back of the roses, not between them, to allow easy access. Should you decide to go with these more labor-intensive roses, a border of catmint, dianthus, low-growing cranesbills, or nonflowering lamb’s ears ‘Silver Carpet’ and ‘Helene von Stein’ softens the bushes’ gawky forms. A background of shrubs with colorful foliage will set off the roses’ blossoms. Crimson Japanese barberry, blue upright junipers, and variegated red-stemmed dogwood are good choices.
If I were you, I’d forget the more demanding roses and select some tough beauties: species, shrub, and old garden roses, or the new, so-called landscape roses. With any of these, the only times you’ll be wading into the planting are in early spring to clean up winter’s debris and cut back any dead wood on the roses, and a few occasions during the growing season to deadhead spent blossoms. So you can surround them with masses of perennials, annuals, bulbs, and shrubs. Among these classes, you can’t beat the rugged, fragrant, lush rugosa hybrids for repeat bloom. Many rugosa selections also bear large, reddish cherry tomato–size hips in autumn. Classic old garden roses, though not repeat-flowering, are unsurpassed for the romantic beauty of their blooms. Some of my favorites are the fragrant pink ‘Maiden’s Blush,’ pure white ‘Madame Hardy,’ pink ‘Königin von Dänemark,’ and violet ‘Cardinal de Richelieu.’ Or experiment with the new repeat-blooming, low-growing, hardy roses that are entering the market from Germany. Some of the more popular cultivars are pale pink ‘Baby Blanket,’ white ‘Snow Pavement,’ and the rose-pink ‘Flower Carpet.’
As for companion plants, the possibilities are limited only in that they must match the roses’ cultural needs of full sun, ample water, and rich soil. Spike-shaped flowers, such as garden sage and veronica, and plants with lacy textures, like lady’s mantle, coral bells, and feverfew, complement the roses without stealing the show. The self-sowing annuals larkspur, love-in-a-mist, and Verbena bonariensis add a casual touch. Fragrant herbs, including artemisia, clary sage, and bronze fennel, make good bedfellows as well. Daffodils grown through a ground cover of sweet woodruff or Geranium macrorrhizum can give color before the roses begin, while later-blooming alliums and colchicums enhance the roses’ summer and autumn display.