Mixing roses, other plants helps improve health, gardening aesthetics

Published 12:01 am Sunday, April 6, 2014

Conventional wisdom once cautioned that roses must grow alone in landscapes. No other plants could intrude, lest they deprive the favored plants of water and fertilizer. This was the way roses were grown in gardens large or small, especially if the gardeners competed in rose shows. But this advice became obsolete several decades ago, when even the most ardent rose enthusiasts changed their attitudes. Rose research now indicates that mixing roses with other plants (companion planting) actually helps the entire garden for several reasons. Health is first.

“A monoculture, a single type of plant, encourages insect and disease infestation,” said my friend and esteemed rose hybridizer Tom Carruth, formerly director of research for Weeks Roses in California; now curator of roses at The Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, Calif. “Including suitable annuals, perennials and even bulbs with roses is good for the garden. Companion planting attracts beneficial insects that devour pests like aphids.”

Then there’s the aesthetic reason.

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Roses look so stark by themselves. Mix roses with perennials or annuals for a softer effect. The late great English gardener and writer, Christopher Lloyd, was notorious for his dislike of roses in landscapes. He disdained the “bare legs” of exposed rose canes when leaves aged and dropped off. This is a common condition of hybrid tea roses, those lovely long-stemmed beauties with elegant, high centered flowers. Too frequently, the lower one-third to one-half of the plant is naked. There’s another way to solve the problem other than banishing them from gardens. Camouflage their defects with attractive plants around them.

There are many options. I appreciate all types of roses and like to use low growing floribunda, shrub or miniature roses as foreground plants. They make compact balls of flowers and green leaves. You can include edible herbs, like oregano, which spreads under rose bushes without being an invasive pest like mint. Other favorite herbs include catmint and dwarf catnips because of their attractive gray green foliage. Catnip may lure neighboring cats into a garden. A protective wire frame over the plant will secure it from turned-on felines. You can grow borders of parsley or opal basil. Oak leaf lettuces form low-mounded edgings. Rosemary is also nice for silvery or gray foliage and showy flowers.

When choosing companion plants, select those with similar horticultural requirements as roses — lots of sunshine, abundant water and regular fertilizer. When you tend the roses, you can also take care of the others at the same time. If you use edible plants, avoid spraying the landscape with chemical fungicides or insecticides.

There are some additional precautions. Avoid plants that can form competing root systems, especially daylilies. Be sure that spreading plants don’t smother the base of the rose plant. Too much moisture and not enough sunlight can weaken the plant and inhibit new cane growth.

By including companion plants, you can enjoy a garden with flowers and attractive foliage throughout the year, with roses as the leading ladies.


Karen Dardick is an author, journalist and Master Gardener who lives and gardens in Natchez.