November 19, 2013

Companion Plants for Roses

Many of us gardeners plan our gardens around our roses. I grow nearly thirty roses, mostly David Austin's English roses, so I thought I'd share some of the companion plants that grow well with them. Above is a picture of 'Eglantyne' (this large bush is actually three plants growing closely together, as Austin recommends), surrounded by various perennials, shrubs and trees. This vignette will look better as the plants continue to mature and fill in the bare ground. You can see 'Walker's Low' catmint (Nepeta) and 'Heartthrob' Korean dogwood tree are blooming in the background.   Evergreen 'Blue Star' Junipers, 'Otto Luyken' laurels, 'Emerald Blue' creeping phlox, 'Big Blue' lilyturf (Liriope), a 'Unicorn' corkscrew rush (Juncus) and boulders provide winter interest. 'Frances Joiner' daylilies (Hemerocallis) will flower while 'Eglantyne' is taking a break from blooming after the first heavy flush.   

Here you can see more 'Walker's Low' catmint along with dark 'May Night' salvia.  During some years the salvia is done blooming before the roses start.  I cut it back to a few inches tall and then it blooms again mid-summer while the roses are resting.  Some roses bloom continuously through summer, but most of the English roses have their heaviest bloom in late June/early July, then take a break before blooming sporadically through the last part of summer.  Usually I get a good fall flush of roses just before frost hits and they shut down for winter.

A very traditional companion plant for roses is lavender, like the shrub above growing at Temple Square in SLC. I have a few lavender plants, but I use a lot of other lavender-colored plants around my roses.

'Rozanne' hardy geranium is an excellent companion for roses. Its fluffy, mounding form fills around the base of roses without overpowering them. It starts blooming about the same time as my roses and continues without deadheading until frost. Fabulous plant. Other blue-violet choices include Baptista australis, 'Blue Chip' butterfly bush (Buddleia) and catmint. Russian sage (Peroskvia), 'Big Blue' lilyturf and asters bloom lavender with the heavy fall flush of roses.

Other mounding perennials blend well at the foot of rose bushes, including chartreuse lady's mantle (Alchimella). Hardy geraniums of many different colors that have long been popular in English gardens are becoming more popular and more available here in the USA. Some types of heuchera are large enough to blend well with roses. Evergreen wall germander (Teucrium chamaedrys) and 'Moonbeam' coreopsis also fill in well around roses.

It's fun to tuck some spring-blooming bulbs into rose gardens, though I lean toward smaller, earlier bulbs so their foliage won't be as distracting while dying back after bloom. It's just sad to see a rose in peak bloom with clumps of large, half-dead tulip leaves nearby.

Adding different forms to rose gardens add interest, even when the roses aren't at their peak. Here you see a rose in front of very upright 'Karl Foerster' grass at Temple Square. Grasses make me sneeze and give me a rash when I touch them, so I use other spiky plants in my garden.

Some of my favorite upright plants for rose gardens are delphiniums like 'Pagan Purples' above. The delphs in my garden usually peak with the first flush of roses, then I cut them down to the ground and they send up another round of flowers in late summer or early fall - often right in time for the fall flush of roses. This photo also shows 'Tanz Nochmal' Siberian irises whose spiky leaves contrast nicely with rounded rose bushes. I'm very excited to see deep pink spikes of 'Polkadot Princess' foxgloves blooming next year. I grew a few from seed but didn't get them planted in time for blooms this year. I did see 'Polkadot Pippa' foxgloves bloom and was underwhelmed with their pale color. The Polkadot series is sterile, which means the plants have more energy to spend making flowers because they're not trying to produce seeds. They are true perennials and may bloom for up to four months.

Creating a beautiful backdrop for a rose bush is possible with large shrubs like 'Black Lace' elderberry (Sambucus), above. I planted a chartreuse 'Ogon' spirea nearby a mauve rose last summer and look forward to taking photos of that combo when they both mature. Other good options for backdrops could come from viburnums or panicle hydrangeas.

Thinking of hydrangeas leads me to my next point of planting flowers that look good with roses in vases. The 'Little Lime' hydrangeas above work very well with English roses in fall, though usually I have to pull off some lower flower clusters to fit the branch into an arrangement (see examples here). I also appreciate snowberries (Symphoricarpos), asters, Japanese anemones and Veronica with fall roses.

There are too many options to count for flowers that work well in rose arrangements during the first flush, but my recent favorite is Astrantia, or masterwort.  The intricate flowers are best appreciated up close in an arrangement, and the leaves are just the right shape to form into a ruff around the base of a posy. 

I try to include a few plants near my roses that will bloom mid-summer when the roses are resting. I already mentioned daylilies for this purpose. It's easy to make room for a few oriental lilies, like the one in bud behind 'Lady Emma Hamilton' above (actually, it's an orienpet, but close enough).  I grow both 'Stargazer' and later-blooming Lilium speciosum var. rubrum.

Other good rose garden plants that bloom when roses are resting include coneflowers (like 'Milkshake' above - soon I'll transplant a 'Harlow Carr' rose to this area), as well as yarrow, Agastache, Campanula, upright Phlox, some Veronicas and 'Dazzleberry' sedum (another of my recent favorites).
Roses look so much better when grown with other plants instead of being segregated in a rose garden with only bare soil for company.  No doubt I've forgotten many good rose companion plants, but this will give a start.  Feel free to leave a comment with your favorite companion plants.       


  1. Hi VW,

    I'll definitely be planting roses in groups like you have (and like DA advises to) when we finally move. Your large shrub looks wonderful and I think Harlow Carr will really benefit from such an arrangement.

    I do love your little lime Hydrangea; such a wonderful colour and also I imagine fantastic for vases. Just can't get it over here. Apparently in the UK we can only get the mop-heads and some of the species ones, but nothing as pretty as your green one.

  2. Hi VW,
    Nicely done post and great photos!!! The most I liked is a combination of small roses with tall ornamental grass on a background.


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