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Life is Better With friends

by Mirjana Toyn, Consulting Rosarian, Connecticut Rose Society

This is a 2020 AOM winner


ABOVE: A classic pairing: 'Eden' and Clematis, photo by Mirjana Toyn

Many devoted rosarians abhor growing other plants – commonly referred to as ‘weeds’ – amongst their prize roses. It certainly makes for easier maintenance when you can just hoe around your rose bushes, unconcerned about damaging delicate shoots of companion plants or always having to divide encroaching perennials. In my case, I was a gardener first before I became a rose lover and that inevitably influenced my design philosophy. My garden is very much in the English tradition of mixed borders, tightly clipped boxwoods, and exuberant flowers spilling into each other. I strive to create a sanctuary not just for my family and pets, but also a healthy ecosystem for wildlife and beneficial insects. I get great pleasure seeing butterflies flitting around the garden, bees buzzing around the herbs, and birds feasting on berries in winter.


Growing other plants with roses not only provides visual interest, but can deter pests and create healthier growing conditions, provided you don’t crowd the roses too much and compromise air circulation. Companion plants need to thrive under the same growing conditions as roses. Azaleas and rhododendrons are too acid loving and can get too large. I misjudged how quickly arborvitae outgrow their space and lost a few roses because of it. You will regret choosing fast growing or invasive perennials that self-seed aggressively. My experiment with phlox was a huge mistake: it will smother everything and needs a space all to itself far, far away from your roses. Consider the relative size of all your plants. Don’t grow a miniature rose beside a big clump of Shasta daisies! So, what plants make good rose friends?


As rosarians we are always battling disease and pests. Members of the allium family like chives are carefree, allegedly keeping blackspot at bay and repelling aphids, voles, weevils, and borers. Allium cristophii grows about a foot high, bearing large, lacy lavender flowerheads. Allium ‘Gladiator’ ranges from three to four feet in height and has smaller, denser purple blooms the size of tennis balls. Marigolds have long been beloved of vegetable gardeners as their pungent smell repels pests. Low growing geraniums are pretty and keep Japanese beetles away from your roses. The delicate color of ‘Twice in a Blue Moon’ is echoed in the dainty geranium that has been planted beneath it for emphasis. ABOVE: 'Twice in a Blue Moon'.


Think about contrasting shapes, foliage, textures, and colors. A few years ago, I juxtaposed the shiny green foliage of ‘Intrigue’ with the silver fuzzy leaves of stachys officinalis, or lamb’s ears. If you don’t like the flower spikes that form, you can just remove them and keep the plant growing low on the ground. The Colonials used lamb’s ears to line paths. Imagine combining it with white roses for a moonlight garden! ABOVE: 'Intrigue'


Climbing roses and clematis are a classic pairing (TOP PHOTO). The vine is delicate enough not to harm the rose and appreciates the shade for its roots. Think of it as jewelry for your roses, each enhancing the beauty of the other. Clematis come in so many colors and shapes that you can create a unique look. We may not have a blue rose, but we can add blue companions to the design. I have an unnamed variety snuggle up to ‘Eden’. Lavender, thyme, sage, perovskia (Russian sage) and nepeta (catmint) are wonderful herbs that attract beneficial insects galore and make great rose friends. Only remember to keep a little distance in your planting. ‘Dr. Huey’ (RIGHT) cheekily appeared in my front garden some years ago and I left it there for the longest time because of the charming red, white and blue effect with nepeta and my picket fence.

LEFT: Dr. Huey with Nepeta. RIGHT: England, at the Royal Rose Society’s garden


Alchemilla mollis (lady’s mantle) is a staple in my garden. Its frothy chartreuse flowers and architectural leaves are perfect for edging or concealing bare canes of large roses. It never really gets unruly. The photo on the far right was taken in England, at the Royal Rose Society’s garden. They use a variety of companion plants in a large part of their display gardens, like heuchera (coral bells). They come in a dizzing array of foliage colors, from silver to lime green, orange, purple and speckled. Even though heuchera is suited for shade, it can thrive in sun. I had some seed in the crevaces of my hot, sunny stone patio for years. It is a well behaved plant and can provide stunning contrast to your roses. The cultivar ‘Midnight Rose’ even has purple leaves speckled with magenta!


In the brutal heat of mid-summer, when my once blooming OGRs are done, I appreciate my lilies. I grow several varieties like Turk’s Cap, orientals and madonna lilies. Tall lily spikes tower above shrub roses while adding a complex, intoxicating fragrance that engulfs your senses. One caveat: the Turk’s Cap lily develops bulblets along its stem and you will get many baby lilies as they drop to the ground. I like to collect them as they ripen and gift them to friends.


One of the best contrasts in shape is provided by bearded iris with their spiky, lancet shaped leaves. I love white ‘Immortality’ as it reblooms in the fall. Digitalis (foxglove) is another, easy companion, grown here with ‘Pat Austin’, ‘Frau Karl Druschki’ and ‘Coral Dawn’. The perennial yellow variety is lovely with smoother leaves than the regular, biannual digitalis. I love the trumpet shaped flowers that readily self-set. Seedlings bloom the second year, so you can keep a few and pass on the rest at the end of the season. That way your roses are not crowded by a forest of these lovelies. Just remember that they are toxic if ingested. It might even deter deer from feasting on your roses! I find that hardy mums bring much needed color late in the season when planted near large once blooming OGRs. Both are tough and tolerate each other.


If you prefer not to have herbacious companions, why not prolong the gardening season and plant small spring bulbs? Snowdrops, crocus, hyacinths, scillas and dwarf narissi take up little space and give great joy in the cold months preceeding rose season. Use boxwood to create a microclimate for your roses and provide an evergreen structure yearround. Living on the Shoreline, winter winds are very dessicating and having low hedges allows me to grow more tender rose cultivars. Low hedging also stopped my children trampling the flowers and getting shredded by rose bushes when they were toddlers. Here is a picture of my garden in early spring, just as the grass comes alive and spring blooms appear in my beds.


If you are nervous about ‘contaminating’ your rose bed with ‘weeds’, experiment with pansies, violas or plain chives. If you don’t like them, you can just eat them!! The next rose season will be here before we know it, so have a look at the plant catalogues and give your roses some friends.


All photos by Mirjana Toyn

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