A rose is a rose - did Shakespeare write that first, or did he overhear it like the rest of us? Every garden looks better with roses, so far as I'm concerned, and every rose looks better with other plants growing with it. That brings up the question of what to plant with them in the garden.
When roses grow with their natural 'buds' (forgive the pun, it's an expression the teenagers use without a garden thought at all), the whole garden benefits from the ecodiversity. More kinds of flowering plants makes for more birds, butterflies, and bees, and usually promises a healthier balance of good and bad bugs. And in my humble opinion, such plantings, where roses bloom with daylilies, phlox, and daisies for example, are simply beautiful.
To be a good companion, a bulb, annual, perennial, shrub, or tree must compliment roses in one of many ways. They serve as focal points, drawing the eye to the bed even when the roses aren’t blooming. Their flowers offer different shapes to combine as cut flowers and to extend the bloom season both before and after rose time. Companions carry color, romance, fragrance, and other rosey themes through the year, and act as year round accents, lending continuity to the garden’s design.
Companions must have approximately the same cultural needs as roses, and be no more prone to pests and diseases. Because roses grow steadily but not fast, so stay away from plants known for their invasiveness. One reason I like roses and companions so much is that they like to be grown, that is, they thrive on relatively large amounts of water and fertilizer applied by us, the gardeners. That’s quite different from plants that look about the same no matter what you do.
If you plant a variety of shrub roses, they’ll bloom off and on at least six months of the year. So logical companions display offseason interest like early season flowering shrubs like forsythia, late fall blooming perennial sunflowers, and winter’s berried shrubs nandina, mahonia, and holly. The classic round rose shape surely stands alone for beauty, but companion plants can be spikey (like salvias, celosias, larkspur, and liatris) or flat (like yarrow, blackeyed susans, and some iris). This trio of flower shapes will not only thrill any flower arranger, but will also attract a wider variety of wildlife than roses alone.
One of my favorite species roses, Lady Banksia, blooms but once a year, so plant annual vines (hyacinth bean, Mina lobata, morning glory) to share her trellis; that extends the flowering season through summer. Other season extenders reach into early spring, especially hyacinths, tulips, and daffodils and other ‘first flowers’ like quince, spirea, and redbud.
Throughout the entire year, companions repeat the colors you’ve chosen in roses or provide contrasting shades. I particularly like an assortment of yellow, daisy shaped flowers (coreopsis, rudbeckia, oxeye, marguerite) among our pink roses. Evergreens especially serve as accents in every season. A particularly beautiful planting uses the upright spires of Hollywood juniper as the backdrop to roses planted with perennials. By the way, pay the bucks and get big specimens of this juniper. Their gnarled form and height don’t show up much in smaller versions and you’ll be disappointed.
To grow with roses, a plant needs to appreciate a slightly acid soil rich in organic matter, nearly full sun, plus ample water and fertilizer. That leaves out spinach, most cacti, and virtually all trees, each for a different reason. I do not grow marigolds or tomatoes with roses because both can host spider mites in numbers greater than the roses would by themselves. Overly invasive plants like horsenettle, japanese honeysuckle, and obedient plant can easily take over, so we avoid them. Fertilize roses almost monthly, so annuals are a natural bed partner to them. Perennials, though, and many native shrubs don’t respond well to lots of nitrogen; one solution is to group plants within the beds and spot feed some more often than others.
Compadres, amigoes, associates, best buds...call them what you will, roses make great bed partners with many other favorite plants. Use them to accent the roses in your garden bed design, choose plants for their compatibility, don’t crowd the plantings, and enjoy the abundance of cut flowers you’ve grown.