6 minute read

Perfect Partners

Hide the 'knobbly knees' of your roses with luxurious companions.

by Val Bourne

Many years ago, when I was a small child rollerskating through my local park in London, the rose gardens consisted of roses and nothing else. They were mainly repeat-flowering hybrid teas and they were magnificent in June and then they rationed out their flowers until late autumn in flushes. The thorny stems were clearly visible to all, especially to a rollerskating child. By latesummer the leaves had often begun to fall due to blackspot, making the thorny legs even more prominent. When I went to Japan to lecture on roses, I used a picture of the 'Best Beloved’s' knobbly knees to illustrate the point that roses are lovely above the knees but often less so beneath. Please don’t tell him.

‘Champagne Moment’ and Wild Eve’.
Val Bourne

Thankfully the world of rose growing has moved on since my childhood and most of us grow our roses among other flowers and our gardens look far better for it. You can have a warm up act in April and May and I am very fond of Tulipa ‘Ballerina’ because this fragrant, terracotta lily-flowered tulip flatters the new coppertinted rose foliage. It’s fragrant and it is fairly perennial. Add ‘Negrita’, a strong doge-purple and the pale mauve ‘Shirley’ and you’ll have colour for two or three weeks. The perennial wallflowers, such as Erysimum  ‘Bowles’s Mauve’ and ‘Apricot Twist’, can also begin in April followed by forms of Viola cornuta, such as ‘Belmont Blue’. These are truly perennial violas with winged flowers and they have a habit of twining up through the roses. 

You can also fill the gaps in summer, when the roses might be on a sabbatical, and you can also extend the season into late-autumn. Given that many roses will carry on until November, because the onset of winter is later these days. I am always grateful for cosmos, an annual I raise every year, and for penstemons. By using a mixture of plants it’s possible for a border that relies on roses to be interesting between April and late October.

Bumblebee on Eryngium.
Val Bourne
The summer garden with 'You're Beautiful' in the foreground.  
Val Bourne
Red-tailed bumblebee on blue geranium.  
Val Bourne

My own summer borders at Spring Cottage rely on healthy floribunda roses, because they are prolific flowerers and less upright than hybrid teas. The ones I use never need spraying, because as many of you may know I have been an organic gardener all my life. The key rose I use, bred by the eco-friendly German rose breeders Kordes, is ‘Champagne Moment' (Korvanaber). This was the Rose of the Year 2006 and it reaches up four feet during its first flush, but gets taller by the autumn. I can’t praise it highly enough for its vigour and health. 

Kordes have also raised the lower growing ‘Joie de Vivre’ (Korfloci01), Rose of the Year in 2011, a pink-cream rose with flatter flowers. I have just bought three more because it stays low throughout the year. I also grow the blush-pink ‘Pearl Drift’ (Leggab) bred by Bill Le Grice in 1980 from a ‘Mermaid’ and ‘New Dawn’ cross. This makes a low very healthy bush and the open flowers attract pollinators. It often has strong flush in autumn and, of course, both parents are superb too.

Pale and Interesting, but not Glacial

I’ve chosen pastel roses deliberately, but they are not white because overhead summer sun tends to make white roses, such as ‘Madame Hardy’, look stark and glacial. My pastel roses, in blushing shades of silver-pink and apricot, look warm and inviting in summer sunshine. If I had more room I would grow ‘Penelope’, a wonderful Hybrid musk raised by the Reverend Pemberton in 1924. It makes a  good hedge or specimen and, like all these pastel roses, it blends well with the ubiquitous catmint Nepeta ‘Six Hill’s Giant’ in wilder settings. This can be too swamping in a border or small garden however and I can’t allow it in my borders. It will take a square yard of space. Nepeta grandiflora  ‘Bramdean’ is better for me.  Peonies -the perfect partner I’ve woven pink peonies amongst my pastel roses using Paeonia lactiflora hybrids. They are similar in height and foliage colour and I love that moment in late-May when the coppery foliage is topped by rose and peony buds. It’s a special time in my garden, one full of expectation and promise.  

Peonies and roses both enjoy cold winters and good soil so they’re very compatible when it comes to growing conditions and they also hold hands visually.  Cold initiates the flowering buds on the peony tubers, so they must be no more than two inches below the soil and, if your peonies are refusing to flower they may well be planted too deeply. The best are the ‘lactiflora’ hybrids because they often give four weeks of flower, far longer than the traditional cottage garden peony, or Paeonia officinalis, which fades in days. Divide or move all peonies in October and this is also a good time to buy peonies bare root.  These ‘lactiflora’ peonies have been highly bred for over one hundred and fifty years, driven by the fact that they make great cut flowers. You cut them at the Marshmallow stage, when spongy to the touch and about an inch across, although I can’t bring myself to cut mine. I prefer to enjoy them outside instead and they last longer too. They’ve evolved over time and there are delicate creams,  strong crimsons, corals and apricots. Their extreme hardiness makes them particularly popular in colder parts of America where roses succumb in winter.  19th century French plant breeders tended to raise scented varieties in soft creams and pinks and they gave them names straight out of the Parisienne telephone directory. The lemon-scented ‘Duchesse de Nemours’ (Calot 1856) has a touch of lemon-yellow in its creamy flowers and ‘Monsieur Jules Elie’ (Crousse 1888 ) is a tall lax peony with 'bombeshaped', mid-pink flowers. The latter is a personal favourite and often the last to flower. I use rusted metal semi-circular hoops to stake my peonies and they are the only things I stake in this windswept garden. (Snape Stakes www.snapecottagegarden.co.uk)

I also grow brasher 20th century peonies raised in America and these include the crimson-pink ‘Kansas’ (Bigger 1940) and the purple-red ‘Karl Rosenfield’ (Rosenfield 1908). Both are very free flowering and their brighter colours lift the summer borders in late June and early July. In more recent times the American peony raisers have produced coral-tinted peonies using several different species. I have planted mine with toning sunsettinted roses including David Austin’s ‘Lark Ascending’ and ‘Lady Marmalade’ Rose of the Year 2014, bred by Harkness. Both have proved healthy and floriferous and they mix well with peonies ‘Pink Hawaiian Coral' and 'Coral Sunset'. These peach-apricot peonies flower in May and do best in a warm position in well-drained soil.

Add a Touch of Blue

Coral peonies tend to fade to cream in a few days, something I adore, so you must have a bit of blue to set them off. I use hardy geraniums such as ‘Orion’, a sterile strong blue that flowers on and on. I also grow the softer, summer-flowering G. pratense ‘Mrs Kendall Clark’, a lavender-blue upright cranesbill that will set seed and produce seedlings a little too freely perhaps. Dead head this if you feel threatened. However most of the hardy geraniums I use are sterile and fairly diminutive. The most useful is the soft-pink ‘Mavis Simpson’ which forms acarpet of grey-green leaves topped by masses of soft-pink flowers. It comes through here every year on the southfacing edge.  The showy red and white bleeding heart, once named dicentra but now Lamprocapnos spectabile, is also useful because the foliage is coppery in tone. It can be relied upon to flower by May, with arching wands of red and white hearts. Astrantias are also May flowering but should be dead headed to prevent seedlings. ‘Roma’ is sterile but it’s a candy pink that can be hard to place. The perennial, willowy Verbascum phoeniceum ‘Violetta’, a purple easily raised from seed, is also worth having and verbascums have buds like small silk cushions. Later on Verbascum x chaixii produces several spikes of blueberry-eyed white flowers. The spires of veronicas also work well and there’s a new one named V. longiflora ‘Marietta’ which has strong blue tapers. a few years ago I grew it with the double bright-pink Lychnis ‘Gardeners’ World’, although this is tricky to keep overwinter.   Catanache caerulea, another perennial easily raised from seed, is a useful infusion of true-blue on a sunny corner. I use Cupid’s Dart, to give its common name, with pony tail grass, Stipa tenuissima, and the fine filaments pick up the papery scales on the beige buds of catanache. Tiny flecks of pretty pink are provided by Potentilla ‘Ron McBeath’ and the slender Penstemon ‘Evelyn’.  Eryngiums also combine well with roses and E. bourgattii is excellent, flowering in July, and producing lots of bee-friendly thimbles. Sometimes it’s hard to even see the roses amongst the summer froth, until of course they flower again.

Val Bourne is an award winning garden writer and lecturer, an organic gardener and highly regarded ambassador for roses.

Find your perfect rose: roselocator.com The Rose Locator lists hundreds of varieties and where to buy them.