In Good Company: Companion Planting for Roses

Red Roses
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Plants, like people, are searching for partners that will bring out their best qualities and share their space with equanimity—neither overpowering nor paling in comparison.

What Makes a Good Companion for Roses?

There are several considerations when choosing suitable plant companions: aesthetics, growing conditions, and plant health. Plant companions should both look good together and require similar growing conditions. Another component of companion planting, one often referred to in organic gardening, is selecting companions that ward off pests, improve the soil, or in other ways have a beneficial effect on plant health.

A great resource we recommend on this subject is “Jackson & Perkins Rose Companions, Growing Annuals, Perennials, Bulbs, Shrubs and Vines with Roses,” by Stephen Scanniello. Formerly rose curator at Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Scanniello offers expert advice on how to create a stunning garden with roses and companions plants, or, as stated in his introduction, “how to get roses to play well with others”.

Texture, color, and form are all important in the aesthetics of companion planting. Plants with tall spires complement the wide, cup-shaped flowers of roses, while perennials and shrubs with pale green, silver, or purple leaves accentuate the sumptuous rose blossoms. Companion planting can also extend the flowering season by providing color between the main flushes of rose bloom in early summer and fall.

Plants That Solve Problems for Roses

Some plants just seem to be made for each other. The feathery purple and blue-gray catmint (Nepeta) offsets any pale pink rose beautifully, and its wispy spires gracefully camouflage any blemishes that may occur on the rose’s foliage. While the tops of roses are nice and lush, the bottoms can become leggy and sparse. Good rose companions are those that hide their bare legs. Traditionally, lavender (Lavandula), catmint (Nepeta), lady’s mantle (Alchemilla), and tall growing pinks (Dianthus) all make good partners. Good companions also act as living mulches—suppressing weeds and lightly shading the soil, keeping their roots nice and cool.

Plants That Enjoy the Same Conditions as Roses

Good rose companions should enjoy the same growing conditions but not compete too aggressively with the roses. Roses do best in full sun and well-drained soil, and so should their companions. Plants that are too aggressive may crowd the roses and absorb too much water and nutrients from the soil.

Many sun-loving annuals such as heliotropes (Heliotropium), summer-snapdragon (Angelonia), lantana (Lantana), verbena (Verbena) and million bells petunia (Calibrachoa) hold up well throughout the summer and fill the space among roses nicely. They all have modest water requirements and will benefit from the heavy feeding regime that roses demand.

Plants That Discourage Pests

Good companions are said to enhance one anothers growth or, in some way, protect each other from harm. Some companion plants may help discourage pests without the use of chemicals since there are natural substances in their leaves, flowers, or roots that repel insects. Roses love garlic is a popular expression. In fact, members of the onion family such as chives, ornamental alliums, and edible onions, are rumored to increase the perfume of roses, ward off aphids, and prevent black spot.

Herbs and other aromatic plants make wonderful rose companions. Scented geraniums (Pelargonium), rue (Ruta), feverfew (T anacetum), parsley (Petroselinum), and thyme (Thymus) all may help ward off Japanese beetles and aphids. Marigolds (Tagetes) may also repel pests and encourage growth. Try ornamental and culinary sage (Salvia), anise-hyssop (Agastache), Russian-sage (Perovskia), lavender (Lavandula), yarrow (Achillea), oregano (Origanum), catmint (Nepeta) and calamint (Calamintha). Oddly enough, tomatoes allegedly prevent black spot, but not many people will be inclined to combine roses and tomatoes. Lavender (Lavandula) and catmint (Nepeta) are good at keeping rabbits away. Four-o’ clocks (Mirabilis) and larkspur (Consolida) are said to act as decoys by attracting rose-loving Japanese beetles to eat their poisonous leaves. Yarrow (Achillea) may attract ladybugs who in turn feed on aphids.

How to Plant Rose Companions

Remember to plant rose companions at least one foot away from your roses so that you do not disturb their roots. Our Victorian Rose Gauntlet Gloves might come in handy when working in your rose garden. The thorn-resistant kidskin leather molds to your hands, and stress points at thumb and fingertips are reinforced for long-lasting wear.

Create a healthy open structure for your roses with good pruning practices. Always maintain good air circulation around your plants to help prevent attacks from pests and diseases. With proper care of your roses, you will be able to surround them with many interesting companions. Take a look at a few more suggestions.

For more of Sonia's tips, visit her at The New York Botanical Garden's Home Gardening Online. Stop by their online shop for more gardening and garden-inspired goods.

Sonia Uyterhoeven of the NYBG