Choosing and Using Roses

Roses have enjoyed a long and deserved reputation amongst both gardeners and poets through the ages – offering a bewildering diversity of colours, shapes, forms and fragrances, with enough variety and flexibility to suit any garden. With over 100 wild species and more than 13,000 cultivated varieties to chose from, there is sure to be something to suit.

Selecting Your Rose

Inevitably much of the selection depends on the intended use – climbing roses for training against supports, bush and standard roses ideal for formal old-fashioned rose-gardens and Rugosa for hedging. The huge numbers and continual development of new roses makes classifying them fully an almost impossible task.

However, an awareness of the World Federation of Rose Societies’ three main categories – “species roses”, “old garden roses” and “modern garden roses” – can be useful to give you a bit of a guide, especially if you are trying to create a garden with a particular feel.

One of the most important considerations for many gardens is the flowering properties. Apart from the large variety of flower forms and sizes available – from simple, wild-type flowers to rounded rosettes and pompons – while some roses produce flowers repeatedly throughout the summer, others only bloom over a very much shorter season.

Most modern garden roses, a group which includes many of the roses commonly encountered in garden centres, such as hybrid teas, floribundas and climbers, are excellent repeat flowerers. On the other hand, some of the older European kinds and hybrids between Oriental and European varieties are more restricted – though they are almost all wonderfully fragrant.

Colour too can be an important part in making your selection. Both flower and foliage colour varies enormously between different kinds and most of the “species roses” produce colourful hips in the autumn, extending their period of interest and attracting wild birds to feed.

The Formal Rose Garden

One of the best ways to show off these plants in their full glory is in a formal rose garden, a classically elegant format which harks back to the days of big houses and estate grounds – and the army of gardeners and under-gardeners needed to keep them in trim. While today’s versions are often on a more compact scale, they can be every bit as effective and enjoyable.

The trick is to maintain the symmetry of the design, keeping the lines of the beds simple and uncluttered with a colour scheme which is geometric and clear-cut. Traditionally these arrangements were often enclosed within yew hedges, the glossy backdrop forming the perfect foil for the contrasting colour and form of the roses themselves. However, since yew takes a while to grow, modern alternatives chosen for their own simplicity, can do just as well.

Draw out your planned beds on graph paper before you pick up your spade and try to consider how the whole design will look over the year – and from year to year – when deciding on the plants to use and the colour scheme. Whether you go for bold, bright colours or gentle muted shades of an individual hue is entirely a matter of personal choice – but mixing the two seldom works and can leave an impression that either half the garden is a bit washed out, or else that the other half is just too loud. Far better to choose one approach at the outset and stick to it.

Use floribunda or hybrid tea bushes to provide blocks of colour and act as permanent bedding plants, planting five or six individuals of each variety to build up blocks of colour. Standard roses then make up the focal point of each bed and add some height to the overall display

Informal Designs

Roses are very adaptable and can be just as much at home in more informal designs too. There was a belief amongst the Edwardian and Victorian gardeners that roses did not mix well with other plants – and so they were grown in isolation – but this probably had more to do with the popular planting schemes of the time than any biological tendency.

Whether grown among herbaceous plants, such as lupins and foxgloves, or amid other shrubs, many of the roses dating from this period and even earlier – Damask and China varieties, for instance – are perfect companions, their flowers and form making a valuable contribution to the mixed bed.

The options open for incorporating roses in informal designs are really only limited by the vision and imagination of the gardener. Climbing roses make perfect partners for arbours and pergolas, while a single large shrub – especially one of the weeping standard roses – can provide a powerful focal feature and most patios are crying out for at least one well chosen specimen grown in a tasteful container. It is worth considering unusual plantings too, such as miniature roses in rockeries, or using ground-cover forms – such as “Flower Carpet” – under more traditional herbaceous borders.

Often thought of as the Queen of Flowers, the rose could almost have been purpose made to be an advert for everything that is glorious about the summer garden and there can surely be few moments more rewarding than when that first bud opens into bloom. There should always be a place in any design for this kind of botanical royalty.