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An English Rose Compendium:
Practical Tips for Mixed Border Design

English Rose ‘Darcey Bussell’ with purple Salvia Caradonna (sage) in foreground. In the back is English Rose ‘Thomas a Becket’ with Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Album'(Culver’s root) and Calamagrostis × acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster'(ornamental grass).

David Austin English Roses are known for heavily-perfumed, heavily-petalled flowers that recall the romance of heirloom Old Roses. But, in fact, English Roses are hugely varied in flower form, color, bush growth habit, size, style and fragrance. In just form alone, English Rose flowers come with petal counts ranging from 5 to 200 per flower. For gardeners, the choices can seem endless.

“Choice is a big part of what makes designing with English Roses such fun,” says Michael Marriott, longtime senior rosarian for David Austin Roses in Albrighton, England, now recently retired. “To this, add the fun of choosing their bloom partners. When a particular rose and its partners hit it off, when your plants mesh in terms of color, height and texture, when they hit the mark for bloom time, sunlight and hardiness, when all of that comes together it’s magic.”

Marriott believes that, ultimately, the best design choices are the ones that please a gardener personally. That said, over years of experimentation, he’s found fairly universal appeal in certain mixes. Asked to describe a sure crowd pleaser, he immediately suggests, “nearly any English Rose is breathtaking with blue flowers.”

Following are practical tips and design notes from Michael Marriott culled from his decades of hands-on experience with English Roses and mixed border design.

Some General Notes

English Rose ‘Boscobel’ with companion plants lavender blue Aster x frikartii ‘Mönch’ and white and pink Gaura lindheimeri.

About the roses: David Austin English Roses are available as shrub roses climbers, ramblers or tree roses. The flower colors are rich but generally with a softened nature, not harsh, and so tend not to clash with other colors in the garden. In shape and dimensions, the bushes are typically more upright, informal and shrubby. Thus they are very good at filling up large spaces and pairing with other plants. Depending on the variety chosen, the climate and how they are pruned, English Roses shrubs can be anything from 3 feet tall through to 6 foot. English Rose climbers grow 8 to 12 feet and sometimes more, and repeat-blooming ramblers are bred short, growing manageable sizes of 12 to 15 feet.

Availability: English Roses are available to U.S. and Canadian gardeners coast-to-coast by mail-order from www.davidaustinroses.com or 800-328-8893, and at fine gardener centers that carry David Austin roses.

Positioning

Sun: with six or more hours of full sun daily, English Roses bloom at full-tilt. With five hours of good sun, they’ll bloom just a bit less, and with four hours still bloom with remarkable vigor. Even in north-facing positions, if access to light is sufficient, then English Roses grow and flower very well and, as a bonus, the roots likely stay damp and cool, which is just what they like. In especially hot areas, plant roses where they won’t be exposed to extreme afternoon sun.

Spacing English Rose bushes: Plant individual bushes of the same variety 18 to 30 inches apart, depending on the variety and the climate. Positioned closely like this, as they grow, the bushes effectively knit together to create one large bush. Allow 3 to 4 feet between plants of neighboring varieties to provide visual differentiation and allow access for deadheading, weeding and so on.

Spacing English Rose climbers: Marriott’s general rule is to plant climbers 6 to 9 feet apart. To cover a pole or trellis, one English Rose should suffice, he says. To cover an arch, plant one bush on each side to provide quick, balanced coverage. For an obelisk, depending on its size, plant one or two roses on each side.

Natural good health: In any bed, having a mix of different plant types – roses, shrubs, perennials, biennials or annuals – helps keep all of the plants healthier by breaking up the monoculture. He also suggests adding plants known to attract beneficial insects. Good bugs – lady bugs, damsel bugs, lacewings and others – are welcome additions to any garden bed as they’ll munch their way through aphids, scale, mealybugs, thrips, mites and other pests. Some of the best candidates for this purpose are: Eryngium, members of the borage family like Phacelia and Anchusa, Agastache, goldenrods, plus members of the Umbelliferae (Apiaceae) family including Ammi majus (bishop’s flower) and fennel.

Don’t underplant: Never plant perennials or other companions directly against the base of roses as they’ll deprive the roses of essential food and water. Roses need water and energy. It takes oomph to bloom and repeat bloom, early summer till frost. Marriott’s mantra is always interplant rather than underplant.

English Rose ‘Desdemona’ with mixed colors of Astrantia.

Interplant: Roses love moist soil. You want companions to cuddle up nicely to rose bushes but not to their root systems. A very general rule is to place companion plants 18 to 36 inches from the rose, depending on the projected mature size of both the perennial and the rose. Plant companions in clusters, Plant companions in clusters so no soil is visible between the plants at maturity. This way the soil stays moist and cool, plus sunlight is blocked so weeds don’t grow.

Design

Garden bones: One way to showcase the more informal habit of English Roses is to stage them in a more formal setting. Where this look is desired, Marriott sometimes adds hedges to introduce strong boundaries that frame the bed. To do this, plant two hedges, short in front, tall in back. Options for a short front hedge (12 inches tall) include: boxwood, lavender, germander or yew. Clipped yew is gaining more interest in England as an alternative to boxwood for short hedging, as boxwood’s problems with box blight increase, says Marriott. Though clipped yew is most often seen in tall walls and topiaries, he’s found that it’s surprisingly easy to maintain yew as a short, good-looking hedge. For the taller back hedge (6 to 8 feet tall), evergreens such as arborvitae or yew work nicely. In-between, plant the border. Hedges also provide a pleasing structure in winter.

Flower size: Prized for their large colorful flowers, English Roses shine in the company of plants with smaller flowers and interesting foliage.

Bully Alert: Certain perennials are known for thuggish tendencies and if allowed to grow right around the base of a rose will take the lion’s share of water, nutrients and space. Other plants can become invasive in certain settings and quickly spread either by seed or by vegetative growth. As always, gardeners beware – and never hesitate to eliminate any with a tendency to seriously misbehave.

English Rose ‘Kew Gardens’ with companion plants Aster (still-green) and dark cream Rodgersia aesculifolia (rodgersia) plus deep magenta Geranium psilostemon (Armenian cranesbill).

Pushy partners: Still, If you love them, even pushy partners can be indispensable. In these cases, hybrid varieties often have better habits. Space them generously and chop back or pull, as needed.

Wilder looking chums: As English Roses are informal in growth habit, they usually mix well with wilder looking chums that are equally informal or are less highly bred. Often these are plants more likely to attract beneficial insects.

Go for both: When it comes to color association there are two basic choices – contrast or complement. Both can be effective within a border and, says Marriott, it’s always good to have both.

Mix it up: The spiky upright flowering spikes of Verbascum (mullein) and Digitalis (foxglove) contrast wonderfully with the rounded, informal form of shrub roses. Or it can be the very soft rounded shape of the likes of Hakonechloa or Anemanthele lessoniana (pheasant’s grass).

Taller plants in the back of the border can nicely frame the roses in front, as long as your border is deep enough. Good choices include: Cephalaria gigantea (giant scabious), delphinium and tall asters belonging to the novae-angliae group (New England asters).

Shrubs love shrubs: Besides partnering roses with perennials, biennials and annuals, consider adding summer flowering shrubs. Of course, that is exactly what English Roses are: shrubs that flower, early summer till frost.

Color

Consolidate color: Massed color is more pleasing to the eye. Scattered dollops of different colors feel choppy and insignificant. Too many small groups of plants look ditsy, messy — like a dog’s dinner, says Marriott. In larger borders it can be very effective to repeat the same plants (or clusters of the same plants) to draw the eye. Repetition with regular spacing creates one effect, with irregular spacing another.

Complementary color: Complement yellow and apricot colored roses with similarly-hued plants like Achillea ‘Gold Plate’ or A. ‘Teracotta’, Cosmos sulphureus, Euphorbia ‘Fireglow’, various Helenium (sneezeweed), Geum (a wonderful and often very long flowering group) and Hemerocallis (daylily) or plants with yellowish leaves like Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’. With pink and red roses, consider some of the pink geraniums like G. oxonianum and G. ‘Patricia’, Erigeron karvinskianus, Sanguisorba, Sedum, Japanese anemones, Aster and Astrantia.

Contrasting color: For contrast, anything blue, purple or in the deep maroon-blue-black shades is stellar with most English Roses. Aster f. ‘Mönch’, Geranium ‘Rozanne’, G. ‘Johnson’s Blue’, various delphiniums and salvias, Verbena bonariensis. One of Marriott’s favorites is the annual Phacelia tanacetifolia. But, don’t stop there: contrasting color comes in many iterations. Pink and red with apricot can work wonderfully. Let your eyes guide.

Extreme color: Even extreme color combinations can work beautifully. The trick is to choose colors that sing with great gusto—not abrasiveness. It’s great fun to play with this. Famed English plantsman Christopher Lloyd from Great Dixter was a master at the technique, never afraid of pairing vividly contrasting colors to great effect. To pre-test your hunches about certain color combinations, snip flowers in colors you like and carry them around the garden. Hold your swatches next to plant combo candidates. Or, arrange cut flowers in those colors in a vase. Some combos sound a sour note, others create visual magic.

English Rose ‘Lady of Shalott’ with deep purple-blue companion Salvia ‘May Night’ (sage).

Timing

Best bloom buddies: The best rose partnerships bloom together and for a long time. Sublime bloom partners hit stride during exactly the same stretch of weeks or months. As roses flower over such a long period, these long-lasting combos can provide interest for about half the season. Annuals are particularly valuable from this point of view as they often flower over a very long period, too.

Early shift/late shift: As English Roses repeat bloom, you can double up on bloom partners. Think of your companion plants as working in shifts: shift one blooma with your roses in early summer, then departs; shift two joins in later in the season to augment your roses’ rebloom.

More about bloom times: It’s always the conundrum in garden design — do you try for as long a season of sustained garden interest (sustained but not necessarily maximum interest) in which case you may miss out on exquisite but short-term color associations? Or do you go for bursts of truly magnificent overlapping bloom, regardless of duration? Marriott prefers the latter. Go for broke, he says. And why not – English Roses repeat bloom in waves from early summer till frost. The next exquisite moment is just ahead.