Our love of roses is as strong as ever, but do these classic plants fit in a contemporary planting scheme? Of course they do, if you follow our guide.
Are roses and modern gardens incompatible? Judging by most of the show gardens at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show, you’d think so. Rose growers exhibited sumptuous displays within the floral pavilion, as usual, but the large show gardens barely featured them at all. Jo Thompson’s gold-winning Chelsea Barracks Garden was the obvious exception. Roses, many of them old varieties, were the star plants, their soft pink and mauve flowers nestling between a row of bronze metal uprights and a sculptural stone rill.
Despite the paucity of examples on the Chelsea catwalk, gardeners remain loyal to roses. Visitor numbers for the recent RHS London Rose Show, which I co-curated with the garden designer Jorge Rodriguez-Martin, were up 22% on last year. It seems we are continuing our love affair with the flowers, searching for varieties suited to growing in our 21st-century city and suburban gardens. But how to combine this classic bloom with contemporary styling?
For me, the emphasis must be on using them as part of a bigger picture. The days of growing roses as a monoculture are gone. We have neither the room nor the inclination for formal beds filled with them — specifically, the old-fashioned way of planting large blocks of single varieties. The unfair opinion, still widely held, that roses are difficult, disease-ridden and dull becomes justified when they’re grown in clashing chunks of brash coral, yellow and scarlet, all at the same height and surrounded by brown earth. Under these conditions, the usual suspects — black spot, mildew and aphid attacks — are more prevalent and harder to treat. No wonder roses gained a bad name.
Fortunately, other than in the gardens of some stately homes and municipal parks, where one might argue that there is a historical impulse for continuing to cultivate formal single-variety beds, the trend is to mix and mingle. Some famous rose gardens are already taking this approach. The gardens at Mottisfont, in Hampshire, successfully tread the fine line between allowing a huge number of roses, most of them old varieties, to form a monoculture, and combining them with different plant types, including geraniums and dianthus. The result is breathtaking perfection, but the style is hardly modern.
Elsewhere, however, change is afoot. The Savill Garden, in Surrey, now has a rose garden for the modern age, where swathes of scented repeat-flowering varieties can be viewed from a raised walkway that seems to hover above the flowers. Nurseries, too, are beginning to think outside the box. On its website, Peter Beales Roses offers hardy perennials, shrubs and other plants alongside its roses. All are well suited to being grown as companions, so you can order an entire planting scheme in one go.
No matter what the size and style of your garden, there’s a type of rose for every situation. I’ve seen a small city courtyard, all sleek lines and smooth surfaces, softened with great subtlety by the unexpected addition of Rosa ‘Madame Alfred Carrière’ on its shady walls. Where space is limited, it’s wise to stick to only two or three varieties — perhaps a compact climber such as Penny Lane or Crown Princess Margareta, plus a shrub (two or three of the same type will lend more impact if you have room) and one that can be grown in a pot.
Small gardens have to work in every season, so the plants within them must earn their place. You can afford to be choosy. Look for something eye-catching, with the whole package — good health, fragrance, repeat flowering. The ever-growing array of colours, shapes and habits means there need be no end to your creativity.
If you’re drawn to the tropical look, with hot-coloured cannas, crocosmias and dahlias, include sultry, dark-flowered Munstead Wood or dazzling Pat Austin amid the tangerine and crimson hues. Having a contemporary garden doesn’t mean ditching roses, which can provide an unexpected twist in a setting where spiky succulents and wafty grasses might be the expected choice.
Elizabeth Fox, from Apuldram Roses, in West Sussex, sums it up perfectly: “I think roses work in all modern settings. We just need to be brave enough to use more of them. Nostalgic, yes. Stuffy, no!”
RECOMMENDED ROSES FOR THE MODERN GARDEN
Elizabeth Fox, Apuldram Roses
Nostalgia A lovely bicolour in which the outer petals are russet red and the inner a rich cream. Fragrant and healthy, it’s good for smaller gardens, as it is repeat-flowering and will be happy in a container.
‘Star Performer’ The perfect climber for a smaller garden: mid-size pure-pink scented blooms set off by dark foliage.
Hot Chocolate Once again, foliage plays an important part: dark and glossy, it sets up the chocolate-orange blooms to perfection. This is a repeating floribunda of great quality.
Chandos Beauty Shapely blooms of softest pink carried on a long, elegant stems, with a perfume that takes your breath away. It can be grown in a container as well as a border.
Philip Harkness, Harkness Roses
Virginia McKenna A shrub rose with the virtues of some of the old hybrid musks, this has a mass of really dark green leaves, oblivious to the ravages of disease. It will look good all season, and colours range from cream to light yellow, with a stonking citronella scent that is at its most powerful as the flower is half to fully open.
Natasha Richardson Some overlook it as a bog-standard floribunda, but in so doing, they miss out on one of the most beautiful roses available — a pale pink that mixes well with other plants. Outstanding health, repeat blooms, a generally robust constitution and a generous splash of perfume.
The Simple Life This is probably the healthiest rose we have ever introduced, keeping up to 90% of its foliage all year round, except in the coldest winters. The pink flowers are, as the name suggests, simple — just the five petals opening wide to show orange stamens. The bees love it, and the clusters of flowers are long-lasting over an extended period (as opposed to the individual flowers lasting a long time). They are followed by big orange hips.
Jill Kerr, Fryer’s Roses
Blue Diamond A recently introduced hybrid tea rose with silvery lilac-grey flowers and a beautiful lemony fragrance.
Eyes for You Something a bit different: the flowers of this floribunda rose have a really open shape, which in itself is unusual, but it’s the way the mauve colour deepens to a central purple eye that draws your gaze to the yellow stamens. It’s a real talking point.
‘Crème Caramel’ This is a beautiful hybrid tea rose of a subtle creamy coffee-caramel colour, with a lovely fragrance. It’s very romantic, which I think could work in any setting, giving a timeless elegance to the garden.
‘Halle’ Another favourite hybrid tea with glowing orange blooms. This variety is bold in colour and definitely says: “Look at me!” It would add instant vibrancy to a small urban space.
Ian Limmer, Peter Beales Roses
Flower Carpet White This procumbent rose produces an abundance of semi-double white flowers in summer, and its beautiful golden yellow stamens are a magnet for wildlife.
Macmillan Nurse This compact creamy rose produces exquisite old-fashioned rosette-style blooms continuously throughout the summer, against healthy dark green glossy foliage.
‘Ghislaine de Féligonde’ A small-growing, continuous-flowering rambler that’s almost thornless, making it ideal for gardens with youngsters. Growing 8ft-10ft tall, it is ideal for growing over an archway, against a fence or on any support structure. It also attracts wildlife, is suitable for a north-facing wall and grows well in poorer soil.