Great Companion Plants for a Cottage Garden: Roses

Roses with perennials including Erigeron and Knautia
Roses with perennials including Erigeron and Knautia

Companion plants will bring out the best characteristics of roses – especially shrub roses – and help to make up for any weaknesses. While they’ll mingle around, above or below the roses, they should not compete too aggressively for food, water or space. To find out more about what makes a plant a good companion, take a look at the first post in the series on astrantias.

Rosa 'Boscobel' with Veronicastrum virginicum and penstemon
Rosa ‘Boscobel’ with Veronicastrum virginicum and penstemon

Why do roses benefit from companion plants?

When I was younger it was fashionable in the UK to grow groups of roses without any companion plants in island beds or borders. Most of us will have seen roses grown like this in parks and public spaces looking sorry for themselves soon after the first flush of flowers have faded.

Rosa 'Crocus Rose' with daylily, lavender and polemonium
Rosa ‘Crocus Rose’ with daylily, lavender and polemonium in Mum’s garden

While it is true that roses make good companions for each other (shrub roses and climbing roses being a classic mix), roses often perform better when grown with other shrubs, perennials, herbs, bulbs, annuals and climbing plants in mixed borders.

Few roses are genuinely ever-blooming; most Old Roses only flower once in early summer. Companion plants make the garden look good for longer, hide a multitude of sins and will help keep the roses healthy.

Harlow Carr roses with Nepeta
Rosa ‘Harlow Carr’ with Nepeta

Reasons for growing roses with companion plants include to:

  • Provide interest before the roses have leafed out, when the roses are resting between flushes of bloom and later in the season
  • Add contrasting textures, flower forms and colours
  • Layer on the scent
  • Fill out the garden and provide ground cover
  • Add height, rhythm and movement
  • Create structure (e.g. box, yew)
  • Hide any defoliation as the season progresses
  • Attract a broad community of beneficial insects that prey on aphids
  • Support bees, butterflies, birds and other wildlife
  • Avoid a monoculture where pests and diseases can flourish
Rosa 'Darcey Bussell' with Alchemilla mollis and Stachys byzantina
Rosa ‘Darcey Bussell’ with Alchemilla mollis and Stachys byzantina

What is a monoculture?

Monoculture means the cultivation of a single crop or type of plant in a particular area. Any monoculture naturally attracts and supports pests, for example, lots of roses grown together make a great home for aphids and beetles. It’s like filling a street with ice cream parlours and sweet shops but hoping to keep away anyone who has a sweet tooth.

Monocultures encourage the spread of diseases such as blackspot and powdery mildew in roses. Spreading out the roses and interspersing other companion plants between them will help lessen the risk (think of it as keeping social distance). Any inclusion of disease-prone rose varieties will make it more likely that other, more healthy roses will succumb too, so remove any badly affected plants.

Pink roses with Lychnis coronaria and Echium vulgare
Roses with Lychnis coronaria and Echium vulgare

Which plants make the best companions for roses?

Roses generally do best in full sun and their companions should enjoy the same conditions. It makes sense to avoid the most invasive plants; greedy ones that will take up a disproportionate amount of water and nutrients; and any that will crowd or shade out the roses. Always check the height and spread of a plant before buying.

Rose with Clematis, lamb's ear and poppy seed heads
Rose with Clematis, lamb’s ear and poppy seed heads

Beyond that, experiment with anything that takes your fancy. Many rosarians lean towards more modest companions that will let the roses shine, but some of the loveliest gardens mix in showy flowers knowing their roses will hold their own among them.

Companion plants: rose with erigeron
Pink rose with erigeron (fleabane)

Companion plant list for roses

There are relatively few cottage garden style plants that do not make good companions for roses, but here are some of my favourites:

Achillea (Yarrow)
Alchemilla mollis (Lady’s mantle)

Lady Emma Hamilton rose with white campanula
Lady Emma Hamilton rose with white campanula

Campanula (Bellflower)
Centaurea montana (Knapweed)
Culinary herbs – chives, dill, oregano, parsley, rosemary, thyme
Dianthus carthusianorum (Hardy pink)
Echinops bannaticus

Companion plants: Rosa 'Princess Anne' with Geranium 'Mrs Kendall Clark'
Rosa ‘Princess Anne’ with Geranium ‘Mrs Kendall Clark’

Hardy geranium
Lamprocapnos spectabilis (Bleeding heart)
Leucanthemum x superbum (Shasta daisy)
Lilium (Lily)
Lychnis coronaria; Lychnis chalcedonica
Nepeta (Catmint)

Rosa Molineux with poppies
Rosa ‘Molineux’ with other shrub roses and poppies

Peonia (Peony)
Phlox panticulata
Polemonium (Jacob’s ladder)
Salvia nemorosa; Salvia x sylvestris
Sedum (border types)
Stachys byzantina (Lamb’s ears); Stachys macrantha
Tanacetum parthenium (Feverfew)
Veronicastrum virginicum

Roses with Phacelia tanacetifolia
Roses with Phacelia tanacetifolia

For year to year variation, mix in annuals, biennials and short-lived perennials:
Alcea (Hollyhock)
Angelonia (Summer snapdragon)
Calendula officialis, Tagetes erecta (Marigold)
Calibrachoa (Million bells)

Rosa mutabilis with foxgloves and campanulas
Rosa mutabilis with foxgloves and campanulas

Digitalis (Foxglove)
Delphinium consolida (Larkspur)
Echium vulgare
Erysimum (Wallflower)
Hesperis matronalis (Night-scented gilliflower)
Lysimachia atropurpurea ‘Beaujolais’
Nicotiana (Flowering tobacco)

Peachy-apricot roses with penstemons
Peachy-apricot roses with penstemons

Phacelia tanacetifolia
Scabiosa, Knautia (Scabious)
Viola (Pansy)

Roses with bellflower, snapdragon and poppy
Campanula (bellflower), Antirrhinum (snapdragon) and Papaver (poppy)

Other options:

Shrubs – Daphne, Deutzia, Lavatera, Lilac, Philadelphus, Spirea, Weigela, etc
Grasses – often seen in contemporary rose gardens

Roses growing naturalistically with grasses
Green backdrop/dividers – Boxwood (including topiary) and tall Yew hedges
Bulbs (alliums, spring bulbs)
Climbers – Clematis, climbing or rambling roses

Rambling rose and clematis on a wooden obelisk in a flower garden
Rambling rose and clematis on an obelisk with Lychnis coronaria

Painting with flowers

Companion plants can add shades of colour that roses lack or emphasise a specific colour palette. For example, use Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’ to add brushstrokes of purple-blue, Salvia x sylvestris ‘Snow Hill’ for white, and for pink try Salvia x sylvestris ‘Pink Dawn’. Paint the garden red with Papaver oriental ‘Beauty of Livermere’ or scatter dots of orange and yellow with Papaver cambricum.

Delphiniums with Rosa Lady Emma Hamilton and Rosa Scepter'd Isle
Delphiniums and roses at Wollerton Old Hall

Delphiniums will inject towers of pure blue, electric blue, shades of purple, pink, cream and white. Use Eryngium for spikes and ruffs and one of my favourites, Leucanthemum x superbum ‘Old Court’, to add scribbles.

Roses with verbena bonariensis
Roses with tall Verbena bonariensis

Final tips

    • Gardeners who are new to growing roses may be looking for one magical companion plant they can add to deter all pests. Good luck with that! Instead, aim for a wide range of companion plants to attract a broad community of insects including ones such as spiders and ladybirds that will naturally control the insects you don’t want.
    • In more expansive gardens, site several plants of the same variety together in clusters, swathes or waves of colour; in small gardens, single plants will look lovely once they are established.
    • Leave yourself access to deadhead, summer prune roses and cut back companions during the season.
    • Don’t crowd your roses. Companions should be planted 30 cm / 1 ft away from the base of the rose, or more depending on their eventual size.
    • This is not a low-maintenance style of gardening. Some of the plants often recommended as companions for roses may be borderline invasive in your part of the world – Achillea, Alchemilla mollis, Centaurea montana, Japanese anemone and even Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’. Be prepared to actively intervene to keep your garden well-balanced.
    • Large trees make poor companions for roses other than the most vigorous of ramblers. A rose growing under a tree would almost certainly be happier elsewhere.
    A folly behind a garden of roses and perennials
    Roses with companion plants at Bodnant

    If you enjoyed this post, check out my guide to using hardy geraniums as companion plants.

20 Replies to “Great Companion Plants for a Cottage Garden: Roses”

  1. Beautiful illustrations of companion plantings! I am green with envy. Woodland gardens have their own quiet beauty, but for a glorious burst of color, you can’t beat a cottage garden.

    1. We have rambling roses growing all around a patch of woodland edging common land locally, but they are all white. I’m not sure what type it is.

  2. I don’t know where to begin. I spent a long time at each photo, looking and wishing. Each one had so much to covet! But then, when I got to Lady Emma Hamilton with white campanula, I had to reach for the smelling salts. If there are degrees of perfection, that is way up there toward most perfect. One would think that something called fleabane didn’t belong with a rose, but that’s a lovely combination. Thank you for all these ideas and for the inspiring illustrations!

    1. I would not have thought of combining the orange shades with white, but it is very striking and perhaps goes to show how hard it is to create a clash of colours with English Roses. That’s something I often heard back in the day.

  3. Totally agree, and I love your photos. Rose beds without other plants look dismal. Even when the roses are in bloom, there isn’t enough texture. Great tips!

  4. Very nice post – very informative although I’m not into feeding Japanese beetles. 🙂 But you really do tempt me with your beautiful flowers.

    1. In places where Japanese beetles are prevalent, it’s a labour of love to grow roses. You could always try a rose in a sea of chives or garlic and see if that helps. I’ve heard that being recommended but don’t know how effective it is.

  5. For nice roses and wonderful gardens, you need a lot of knowledge. I’m always impressed by the beauty of Engish gardens 🙂
    Enjoy the weekend,

    1. I realise that an English country garden style doesn’t work in every part of the world, but the same basic concepts apply.

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