A hardy rose surrounded by herbs in the garden is like a queen with adoring subjects. The rose will stand tall in its glory, spread its perfume through the air and reign supreme over its space. But its herbal companions play a strong supporting role in the drama and beauty that unfold in the garden.
The rose garden shown here is designed to capture and concentrate these exquisite but fleeting fragrances and to provide a seat where a garden visitor experiences the show, surrounded by enough beauty, color and scent to be transported to a place far beyond the cares and concerns of daily life. The sense of enclosure (by making the garden horseshoe-shaped or by using existing walls and fences to make it seem like a courtyard) adds to its appeal in a practical way—by blending and concentrating the scents of roses and other herbs and encouraging the gardener to relax and stay awhile.
The rose belongs in the herb garden; it has a distinguished history of usefulness in the garden, in perfumery, in the bath and even in the kitchen. Roses were once thought of as finicky, demanding garden plants (which can be true of some modern hybrid tea roses bred for specific colors or qualities), but more and more gardeners know better than to shy away from glorious roses. Roses include many outstanding performers that share other herbs’ tendency toward carefree drought tolerance and pest resistance. Most roses can tolerate full, blazing sun from dawn to dusk, even in my home state of Texas.
Planting and Propagating
The easiest way to get started is to find a reputable garden center or a good mail-order source. With hundreds, even thousands, of roses to choose from, this article’s list can only be considered a few personal favorites that have performed well for me.
Another way to start or expand your rose garden (for those with time and patience) is to propagate your own rosebushes from stem cuttings. This is especially useful when a friend gives you a cutting of a beautiful, healthy rose. Here’s how I do it:
Cut the stem into sections that each include some leaves. Remove all but a few of the leaves on each stem section, and cut those remaining leaves in half. Dip the bottom inch or two of each stem piece into rooting hormone, shake, pop into a small pot filled with potting mix, firm the soil around the stem, and water it in. Erect a little temporary tent to hold in humidity, by attaching a clear plastic bag to the top of the pot. To keep it in place, inflate it and then secure it with a rubber band, adding a couple of popsicle sticks to hold the bag away from the cutting. Keep the tent on the cutting for a week or so, then remove it. Keep your eye on the cutting, keeping the soil moist, and be patient. If it doesn’t wither and die (in fact, if it does nothing), that’s good. Eventually, your patience will be rewarded by the emergence of a new leaf, which means the plant has struck roots and you’ve got a new rose.
Roses and herbs need full sun and good drainage; if your garden site doesn’t drain well, work on the soil with amendments recommended for your area (a county extension service can help in that regard) or raise the bed by adding and mounding up a good soil. Tossing a shovelful of aged manure compost into the bottom of the planting hole of each rose will get it off to a good start. Leave each rosebush plenty of room to grow, as well as room for air to circulate. Ensure that any vigorous climbing rose has a sturdy fence, trellis or archway to lean on; direct it to grow where you want it by tying it in place with garden twine.
Mulch the garden well with any organic material you like the look of, and replenish it regularly; mulch is important for winter protection, water retention, weed suppression and slow, steady soil improvement as it breaks down over time. It also provides a tidy, finished look and a satisfying feeling.
Care and Feeding
My roses don’t demand much of me, at least compared to what they give back. In early spring (around Valentine’s Day here in Texas), arm yourself with gardening gloves for protection—“gauntlet” gloves specifically for rose pruning are great—and head for the roses. Prune off the canes that are growing toward the middle or any that cross another; cut them so that the next stem tip will emerge to the outside. Prune for a vase shape with light and air circulating through the interior of the shrub. Without pruning, the shrub can become a dense, tangled mess and susceptible to more fungal diseases; throw in some wicked thorns and it can be a menace. Additional light pruning can be done throughout the growing season.
Water the roses and herbs regularly when first planted, but once they are established, back off on the frequency of watering to encourage their natural drought tolerance. I add compost to the root zone of the roses regularly and spray the leaves occasionally in the evening or morning with diluted compost tea or liquid seaweed, particularly if the foliage is looking stressed (but avoid discoloring the flowers). Grandma’s answer to feeding roses was an occasional sprinkle of Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) around the root zone of the shrubs, and that’s still a mainstay of many rose growers (2 tablespoons or so per bush, or dissolve that amount in a gallon of water and water the shrub).
Cultivation practices are important in not creating or spreading disease among roses. Cut off any discolored or mildewed leaves, or any sign of black spot. Avoid watering overhead; watering at the base by hand keeps the leaves dry and healthier. Treat black spot and powdery mildew with a solution of potassium bicarbonate, available at garden centers; grandma used a solution of baking soda, which is sodium bicarbonate.
Diligence with deadheading keeps all of the roses and other herbs blooming longer and looking better.
Contributing Editor Kathleen Halloran lives and gardens in Austin, Texas.