We don’t have the last word on roses. There are gardeners who have devoted a lifetime to growing many more than we have, yet we can say we have explored one facet of the subject, hardy roses. About these we are committed to conveying a balanced view—we note attributes as well as failings—to help guide the uninitiated. Most hardy roses are thorny in varying degree, so we only note thorns if they are a prominent feature.
The roses described here, all hardy to Zone 4, fall into several categories: species or wild, unimproved types; antique or Old Garden Roses (OGRs); early rugosa hybrids; Explorer roses--named after explorers of Canada—a series begun at the Ottawa Experimental Farm in Canada in 1961 using Rosa rugosa and R. kordesii in their parentage (the former is vigorous, with white or purplish-pink scented flowers; the latter introduces true red flowers and a climbing habit), with the goal of producing extreme hardiness, repeat bloom, and resistance to disease; Parkland Roses—with “Morden” in their names—were developed at the Agriculture Canada Research Station in Morden, Manitoba, beginning in the early 1960s, for prairie and similar conditions using the wild prairie rose (Rosa arkansana) in its program to produce long-blooming, disease-resistant roses (with light fragrance or none) that quickly recover from winter dieback; and climbers and ramblers. By choosing wisely you can have roses in bloom from late spring to late summer.
Because we think it very important to dispel the notion that, unlike hybrid tea roses, hardy roses are large shrubs suitable only for specimen or hedge planting, we include here (see page 32) annuals and perennials we have successfully combined with hardy roses in a confined garden situation. As with the rose selection itself, we hope readers will use these recommendations as the beginning of their own explorations.
Annual rose companions
Calendula (Calendula officinalis ‘Pacific Beauty’); 18 to 24 inches. Sow seeds indoors when soil has warmed. An elegant variation on the cottage garden favorite, this seed strain produces long-stemmed, large, semidouble flowered daisies (some with dark centers) in colors that include cream, golden yellow, apricot, and orange.
Chinese forget-me-not (Cynoglossum amabile ‘Firmament’); 18 inches. Sow seeds outdoors in late spring or early summer. A dainty-appearing but tough, self-seeding annual with gray-green leaves and sprays of bright-blue forget-me-not–type flowers, indispensable in rose bouquets. ‘Blue Showers’ and ‘Pink Myster’ are taller forms.
Poppy (Papaver rhoeas ‘Shirley’); 30 inches. Sow seeds in the ground in late spring. These lovely variants of the wild corn poppy have an ethereal grace with their ruffled, nearly translucent, often rimmed flowers, single or doubles, in shades of pink, red, rose, salmon, and white.
Sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima ‘Snow Crystals’); 3 by 18 inches. Start plants indoors ten to twelve weeks before the last frost; for best results, transplant seedlings in small clumps rather than as individual plants. We find the white form by far the most effective and vigorous of the sweet alyssums, valued for softening hard edges at the corners of raised beds with a frilly mound of bloom all summer and into early winter, if plants are trimmed back when they look tired. ‘Snow Crystals’ is a larger-flowered type. We dust with rotenone if there is evidence of cabbageworm destruction (sweet alyssum belongs to the same Cruciferae family as cabbage).
Viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare ‘Dwarf Brilliant’); 18 inches. Sow seeds outdoors in late spring or early summer. An improved form of viper’s bugloss with rough basal leaves and elongating stems that uncoil all summer, packed with pink buds that open to small, funnel-shaped flowers in shades of blue and violet, occasionally white. Bees love them.
Perennial rose companions
Artemisia schmidtiana ‘Silver Mound’; 10 by 18 inches. We like to grow this perfectly mounded plant in the corner of our raised bed, where it spreads over its barriers and creates a striking presence of silky, silvery leaves. To prevent plants from collapsing in the middle, divide them regularly in the spring when the soil has warmed, and keep soil lean.
Catmint (Nepeta ¥faassenii ‘Dropmore Blue’); 10 by 10 inches. We like this spice-scented plant for its multitude of purple-blue flower spikes in early summer over a long period. It’s best to cut back plants after they have peaked to encourage later bloom. Mature plants trail gracefully over barriers at the front of the border.
Drumstick allium (Allium sphaerocephalum); 2 to 3 feet. An undervalued allium that willingly fills small spaces around garden roses when its wandlike stems rise up in midsummer to bear striking purple-headed blooms that last for weeks (these dry well in their early stages).
Lamb’s-ears (Stachys byzantina); 12 to 18 inches. We grow a vigorous pass-along strain with large woolly leaves that spread out to form a silvery mat at the front of the rose bed. In early summer, we let the woolly stems bear their fairy wands of small pinkish-puple flowers densely packed into woolly plumed heads. After we have admired them, we cut plants back to foliage to encourage fresh growth.
Pinks (Dianthus spp.); 12 to 15 inches. We are always looking for hardy pinks. Two that we like to grow with roses are the vivid scarlet ‘Ideal’ (D. chinensis ¥D. barbatus), a compact type that can take the heat, produces masses of showy (but scentless) blooms, and ‘Ballad Blend’ (an improved form of D. plumarius ‘Spring Beauty’). A vigorous and perfumed plant (sweet and spicy), it produces mats of handsome glaucous foliage—especially blue in the fall—and large, double, fringed flowers in early to midsummer in rose, salmon, pink, and white with darker centers. Both pinks are short lived and should be regularly propagated by pulling off side shoots with a bit of the main stem after plants have flowered.
Adapted with permission from Gardens of Use and Delight (Fulcrum, 2002) by Jigs and Jo Ann Gardner.