English Roses: Design Advice and Growing Tips From Michael Marriott
David Austin 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 growing English Roses such fun,” says Michael Marriott, a garden designer and senior rosarian for David Austin Roses in Albrighton, England. “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 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.
About David Austin English Roses
David Austin English Roses are shrub roses. Their flower colors are rich but generally soft and so tend not to clash with other colors in the garden. In shape and dimensions, the bushes can be quite upright but are typically more 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 can be anything from 3 feet tall through to 6-foot shrubs. Additionally, there are English Rose climbers that grow 8 to 12 feet tall and sometimes taller, and repeat-blooming ramblers that are bred to grow to manageable sizes of 8 to 10 feet. English Roses are available to U.S. and Canadian gardeners coast-to-coast at fine garden centers that carry English Roses or by mail-order from DavidAustinRoses.com or 800-328-8893.
With six or more hours of sun daily, English Roses will bloom full-tilt. With five hours of sun, they’ll bloom a bit less. Even in north-facing positions, if access to light is sufficient, then English Roses will grow and flower very well and, as a bonus, the roots will 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 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.
In any bed, having a mix of different plant types — roses, shrubs, perennials, biennials and 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.
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.
Roses love a 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 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.
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.
Prized for their large colorful flowers, English Roses shine in the company of plants with smaller flowers and interesting foliage.
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 that seriously misbehave.
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, 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 for the back of the border can set off the roses in front perfectly 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 summer flowering shrubs. Of course, that is exactly what roses are.
Massed color is more pleasing to the eye. Scattered dollops of different colors feel choppy and insignificant. Too many small groups of plants look messy, like a dog’s dinner. 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.
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.
For contrast, anything blue, purple or in the deep maroon-blue-black shades will work superbly, Aster f. ‘Mönch’, Geranium ‘Rozanne’, G. ‘Johnson’s Blue’, various delphiniums and salvias, Verbena bonariensis. One of Marriott’s favorites is annual Phacelia tanacetifolia. But contrasting color can be many colors. Pink and red with apricot can work wonderfully. The eyes will guide.
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 to hold up to candidate partners – or arrange cut flowers in those colors in a vase. Some combos will sound a sour note, others will sing.
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 will bloom with your roses in early summer, then depart; shift two will join 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, 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 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 about to bloom.
Michael Marriott’s Tips for Coastal New England Gardeners
1. If planting in an exposed, windy position, choose an English Rose variety with a compact bush, not one with long arching shoots. If growing climbers, tie in well.
2. Robust compact varieties to consider are: Vanessa Bell, Olivia Rose Austin, Queen of Sweden and Roald Dahl.
3. Choose a sunny spot with at least 6 hours of good sunshine a day.
4. When planting, dig a good sized hole and mix in plenty of organic matter, such as well rotted manure.
5. It takes energy to repeat-bloom all season; treat English Roses to feedings in April when first growth appears and again in June after the first flush of flowers.
6. Apply a fresh layer of mulch in spring and, later, as needed, to help conserve soil moisture, prevent weed growth and provide winter protection.
7. All English Roses are hardy to USDA zone 5, some to Zone 4. Still, overwinter protection is appreciated in colder areas, especially for the first winter. To protect from cold and wind: wrap exposed roses to protect from wind or mound cut conifer branches or lightweight, but dense, leaf-compost around the base of the rose.
Michael Marriott is technical manager and senior rosarian of David Austin Roses and is one of the world’s most respected rose experts. He is also well-known for his rose garden design and his common sense approach to caring for roses. In his work, he travels the globe, often sharing his expertise in lively radio, TV, newspaper and magazine interviews. David Austin Roses
Sally Ferguson conducted multiple long chats with English designer Michael Marriott to gather the information presented in this installment of an educational gardening series for David Austin Roses. A Vermont-based Master Gardener and garden writer, she is David Austin’s North American media contact. More News From David Austin Roses.