Landscaping With Roses: Design Decisions

Landscaping With Roses: Design Decisions

by Mark Whitelaw
This is part one in Mark's three part series on Landscaping With Roses. The other articles in this series are:
Landscaping with Roses: Location Decisions.
Landscaping with Roses: Selecting the Rose.


Winter is the season to make plans for next year's garden. For rosarians that means decisions - decisions on how to display their roses in the landscape, decisions on the best location for the roses in the landscape, and decisions on which rose varieties to select for the landscape.

Landscaping with roses is a very large topic. Whole texts are written on the subject, each of which is specific to a given trend in landscaping or a specific region of the world. The challenge in what follows is to condense that information into a three part series suitable for a worldwide audience with a variety of growing conditions and tastes in landscape design. In this first article, we will explore the landscape design choices you, the gardener, must make - the decisions. In subsequent articles, we will help you select the right location for your roses and choose the right roses for that location.

When landscaping with roses, the fundamental question each gardener must ask is, "why am I growing roses?" Apart from being named the World's Favorite Flower, roses can sometimes be a challenge. They are a fast growing perennial and therefore attract a wide variety of pests and diseases; they can consume time, energy and resources which could be devoted to other worthwhile landscape endeavors; and they are not always best suited to the location where one needs landscape color and form.

I am frequently asked, "Which roses should I grow for [fill in the blank]." Almost always, my response is "Why do you want to grow them in the first place?" Although answering a question with a question is never a good answer, it helps define the gardener's intent for using roses in the landscape. By understanding the gardener's intent, specific design decisions can be made.

Growing roses for pleasure means the gardener need only select the best roses for the location he or she has chosen in the landscape. This means selecting roses best suited for the local growing conditions and micro-environment, selecting roses which will coordinate landscape and home color schemes, and selecting roses which best exemplify the garden style selected for the landscape. Hybrid Musk roses, for example, do well is less-than-full sun, but are not very well suited to colder climates. Conversely, cold tolerant roses with northern European heritage struggle in the sun and heat of the southern U.S. Pink roses planted next to a red brick home might not be the best color choice while white roses might look stunning. Hybrid Tea roses might not be the best choice if one has designed an English cottage garden.

Growing roses for competition means the rosarian also needs to be concerned with frequent accessibility to the roses as well as concerned with those varieties best suited for showing in the particular class he or she is interested in competing. Serious rose competitors are like those competitors in any other contest - they need to spend a great deal of time keeping their "entrants" in "training." Selecting roses which frequently appear on the competition trophy lists also increases ones chances of bringing home the blue ribbons.

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Growing roses as an herb means the prospective rosarian must also be concerned with selecting roses less susceptible to pests and diseases, thereby reducing the need for pesticides in and around other herbs. And growing roses for special needs such as scent gardens, color scheme gardens, historically significant gardens, or gardens for the physically challenged means selecting roses specific to those needs.

Once the "why decision" is made, the next decision is how to design roses into the landscape suitable to those needs.

Current landscape design trends are toward species diversity and away from monocultures. Doing so affords insurance against catastrophic design failure should pest, disease or adverse weather conditions decimate the landscape. It also provides multiple plant species for attracting bio-diverse organisms and thereby reduces the need for excessive pesticide use. The days of creating a garden devoted entirely to roses are fading in favor of treating roses as one would any other perennial - moving them out into the landscape as a means of providing different landscape forms and colors. Doing so means less rose-specific pest and disease infestations since the roses are not in close proximity to each other. Unfortunately, it also means fewer opportunities to grow roses since most landscapes do not have uniformly similar growing conditions.

Despite this trend, some gardeners intent on displaying their roses for serious competition - roses commonly in need of extra care - want their roses in close proximity to afford easy fertilization, grooming, and pest and disease control. Roses grown in these conditions are commonly fed every other week, sprayed once a week, and groomed every other day. Keeping the roses confined to a specific area of the landscape means less muscle power devoted to rose care tasks. It also means less decisions when color and variety choices are made. The rosarian has only so much space to devote to rose growing and as one variety proves unsuccessful another variety can be inserted to replace it.

Ultimately, the decision of how to design roses into the landscape is one of space availability.

Roses are an exceptionally malleable perennial and can be shaped, pruned, and sculpted into most any form and to within most any size. The decision is tempered by personal taste. This author prefers to let roses create varying forms in the landscape. That is, some are permitted to grow into their natural shape - erect, cascading, compact, prostrate, etc. Others are pruned and shaped onto structures such as fences, parasols, pillars, arches and the like. Still others are grown as standards ("tree roses").

If space is a limiting factor, natural forms may not be a suitable decision since many shrubform roses grow 6 - 10 ft. (2 - 3 m) tall and wide; thus limiting the number that can be grown. Confining roses to pillars or other vertical structures may be a better option. Likewise, interplanting rose standards within other landscape ornamentals may be a suitable option. And miniature roses, even those confined to a container, may be still another option.

A special needs garden means creative design challenges. Gardens for the physically challenged, for example, can mean selecting large, cascading and highly fragrant roses to be planted deep into the bed such that they flow out into easy sensory range. This, of course, means more space is required - more space than planting the same rose along a back fence or pruning it up over an arch. And if those challenges include visual challenges, then care must be taken to ensure the rose's prickles are also less likely to cause physical harm should they be accidentally encountered.

Now that the decisions of why and how have been made, the next decisions are "where" and "what" - the subjects of the rest of this series.

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