The Rose for the Garden
Ask ten people what a garden is and you will get twelve answers. The best answer to the question I have encountered came in the book "Gardens of Spain" in which the author posited that a garden was an outdoor living space.
It has been almost twenty years since I first encountered that idea and the more I learn about gardening, the closer I am to seeing it exactly the same way. This may seem obvious to the most casual observer, but I had seen gardens as just about anything else. I first saw them as a place to raise fresh vegetables and fruits. I then saw gardens as being real estate on which I might collect roses - a kind of stamp album except that it was filled with roses.
But I have gotten, finally, to the point where I see the critical importance of space and color and texture combinations that work together in unity to really make a garden shine. This is not to say I have mastered them, just that I understand that these issues exist and that I do have an opinion. I understand if I scatter roses about willy nilly, then, when the rose is out of bloom, the garden will seem out of kilter.
All of this matters when it comes to planting roses. If one sees the garden as a convenient place to house a rose collection, then the garden will come to resemble a rose collection. If one views a garden as being a place to grow cucumbers, then the garden will look like a cucumber patch. If one sees the garden as an outside room, then the plants will exist for the purpose of decorating the room.
At Villandry there is a massively huge vegetable garden that masquerades as a huge cloissone tray, with colorful lettuces inset in hedge-bound beds. This suggests that one can, at the same time have an attractive garden and one that performs other functions, with a bit of planning and work. Actually, Villandry has a small army of gardeners, and its hedges may be hundreds of years old. The task is not always trivial one.
In Victorian England when the hybrid perpetuals were being bred for display on the show bench, one prominent rosarian declared 'the garden for the rose.' This is a fine thing to say if one is standing around in a marble-columned museum sipping champagne and enjoying blossoms grown by someone else's gardeners and on someone else's real estate. In such a context this is surely the right way of looking at things. Furthermore, English weather is reknown for being foul, so having the gardener bring the roses from the garden into the house obviates all the problems associated with going outside into the cold, damp air. In such a world, it must ever be the garden for the rose.
Today many people who grow roses are not feudal lords living in the misty English countryside. And those of us who are not feudal lords might derive some benefit from going into the garden from time to time to smell the roses.
The act of going into the garden to smell the roses presupposes a garden, not just a patch of cultivated land with rose plants. And it is here where we begin to see the necessity of a different point of view.
Step into the place where the rose grows and see what you think of it. If it happens to be during the week or two during the year during which the rose is blooming, it will not make much difference what shape the garden is in, perhaps, for the blossoms may just carry the whole thing.
If one enters the garden during one of the fifty weeks a year when the rose blossom is absent or rarely seen, what does the garden look like now? If it looks a bit of a mess and if we wish it were otherwise, this suggests we must plant in such a way that when the beauty of the rose fades, the beauties of other plants will take over. Mulch, for all its horticultural advantages, can hold our interest by itself for only so long.
The strategies for making the garden a beautiful place in the absence of roses are endless, but the steps are the same. The first step is to do a land use plan and figure out all the ways the space is to be used. Divide it up into 'rooms' and dedicate each room to its function. Before planting anything, bring in enough rich, humusy material so that when it is all integrated into your top soil you have a foot of fertile, loose, soil. Create paths to circulate from room to room and structures of hardscape or shrubs or hedge material to demarcate the edges of each area.
Then plant plants. Plant first any trees or large shrubs. Then plant lots of roses. Next, plant tons of other perennial plants. Roses look wonderful with a host of plants. In my own garden the daffodils start the spring show. They are followed by tulips. Then come the iris and peonies. Then the roses. Lavender will sometimes be in bloom as early as the roses and may go on through much of the summer. By early July daylilies and oriental lilies are in bloom. After this the garden takes a siesta to help it get through the dog days of July and early August. Then the annuals start blooming. Meanwhile, coneflowers and liatris bloom.
With good fertilization and adequate water, by late September there can be more roses. By this point the asters , chrysanthemums, marigolds, and rudbeckias are alight. Cannas and dahlias have hit their stride and bright colors reign through much of the garden. Sedum 'Autumn Joy' is now forming heads and the grasses that will carry much of the garden through winter have grown seed heads.
By the time the leaves turn, the sedum heads have turned bronzy. Chrysanthemums are still blooming, so I plant only yellow, orange, and bronze colors; I find pinks and violets as jarring in fall as are oranges and yellows in early summer.
A plan such as this is not really very difficult because it relies primarily on a small list of perennial plants and a few easy-care bulbs and perennials.
We look out at the garden through the year and we see evergreen hollies, cedars, junipers, azaleas, and magnolias. Winter presents the dessicated structures of sedums and grasses. Spring presents abundant bulbs. Summer, peonies, iris, daylilies, and roses. This is not a garden just for the rose. Here the rose is for the garden and the garden is for the gardener.
When the rose is planted with complementary plants, the rose holds its place as queen of the garden. When roses are planted alone in vast beds, there is not much to be queen of, is there? Only mulch. So if we really want 'queen of the garden' to mean anything at all when it comes to roses, plant them with other plants. The rewards accrue not just to the queen herself, but to every being that might enjoy the garden.