Q&A: how to liven up a rose bed

"My rose bed looks very dull when the roses aren't out. How can I improve it?"
Use herbaceous perennials to flatter your rosesUse herbaceous perennials to flatter your roses

The best way is to use some traditional herbaceous perennials, ones that don’t spread, to flatter your roses. Choose some that flower before the roses appear and some to carry on afterwards ensuring colour from May until October. The carpet of foliage produced by your perennials will also help to deter fungal diseases like black spot because spores are less likely to be washed back up from the soil to the rose if there’s a leafy layer between.

The colour blue flatters every rose (whatever the colour) and one of the best support acts is the violet-blue Campanula lactiflora ‘Prichard’s Variety’. It produces clusters of bells in early summer but will repeat flower, if cut back, until late into the year (75 cm - 30 inches). Two sterile hardy geraniums, ‘Orion’ and ‘Rozanne’, will also produce a wave of blue from May until late autumn and they could be used in front of roses. Compact lavender, like ‘Hidcote Purple’, or the billowing catmint Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’, also provide waves of blue and both can be cut back in early May to delay flowering until July, so that they follow the first flush of roses.

Early May performers could include forms of the winged violet (Viola cornuta) and there are white, pale-blue and pink forms of this cushion-forming viola. Peonies also blend well and their foliage outlasts their May or early June flowers. ‘Festiva Maxima’ is a fabulous performer and the pale-pink, heavily petalled blooms fade to blush-white. The magenta-red flecking found on this peony picks up the colours of old-fashioned roses. Foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea) also blend well as their bells are usually spotted in maroon and white. Dark-red astrantias are also excellent with paler roses and there are several good forms including ‘Hadspen Blood’ and the clearer red ‘Ruby Wedding’.

For late-summer and autumn splendour use penstemons as they will continue to flower. Varieties vary and some have large, almost-clumsy wide-mouthed bells. Others are neater and ‘Hidcote Pink’ and ‘Evelyn’ are both good, elegant pinks. The ruby-red ‘Garnet’ (which is now correctly called ‘Andenken an Friedrich Hahn’) is a wonderful performer. I would also recommend the smoky, lilac- blue ‘Pennington Gem’ and any good white on offer.

Dark, sultry roses can be enhanced by blush-white flowers and you could use the ethereal wands of Gaura lindheimeri or the pink-eyed white Verbascum chaixii ‘Alba’. Pale roses need a dark contrast. The wine-red buttons of Knautia arvensis, the dark-blue spires of Salvia verticillata ‘Purple Rain’ and the ruby-red heads and dark foliage of Sedum ‘Purple Emperor’ will add infusions of deep colour late into the year.

The Natural Gardener by Val Bourne is published by Frances Lincoln at £14.99. Order from the Saga Bookshop and you'll receive a 20% discount AND free delivery when you spend over £15. Simply call FREEPHONE 0800 904 7216 (lines are open Mon-Fri 9am-5pm). 


  • Scented rose

    Q&A: which scented roses to plant

    I want to plant some scented roses. What do you suggest?

    Read on

  • County of Hampshire Rose

    Rose 'County of Hampshire' (Korverlandus)

    Val Bourne introduces this gorgeous rose.

    Read on

  • David Austin Goldfinch rose

    Rosa 'Goldfinch'

    How to grow and care for this glorious once-a-year spectacle.

    Read on

  • Helenium 'Sahin's Early Flowerer' dazzles in shades of orange

    How - and when - to divide perennials

    There was a time when every herbaceous perennial was divided yearly - but this isn't the case now.

    Read on

  • Roses on a pergola

    Heaven scent

    I want to some fragrant plants in my garden this summer - what can I plant? Gardening expert Val Bourne answers a reader's question

    Read on

  • Salvia 'Icing Sugar'. Image courtesy of Hayloft Plants.

    How to grow salvias

    Salvias sparkle in full sun and the summer-flowering varieties with woody stems are tough enough to survive harsh winters.

    Read on

  • Viola Cornuta by Val Bourne

    Viola cornuta

    How to choose, propagate and care for viola cornuta

    Read on

  • Peony

    The herbaceous peony

    Val Bourne introduces us to a flower that has been in and out of fashion since Medieval times.

    Read on

  • Geranium 'Orion'

    Hardy geraniums to flower through summer

    Garden expert Val Bourne advises on the best varieties to provide a cheerful splash of colour all summer long

    Read on

  • Debutante rose by David Austin

    Rambling roses

    I want to plant some roses to cover a wooden fence - which ones shall I choose?

    Read on

  • Buff-tailed male bumblebee on astrantia. Photograph by Vivian Russell.

    Ten plants for the June gap

    There’s always a lull before summer, when there’s not enough flower to satisfy the pollinator or the gardener, but these plants will help bridge the gap.

    Read on

  • Climbing roses

    Rambling roses and climbing roses: what’s the difference?

    Gardening expert Val Bourne explains the differences between a climbing rose and a rambling rose, and recommends which one would suit different situations.

    Read on


Type your comment here

 characters remaining.

Q&A: how to liven up a rose bed

"My rose bed looks very dull when the roses aren't out. How can I improve it?"