Often in a small garden in town there is not much sun for flowers, and often the best spot is given to a bed of roses.
But this means not much of anything else, and the question arises what can be planted under the roses or around the edge of the bed, to get more variety than the roses offer. Rose fanatics, needless to say, easily persuade themselves that this plant, the rose, has a wider range of color and form than any other plant, which is nonsense. They even go so far as to imagine the bush itself is handsome, though the average rosebush is as nearly ugly as anything in the floral kingdom.
Sane gardeners long ago decided the rose is worth putting up with, but they never deluded themselves that a bed of roses (on, say, July 27) is any great ornament to the garden or to the human spirit.
So they started planting other things beneath and around the rose bushes.
Some gardeners, besotted beyond redemption by the perfume of the rose, hold that no leaf or root or even shadow may be allowed within a stone's throw of the precious rose, but as I say the sane gardener with very little space for gardening is not of that opinion, and some great gardeners stuck in all manner of small plants with the roses.
The trouble is that the roses are much easier to manage if the soil about them is bare or heavily mulched. You cannot dump 5 inches of horse manure (to encourage the roses) on top of the bed if you have planted many little oddments among the roses.
And it may as well be admitted that weed control in a rose bed is far easier if no other little treasures share the space with the Queen of Flowers. And if spraying is to be done it is a far easier and less perilous task if the ground is not alive with dozens of plants that do not much like chemicals.
The great gardener William Robinson of Gravetye worked it out. He said a mulch of manure was "unnecessary" and aesthetically displeasing anyway. He said you should dig three feet deep, put in a few cartfuls of manure before planting the roses, and forget manure thereafter.
Thus (he went on) the surface of the bed would be free for violas and "any little plants to spare" and while this advice still makes rose-nuts faint, it worked well for Robinson and has worked well for many other gardeners.
You have to use common sense. If the rosebushes are jammed in 16 inches apart (and three or four feet is more sensible in this climate if you expect the bushes to grow to full size) then of course there is not going to be room between them to plant anything else.
Often in a bed the rows of roses are three feet apart, and I have had happy experiences planting daffodils down the middle. At the edges of the bed, many bulbs may find a home, to bloom before the roses come into heavy leaf to shade them too much.
Snowflakes and snowdrops, fritillaries of several kinds, many sorts of tulips, hyacinths, blue starflowers, grape hyacinths, crocuses and squills may be used.
If you are slightly mad, and many town gardeners are driven to it by the lack of space, you could even have some of the smaller crinums such as 'Carolina Beauty.' I have used large white trumpet lilies, which do not take up much space, though their stems after blooming are not very ornamental poking up among the roses. Still, you do the best you can and make do.
Many small or smallish plants may be fitted in about the edges of the bed. Really small things like Johnny-jump-ups, which happen to be very tough, can actually be grown beneath the bushes, right up to the stem. Such small violas as 'Bowles' Black' are not showy but still very interesting and can be stuck in all kinds of crannies, though with me they never were permanent and had to be sown anew every year.
Various sedums can often be obliged to grow beneath the roses if the shade is not too heavy.
But getting back to the edges of the bed, rather than the part of the bed right under the bushes themselves, a lot can be managed. Not everything, but a lot. It may be that instead of a rose bed in the center of the garden there are some big shrub roses along the side and not much else. Well, many hostas are useful for planting in front of them, to keep down weeds entirely. Equally weed-inhibiting are several epimediums, and such a planting saves the gardener's having to crawl among the thorny shrubs to get weeds out.
But suppose a few flowers better than hostas are desired. Few things are as dandy as pinks, especially varieties of Dianthus plumarius, though I have never grown pinks at all well. They like gritty limestone soil and do not care much for my heavy clay loam, high humidity and acid ground. Still, many gardeners simply add some sand and succeed with them, and their foliage is as attractive as their flowers.
Other quite sensible candidates for the rose bed are soapworts, especially Saponaria ocymoides, and I would allow in a favorite plant of mine, the double bouncing bet, Saponaria officinalis, though most gardeners would think it too coarse or weedy.
Also many alliums, perennial geraniums, foxgloves (where their tall spikes have space to display themselves), lambs ears, bergenias, catmint and other mints.
An uncommon and pretty long-blooming perennial from South Africa is Diascia elegans and D. cordata, rarely offered except by California nurseries.
Some artemisias are good, with their gray leaves, though others are too tall and weedy. The lady's mantle, Alchemilla mollis, is flawless, and so is rue, an old herb said to be useful in flavoring cheese (as one who has often nibbled rue I cannot imagine it would be edible) but its small almost blue leaves are as elegant as anything in the garden. So is the gray lavender cotton or Santolina; and various thymes are pretty and low, and if taller herbs are appropriate, there's always lavender, rosemary and caryopteris.
Coming down to earth again you have the utterly ground-hugging ajuga or bugleweed, and you can get it in a purple-bronze-leaf form too. Equally purple and equally useful with roses are the coral bells or Heuchera, 'Palace Purple' and somewhat similar are the foamflowers or Tiarellas.
Small veronicas are a good source of blue; so is the sun-loving non-climbing Convolvulus sabaticus, with flowers of sky blue, pretty with the Mexican fleabane, Erigeron mucronatus; and what's wrong with sweet alyssum?
More robust but still manageable are snapdragons (not the giant ones that reach four feet, mind you) and evening primroses and nasturtiums.
Two small wild irises are useful, I. cristata with blue or white flowers, only four inches high from our own woodlands, and the foot-high blue or white I. tectorum from Japan.
Many poppies, such as Shirley poppies, are fragile enough to fit in with roses, though the great opium and Oriental poppies may be thought too competitive with the roses.
At a corner of the bed you might allow yourself a mullein, such as Verbascum bombyciferum, which does make rather large gray-white fuzzy rosettes on the ground (a minimum of two feet in diameter) but marvelous for very thin gray spikes with small yellow flowers six feet or more in height.
The rose campion with rich magenta flowers and gray-white foliage is to my mind as beautiful as a plant gets, but more delicate taste may prefer the variety with white flowers. A workhorse flower and handsome enough too is the 14-inch-high Vinca major, and the white ones with red eyes, cool looking in summer heat. Verbenas in various colors are old favorites, though the gorgeous scarlet ones may overpower the roses, and lavender or blush may be preferred.
Surely this is enough for a start. If you carpet your rose beds with some of these dandy plants, however, don't let any of your rose-fanatic friends in the garden.