Choosing Roses for Color

Modem hybridizers have enlarged the palette of rose colors to an extent that would amaze the gardener of a hundred years ago. Whereas old garden roses were restricted mainly to stripes and solids in the white, pink, lavender, and red color range, today’s modem hybrids come in vivid admixtures of every color except true blue and black—although genetic engineers may well achieve these colors in the future. (There is indeed a green rose, R. chinensis viridiflora.) Flowers may be solid-colored, bicolored (different colors on the insides and the outsides of the petals), or blends (two or more colors intermingled on each petal).

Flower color is among the most important factors in selecting roses for your garden, for the colors you choose project your personality and that of your home.

A warm color scheme, made up of red, orange, gold, and yellow tones, is exciting, happy, and cheerful. It draws the eye to the garden and makes it look smaller than it is. However, such a color scheme also makes the garden seem hotter, so it would not be a good choice where temperatures scale high in the summer, especially if the roses are to be planted near outdoor living areas.

A cool color scheme, composed of violet, mauve, and purple, is soothing and refreshing. It is the best choice for a quiet garden meant for relaxing. It also makes a small garden look larger, and is a good color scheme to use when you want to hide an eyesore, since it does not draw attention to itself. Although they are technically not cool colors, whites, pastel yellows, and light pinks also have this same low-key effect.

When planning a garden, work within a limited color scheme to avoid a busy and distracting look. Start by choosing one color as the dominant hue, and add one or two other colors as subordinates. As you gain experience you will learn how to safely add more colors without creating discord.

To help you select color harmonies, use a color wheel, available at art supply stores. Colors opposite each other on the wheel, such as purple and yellow, are called complementary. They make a strong and attractive harmony, yet may be too overpowering for a small garden.

A useful compromise is split complementary harmony, in which one color is complemented by a color adjacent to its opposite on the wheel. An example of this type of harmony is yellow with red-violet or blue-violet.

Analogous harmony uses two or three colors that are adjacent on the color wheel; for example, yellow, yellow-orange, and orange. Putting two strongly colored roses with analogous harmony together, such as the pure orange ‘Orangeade’ with the red-orange ‘Sarabande’, creates drama.

Monochromatic harmony is a color scheme that uses shades and tones of a single hue. An example would be a garden using a variety of pinks, perhaps mixing light pink, medium pink, and deep pink roses.

Pink and white do not appear on the color wheel yet are important colors in the garden. Pink, a tint of red, is used like red to complement colors such as yellow or mauve. Paler pinks tend to have a more cooling influence than darker, more saturated pinks or reds.

White, the absence of pigment, can be used on its own as the dominant color, or as a buffer between bright colors. When used as an edging, white can have a unifying effect on a bed or border of multicolored roses behind it, because its brightness stands out as a vivid common denominator. For this reason, using white-flowered plants only here and there can make for a spotty look, so use white flowers only in contiguous masses or borders.

White, pink, and other light pastels are excellent tones for a garden that will be viewed at night, since dark colors fade into the background after sunset. Like cool colors, light colors are also good for camouflaging eyesores such as work sheds, gas tanks, and trash bins, since the eye is less drawn to them than it is to warm or dark colors.

Roses with strong colors like red or orange are good for accenting focal points, such as the end of a garden path, or a garden ornament, such as a bench, a statue, or a birdbath. Repeating the accent color in a nearby bed carries the eye along through the garden.

Many rose growers like to grow as many different colors and varieties as possible, to afford themselves a large number of roses to study or exhibit. Unless thought is given to their arrangement, the result can be a visual jumble. Subtle tones, in particular, may go unappreciated in the absence of a unifying plan. If you want a wide palette of colors, try arranging them in a deliberate progression, or use different color schemes in different sections of the garden. To avoid a crazy-quilt effect, plant two or three roses of the same variety or color together, rather than scattering them throughout the garden.

In very large gardens, plantings have a more dramatic effect if masses of the same variety—or at least of the same color—are together. These masses give an impression of abundance. If you grow mass plantings of a single color, keep an extra plant or two growing in pots, in case disease or winter-kill makes replacement necessary.

Bear in mind that solid-color roses can be more difficult to mix together than blends or bicolors, since they have no secondary tones to be picked up by a neighboring rose. However, placing too many blends together can cause the subtleties of their coloration to be lost. A good rule is to place solid colors next to blends, which makes the better qualities of each stand out.

Choosing colors for the garden is both a more complex and a less rigorous enterprise than choosing colors for the interior of a home, because a garden has so many variables. In a garden you must take into account the dappling of sunlight and shadow, the green of foliage or a nearby lawn, the brown of earth and branches, and the blue of the sky, all of which may change from hour to hour and from season to season. These natural elements, and the vastness of the outdoors, tend to relax even the strictest color scheme, allowing you to veer from the rules somewhat without creating visual discord.

Indeed, Mother Nature herself can be a source of inspiration, for she often combines colors in a striking manner. There are red-and-yellow gaillardias, violet asters with yellow centers, orange-and-gold marigolds, red-and-white impatiens. Borrow from these natural combinations to create an invigorating color scheme for your rose garden. Be wary of color clashes, though; for example, roses that have orange in them are likely to clash with pink or mauve roses.

The local climate may moderate your choice of colors, and even the colors themselves. For example, the heat and bright sunlight of warm climates can cause yellow roses to fade, and deep pink and red roses to develop darkened edges. In damp climates many yellow roses are exceptionally prone to black spot. Many white roses are prone to water spotting, so you may wish to avoid them in rainy climates, or where water will drip on them from eaves and trees.

Before making a final color selection, study the color of the house, fence, or wall against which your roses will be seen, and make sure that the juxtaposition is harmonious. A red or brick-colored structure looks best with yellow or white roses; a blue one with red, pink, white, or yellow. Against a white house, bright red and orange are dramatic. The grayed, weathered surface of an unpainted barn or a split-rail fence is complemented well by roses with soft pink, yellow, or apricot tones.

No one can tell you what color scheme is best for your garden; the preceding are only suggestions and guidelines. Response to color is a personal matter, a reflection of your tastes and temperament. Some like it hot; others don’t. When selecting roses, choose the colors that are right for you.