Designing Rose Gardens

Many gardeners elect to keep all their rose plants in one part of the garden. The tradition of a separate rose garden stems from the nineteenth-century practice of devoting an extensive section to roses, another section to herbs, a third to water plants, and so forth. A mass of roses can produce a stunning and harmonious effect. It may be more convenient to have all the roses in one area when you are pruning, watering, and fertilizing them. But as long as the site is right (a topic to be discussed in a moment), there’s no reason not to enjoy roses in all parts of the garden, as a focal point or as part of a colorful tapestry with other plants.

Miniatures are particularly versatile; they will fit in well with all parts of the garden and provide gorgeous spots of color. Use them as an edging around flower beds or the vegetable garden, or mix them with low-growing annuals, such as alyssum, calendula, and viola, or with small rock-garden plants.

Roses can be an integral part of a formal or an informal garden design. A formal design is characterized by symmetry and straight or regularly curving lines. Elegant tree roses are an excellent choice for a formal garden; a row of them can seem like a colorful guard of honor at attention. An informal garden is more natural and asymmetrical. Graceful, arching shrub roses and climbers cascading over a wall or arbor are at home in an informal landscape.

One type of garden is planned for efficiency, without regard to design considerations. This is the cutting garden, usually located in an out-of-the-way part of the yard, where flowers are raised for shows or indoor arrangements. Roses in a cutting garden can be given optimum spacing and arranged so that they can be cared for conveniently.

One of the key words in landscaping is restraint. A specimen plant is one that is particularly lovely or spectacular and is allowed to stand alone or to dominate part of a landscape. A single strategically placed rosebush can be a bold accent that serves as a focal point. When a rose stands alone or is positioned to stand out among other plants, it should be special, with exceptional blooms, fragrance, or foliage.

Planting Sites

There are four considerations to keep in mind when you are choosing a spot in the garden to plant a rose: exposure to sun and to wind, type of soil, and neighboring plants.


Roses should receive at least six hours of full sun a day. In areas with intense summer heat, they will appreciate some shade in the afternoon when the sun is hottest. A rose will grow in shade, but it will be spindly and unattractive, and it will produce fewer blossoms. The plant’s susceptibility to rust and powdery mildew also increases in shade.


Don’t plant roses in exposed locations where they will be subjected to prevailing strong winds. Wind damages blossoms and causes rapid evaporation of moisture from the foliage, making it necessary to water the plants more often. Consider planting trees or shrubs to shield your roses if you have a windy site.


Roses do best in slightly acid soil, but generally they will grow reasonably well in all but the most extreme soil types. The soil must be well drained and at the same time retain moisture for use by the roots. If you don’t have well-drained soil in your garden, either bring in new soil and create a raised bed or amend the soil to create better drainage.

A hillside provides good drainage and helps to show off the roses, too. Make terraces, with a path on each terrace for tending and admiring the roses.


Roses should not be planted too close to large trees or shrubs whose roots will compete with them for water and nutrients. If you need to, bury header boards 2 to 3 feet below the surface to keep the tree or shrub roots from encroaching on the roses. Some of the larger shrub roses do not need this protection, because they develop extensive root systems.


After identifying the appropriate places for planting roses in the garden, start thinking about the type, size, and number of rose plants you can accommodate. If you want to plant one or two roses among other plants, consider the eventual size of the rose and the mature size of the neighboring plants (if they are not fully grown). Allow enough space so that the rose plant will receive plenty of sun and sufficient air circulation around it even when it’s fully grown. Remember that some of the old roses and shrub roses are very vigorous.

If you’re thinking about more than one or two roses, whether in a separate section of the garden or in just a single bed, it’s helpful to sketch to scale a plan of the planting area. Then you won’t need to continually prune the roses to keep them far enough apart or to move the overcrowded plants later on.


The table at the bottom of this page shows the approximate heights the different classes of roses reach when mature. These are not ironclad limits by any means: How tall roses grow depends on the climate and how heavily the plants are pruned. Within the same class there are also variations in growth. Hybrid teas, for example, include low-, moderate-, and tall-growing cultivars.

Don’t plant tall-growing cultivars in front of lower-growing ones. If you do, you won’t be able to enjoy the ones hidden in the back. That may seem like an obvious admonition, but it’s an easy mistake to make in the excitement of planning and planting.

As mentioned earlier, good air circulation around a plant lessens the likelihood of disease. Remember to allow plenty of room between two different cultivars; they can look unkempt when entangled with each other. As a rule of thumb, figure the spread of a rosebush to be about two thirds its height. If you are planting more than one row of roses, stagger the plants in neighboring rows. This improves air circulation and provides a less rigid appearance.

If you won’t be able to tend the roses from a path, leave a little extra room between the plants so that you can move among them without being continually grabbed by thorns. Stay well clear of the base of the plants in order not to compact the soil and inhibit water drainage. Plant the rosebushes at least 2 feet back from walkways so thorny branches won’t snag passersby.


Many gardeners believe that all roses blend together, but others prefer a careful plan that avoids clashing colors and creates a harmonious effect. Roses provide a long seasonal parade of color, so plan a look you’ll enjoy. Your preferences and imagination are the only limits here.

You may choose a monochromatic scheme, planting roses of a single color or several shades of one color. If you locate the roses near the house, choose a hue that blends well with the materials or color of your house.

Some gardeners prefer carefully planned arrangements of two or three colors. Try yellows and oranges together, or pinks and reds. You can also design with two contrasting colors, such as lavender and orange, or yellow and violet.

Mixed colors lose their effectiveness in small areas, so it’s usually best to plant at least several bushes of the same color. In a large space you can use bold splashes of color in every hue, but plant at least two roses of the same color together so there will be small blocks of different colors rather than little spots. In this manner, you can create a riot of color, which can be tempered with a white rose.

Most blooms are best highlighted against a background of dark greenery or a fence or wall painted a dark color. However, plants with deep pink blossoms need a light backdrop to display their rich colors to the best advantage. Colors can also be used to make a garden seem smaller or larger than it really is. Bright, warm colors like scarlet, orange, and yellow planted at the rear of a garden will make the space appear smaller; cool colors like maroon, violet, and lavender will make it seem longer or deeper.

Heights of Modern Roses

Miniature Under 3′, some only 1′
Floribunda About 3′
Hybrid Tea 4′ to 5′
Grandiflora Up to 6′
Tree Rose Usually 5′ to 6′
Climbing Rose 6′ to 20′, grown on a wall or trellis