Focal Points, Pathways & Vistas:
A Few Ideas for Your Rose Garden

By Linda Shamoon


Let’s face it; most of us members of the RIRS are obsessed. We spend a lot of time, maybe too much time, thinking about, selecting, planting, tending to, coddling, and crowing about our roses. As a result, we may have a kind of myopia. We pick this or that rose because of its new look, or its bloom shape, or other quality; thus, each rose is picked individually. In doing so, we may overlook a factor that contributes mightily to our enjoyment of the rose. Namely, how does it display--not on the show table, but in its growth space—in the garden? I have pondered this problem as I have explored the rose gardens of England, the Pacific Northwest, and Rhode Island, and I have come to a few conclusions. Primarily, I have learned that, like all natural beauties, the rose’s looks are enhanced if it grows in a well-designed space. No matter how small or large, the garden, the gardener and the roses improve with some attention to garden design.

A rose garden can have a variety of “looks.” The gardens of Hampton Court and Kew include great beds of yellow and red roses laid out in careful, geometric shapes within huge but orderly spaces. The roses in the Burchart Gardens of British Columbia are laid out in smaller units in beds of concentric circles along easily traversed walkways. On a hillside in Berkeley California, variously shaped beds of roses work their way down a steep slope, following the natural contours of the landscape, creating a more naturalized look. Each of these settings seems to bring out different qualities of the rose. At Kew the roses look regal and majestic, at Burchart they look orderly, but varied and plentiful, and in Berkeley they seem spontaneous, but also tenacious and bold. With each visit, I fall in love again.

With a little thought and effort, one’s own garden space can be designed to display the rose to some advantage and it is well worth the effort to do so. Otherwise, the roses seem always on their way to a beautiful display. For four months of the year, the plants are bare sticks, and for a good chunk of the other eight months, the bushes are just past or just before the peak bloom. But good design makes the rose beautiful or at least interesting all year.

Successful design starts with the basic elements of good gardening: good sunlight, good soil, and good drainage. Roses need at least five to six hours of sunlight a day, preferably morning sun. The more sun exposure, the better the rose garden. In my yard, trees dominate, but in three different spots the sun shines for six hours; those spots are the locations of the three rose “beds.” In these three areas, I dug out the tired dirt down to two feet deep, removed the rocks and added a mix of horse manure, some good topsoil, perlite, lime and superphosphate. In building this new soil foundation, I deliberately left some pebbles for drainage and added lots of perlite to lighten the otherwise heavy soil. This new base pays off over the years, making it an easy bed to plant and replant as the garden evolves.

Once the basic area of the garden is determined, the designing begins. Professional landscape designers think of a planting area as a room or as a blank palette to be filled purpose-fully with color, shapes and a variety of patterns. These are useful metaphors. After all, in a room, even in the smallest room, we usually have areas with their own focal points and pathways, but we also have an overall look gained by strategic use of color and pattern and maybe a view, a vista. On a palette we focus on color in pleasing, suggestive or surprising arrangements. These are good starting points: focal points; paths; vistas; levels; colors, pattern, size and bloom time.

     a. Focal points – Consider the overall shape of the garden area and then break it up into focal points. Where can visitors stop and stare at the flowers?  What will they look at first, second, third. If there are no real focal points now, just a flow of plantings, rethink this to create clusters and separations. Each focal point offers a place for a cluster of plants or a splash of color. Square or rectangular shaped gardens are peaceful or formal, but cutting into the space with a curve or raised bed can create interest and give a small garden some variety or mystery. (What is on the other side?)

     b. Paths – If the garden has focal points, it will have flow of traffic. Give visitors a pathway to walk or a hint of how to move through the space. A series of plantings stretched out along a border draws a visitor along, encouraging him to view the roses from several perspectives. A cut through a line of bushes beckons a visitor into a little shady nook with its own plantings, a contrast to the roses. Even the smallest garden can invite a visitor to walk through its space, which makes the garden seem bigger.

    c. Vistas – Take a look at the garden from different positions and different heights; look at it at the ground level, eye level, and higher up. Stand in the corners, the middle, the sides; what vistas present themselves?  Are the views generally pleasant or promising, or is there something distracting, drawing away from the sights in the garden?  Can the distraction be changed or obscured by a large planting, or should traffic be steered away from that vista? I have seen uninteresting vistas transformed with an interesting planting, or a water feature or a bench that invites people to turn their backs on the poor vista and to look at the garden from an unusual perspective.

   d. Levels – One way to add variety, even in a small space, is to raise the level of a corner or put in some raised beds. The raised bed calls for less digging initially and it makes some plantings much more accessible, too. Raised beds can also break up a plain rectangle or square and help establish inviting pathways through the garden.

   e.  Colors, pattern, size and bloom time – Once we have a general sense of how we want to use the space, the fun begins: flower selection and placement. Here, I turn to considerations of color, pattern, size and bloom time. By grouping colors, I create focal points, patterns and variety. I tend to choose red and pink roses, so I break up these plantings with a line of yellow roses. I put the shorter roses along the front edge and the larger ones in back, but for variety, I plant a few shorter ones in a line or cluster so as to break up the space. I am also developing an eye for bloom time, so that at least a few of the bushes are in bloom every day between early June and Thanksgiving, and I let a few bushes develop hips for winter interest. Professional designers advise planting at least three of any plant for a full display, but in a small garden like mine I have sacrificed fullness for variety and it works.

Wait!  Caution. There is so much plant material available, so many roses to select, so many gardens to study. Once a garden gets underway, it fills up quickly and sometimes becomes just stuffed with plants. In an over-planted garden the bushes run into each other, grabbing the nutrients from each other and crowding out the less dominant types. Or the garden gets larger, filled with more plants than the owner has time or energy to nurture. Well-designed rose gardens have limits. In a well-designed rose garden, each rose has room to grow and space to breathe. The space allows fresh air to circulate, which reduces fungus and may reduce insect infestation. In a well-designed rose garden, the number of roses does not exceed the owner’s ability to provide some much needed TLC.

In closing, I urge you to visit lots of rose gardens, collect pictures and garden plans of the ones you love the best. Develop a dream of the ideal rose garden, but tailor it to what is really on the ground and don’t over plant. Be realistic about the level of care you have time to give. Then give a garden time to develop its look. Leave space for the garden to fill in and grow. Leave yourself plenty of time to enjoy your creation—to look at and smell the roses.

 Reprinted from Rhode Island Rose Review August 2004


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