Roses are at their most ravishing with plants that conceal their bare legs and flatter their blooms. Groundcover geraniums are the tried-and-tested accompaniment, creating froths of cottage-garden flowers around their bases through summer, and beyond if you cut back their first flush.
© Marianne Majerus
Instead of the ubiquitous Geranium Johnson's Blue, choose the geranium that has been voted the RHS Chelsea Flower Show plant of the centenary, Rozanne. Reaching a substantial two feet — enough to hide the leggy bases of rose bushes — the large, single flowers are a gorgeous lilac-blue and will keep on coming from June until October with no cutting back required.
Pretty in pink
Geranium endressii will supply a pretty enough soft pink, but with a rich yellow rose such as Teasing Georgia or Graham Thomas, something sparkier is required, such as Geranium psilostemon, which has tall stems carrying the showiest shocking-pink flowers with coal-black centres.
Add a handful or two of alliums and roses really start to sing. The different shapes complement one another: pompom heads on straight green stems, threading around a rose, make a great structural contrast. Purple Sensation is a good choice, and cristophii, with star-flowered lilac metallic heads larger than your fist, is even better.
Herbs make a classic combo, complementing the roses' perfume with their own aromatic fragrance, but plant the right varieties so they don't get lost in the crowd. Purple sage left to flower is flattering for roses; try an ornamental sage, too, such as Salvia sylvestris Mainacht, with deep blue flowers that bloom for months on end, or the newer, edgier, deep maroon Schwellenburg.
French lavender, the tufted type, is all but over by the time roses bloom, and tends to be too short to be seen in a border. Munstead and Hidcote, the two varieties most widely available at garden centres, are neat and compact, ideal for low hedging, but a better choice is a tall, looser lavender such as Grosso, which has long, tapering flowers on tall stems that make the perfect cover-up for bare legs. Nepeta Six Hills Giant will make more of a curtain than lower-growing Nepeta x faasenii.
Romance of the veil
Veiling a rose with "see-through" plants is a trick that flatters the blooms and adds another layer of romance. Verbena bonariensis is the designers' favourite that has high-rise flat sprays of mauve flowers, beloved by bees and butterflies, carried on skinny, straight stems.
Buy half a dozen young bronze fennel plants from the garden centre, dot them around the base of a deep pink rose such as Cardinal Richelieu or rugosa rose Roseraie de l'Hay, and you have an irresistible combination, the feathery plumes making a gauzy veil.
At the Old English Garden, in Battersea Park — the go-to place right now for seeing more than 70 rose varieties imaginatively planted — designer Sarah Price has combined roses with ornamental grasses, which provide structure through the year and, with their silken seedheads, create a seductive, soft veil through which the roses can be viewed. There is wavy, golden Deschampsia flexuosa, flattering the pink and apricot butterfly flowers of Rosa mutabilis and the silvery, shimmering plumes of Calamagrostis brachytricha, swaying around crimson beauty Rosa Charles de Mills. Price also uses swishy grass Molinia Transparent as well as the lookalike cow parsley, Cenelophium denudatum, to give antique roses contemporary charm.