Dr Leda Horticulture: Match Made in Heaven, or Match Made in Hell? The Darker Side of Companion Plants

by Genevieve on April 24, 2009

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I’m honored and pleased to be able to share with you the writing of my favorite garden humorist, Dr Leda Horticulture.

Regan Nursery, the finest place to buy bare root roses online, and a gorgeous full-service garden center serving the San Francisco Bay Area, has given us permission to reprint Dr Leda’s articles from their rose nursery newsletter. If you have never read her writing, you are in for a treat!

Match Made in Heaven, or Match Made in Hell: The Darker Side of Companion Plants by Dr Leda Horticulture

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Pink Roses with Bluebonnets

Dear Dr. Leda:
How should I select companion plants to grow with my roses? I know they ought to like the same amount of sun and water and fertilizer as the
roses. Is there anything else to consider?
-A Rose-Lover

Dear R-L:
Once upon a time, I subscribed to the “Oh, Just Put In Whatever Looks Pretty” school of companion planting. However, having recently undergone some rather disturbing and traumatic experiences involving ill-chosen companion plants, my current position is that they should be selected with extreme caution, if not rabid paranoia.

One prudent approach is to imagine that the roses are your 14-year-old daughter, and the companion plants are her escort to the 8th grade prom. Horticulturists refer to this as the “Over My Dead Body Are You Going Out With That Creep” school of c.p. selection.

It really isn’t such a bizarre stretch of the imagination, if you think about it. Roses and 14-year-old girls have a lot in common. They’re beautiful and moody, they’re vain and insecure, they’re totally obsessed with their own appearance. They’re as delicate as lace and as tough as anvils; one minute they’re your precious babycakes and the next minute they’ve turned on you like a barracuda, shredding you to ribbons. And of course they’re notoriously vulnerable to a frightening array of problems and predators, and they exercise questionable judgment , if any.

When it comes to companion plants, the number one iron-clad rule is to avoid anything that has an invasive underground root system, such as bamboo. I live in Louisiana where we have hot, wet, tropical summers, and I’ve had several rose beds completely choked out by gorgeous emerald green Elephant Ear (Colocasia esculenta) and beautiful purple Ruellia Brittonia, both planted by former owners of the house. Their stealthy roots spread under lawns and walkways to get to those rich, fertile rose beds, where they destroyed the roses in one summer.

But there’s more to worry about than just invasive roots. Let’s take a look at some common but ruinous myths about companion plants and their unfortunate real-life consequences, some of which may have actually befallen someone we know. Note that in each of these cases, the cataclysmic companion plant meets all the conventional requirements with respect to cultural preferences, complementary appearance, and civilized root systems. And yet: bad juju abounds.

Myth #1: Roses and Morning Glories—what a great combination! There’s never enough blue in a rose garden. What could possibly be more striking than brilliant sapphire blossoms intertwined with climbing roses, or perhaps a magnificent cobalt backdrop behind a bed of pastel pink floribundas?

Fact: Morning Glories are voracious cannibals that will devour your roses and all surrounding real estate in one giant gulp. Think of this combination as encouraging your 14-year-old daughter to join the Hell’s Angels in a state with no helmet laws. “Here’s the key to a brand new custom loaded Harley V-Rod, honey. Why don’t you take it out for a spin with Switchblade and Methbrain and those other nice boys? Watch out for that sissy bar on your left turns, and be home in time for breakfast!” Right.

Plant Morning Glories nearby and you’ll be lucky if you ever see your roses again before Thanksgiving. A rose strangled by these kudzulike vines will be deprived of sunlight and air circulation, which creates an ideal environment for fungal diseases. Plus, you’ll be fending off aggressive volunteers for the next three decades.

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Roses Overpowered by Dinnerplate Hibiscus

Myth #2: Planting Dinnerplate Hibiscus amongst the roses—a stroke of sheer genius! When the roses slow down in the intense summer heat, the huge dramatic Hibiscus moscheutos blossoms will pick up the slack. This way, there’s always an impressive show of color in the garden.

Fact: Planting Dinnerplate Hibiscus anywhere near roses is a stroke of sheer madness. You might as well allow your 14-year-old daughter to take an
after-school job dancing on tables at Delilah’s Den of X-stasy. “Oh sweetie, you look so grownup in your new uniform! A feather boa, a dental floss thong, and those lovely 8-inch red stilettos. Be sure to bring home lots of tips!” Uh-uh.

Those brazen Dinnerplate hussies will overpower your demure little roses, blocking their sunlight and rendering them as exciting as a gaggle of high-collared, sensibly-shod nuns huddled beneath a beach umbrella on the Topless Riviera. For their sanity and yours: don’t do it.

Myth #3: Tomato plants are beneficial companions for roses, since their leaves contain a chemical that may act as an organic remedy for blackspot. When the two are planted close together, the roses will stay healthy, and, as an added bonus, we can harvest delicious vine-ripe
tomatoes all summer!

Fact: You are going to regret this for years to come. You have essentially dropped your 14-yearold daughter at the mall in the company of her new best friend, an angelic looking child named Brandywine who has been convicted of felony shoplifting 27 times since the second grade and who, unbeknownst to you, has just pocketed your Visa Gold card. “You girls have fun, and treat yourselves to some cute things!”

The rapacious tomato plants will sprawl like an unzoned housing development; they’ll be all over your roses like a 25-cent Salvation Army suit. The tomatoes themselves will hang deep inside the rose bushes so anyone who tries to pick them risks losing an arm. And the volunteers will never, ever stop coming up for the next eight million years.

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Roses with Salvia 'May Night'

Myth #4: Those typical, ordinary plants that everyone grows in front of their roses are soooo boring. ‘Stella D’Oro’ daylilies, ‘May Night’ Salvias, Lambs Ears, Coreopsis. So what if they’re carefree, non-invasive, and bloom non-stop all summer? They look like the planting strip in front of a gas
station.

Fact: Heaven forfend your daughter should go to the prom with that boring nerdy valedictorian who’s going to grow up to be a fascinating world
famous brain surgeon. Perhaps it behooves us all to get over the idea that anything which blooms all summer is boring. It’s time to retrain our eyes to see the simple beauty in those plain, ordinary, mundane, endlessly useful flowers at the strip mall.

Above all, never forget: the roses are the real stars of the show. They don’t like companion plants that steal their glory.

(Disclaimer: Dr. Leda is the mother of two grown sons who have both turned out brilliantly. Frankly, she wouldn’t have a clue on earth what
to do with daughters.)

Special thanks to Regan Nursery for allowing us to reprint Dr Leda’s wonderful garden writing. Regan Nursery is definitely the place to go if you are looking for quality bare root roses. They carry over 1000 varieties of grade #1 roses each year (grade #1 roses have at least three strong canes of 5/16” diameter, and they produce healthy, strong, productive shoots), which you can have shipped to your home. They are my recommended supplier and I already have a shopping list started for next year’s bare root ordering season!

Be sure to stop by their nursery in person if you’ll be visiting the San Francisco Bay Area – they have a great selection of Camellias, Hydrangeas, Japanese Maples, as well as their legendary selection of roses and a full array of nursery plants.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Town Mouse April 24, 2009 at 7:37 am

That was fun to read. I always tell my friends: At least with gardening, if things don’t work out, you just compost the lot. With kids…

Town Mouse’s last blog post..Tree work 1 – Eucalyptus-be-gone

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gerg April 24, 2009 at 10:06 am

I once had the great fortune to work at a local garden that was over one hundred years old. And the great misfortune of pulling out huge mats of bermuda and ivy out of the ancient rose garden in the middle of the lawn. I think I still have the scars, even ten years later.

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Erin April 27, 2009 at 12:40 pm

Ha! Now that was funny!

Erin’s last blog post..The best place to get your herbs and veggies

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Tim Scott July 11, 2011 at 3:10 pm

Great post! And it is true, how many people plant based on looks rather than strategy and facts. Love the blog, keep up the great work!

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