Climbing roses

Walls, trellises, pergolas and even trees can all be brightened up by these beautiful blooms, writes Miranda Kimberley.

R. ‘Compassion’ - image: Floramedia
R. ‘Compassion’ - image: Floramedia

Roses are some of the most robust plants and they reward us with beautiful blooms from late spring and throughout summer, and often longer these days as warm autumns extend the flowering period. Climbing roses, which also include ramblers and scramblers, can be used to decorate walls, trellises and pergolas. They can even be grown up through trees, providing an extra layer of interest.

Climbing roses usually have large flowers, held singly or in small groups, and are repeat-flowering.

Rambling roses, however, usually flower only once, normally around June. Climbers are said to be best for walls, fences and trellises because they have stiffer stems and growth that is not overly vigorous.

Conversely, ramblers are better for structures where their lax growth and vigour are a benefit — covering unsightly buildings, growing up through trees as well as on arches and pergolas.

Plant roses in any good, well-drained garden soil, avoiding chalky ones. They like an open, sunny position, ideally. However, roses will cope with some shade during the day and some climbing roses can grow and flower well on a north-facing wall as long as it is not overshadowed by trees or buildings.

If planting against a wall you will probably need to improve the soil beneath, adding plenty of organic matter. Water them well to get them established, especially if planting as a containerised rose during the growing season. Choose the variety carefully to suit the site — you do not want to be constantly fighting with a vigorous rambler in a small space The maximum heights for climbing roses vary widely from 2m up to 6m.

Roses are not self-supporting so need horizontal wires or a trellis up which to grow, and will need to be regularly tied in. For roses that are being trained up pillars, arches or pergolas, twist the main shoots gently around the uprights, keeping them as horizontal as possible, to encourage flowering shoots to form low down. If the main stems are slow to branch, tip prune them to the first strong bud to encourage side shoots.

Climbers are routinely pruned between late autumn and late winter, after the flowers have faded. In autumn, long whippy growth can also be shortened or tied in. Reduce the length of the flowering side shoots back to two or three buds in January or February.

Ramblers are somewhat different. Upon planting they should be pruned back to 40cm from the ground. Fan out the shoots and tie in the new stems horizontally. Once cover of your structure has been achieved, begin routine pruning. Thin and shorten excessive growth by removing one in three of the oldest stems entirely. If space is restricted, prune out all stems that have flowered and tie new ones in to take their place.

The old varieties of climbers, especially the hybrid tea type, tend to be susceptible to disease and flower poorly because they produce few stems from the base and end up with all the flowers and leaves at the top. Consider changing to stronger, more disease-resistant new varieties.

R. banksiae ‘Lutea’ - image: Floramedia

What the specialists say

Michael Marriott, technical manager, David Austin Roses, Wolverhampton

"They are incredibly valuable plants, arguably the best of all climbers as they can have beautiful individual flowers, be fragrant and repeat flower. Climbers are generally best for walls, obelisks, fences, trellises and pillars as they are not too vigorous, repeat flower and have stiffer growth than the ramblers, which are generally better for climbing into trees over garages and over pergolas.

"People forget you need to tie the stems in and prune climbers and ramblers, especially the latter, as they have more lax growth. I always tell people to consider carefully when choosing a rose for a wall — how high up are they happy to climb a ladder? Having said that, there are some excellent shorter, repeat-flowering ramblers like Malvern Hills, the Albrighton Rambler, the Lady of the Lake and ‘Phyllis Bide’.

"Some of the climbers I recommend include the highly fragrant, pale-pink the Generous Gardener; Crown Princess Margareta, with very full petalled flowers of rich apricot; Mortimer Sackler, with its mid-pink
fragrant flowers and dark-purple more or less thornless stems; and a new variety in 2016, Bathsheba, which has very full petalled rich apricot/pink flowers as well as a strong fragrance."

R. ‘Madame Alfred Carrière’ - image: Floramedia

Ian Limmer, nursery manager, Peter Beales Roses, Norfolk

"Climbing roses are one the most versatile groups of roses available. With so many different variations in bloom type, size and colour, you can easily transform dull or unsightly areas as well as making magnificent central displays.

"The majority are also repeat-flowering, so you’re guaranteed colour throughout the summer through to early autumn. With varieties suitable for north walls and growing in pots, you’re also not limited to where you put the rose.

"Older varieties such as ‘New Dawn’, ‘Ueterson’ and ‘Aloha’ will deliver year upon year. Newer, healthier and robust roses such as Crème de la Crème and Pippin now supersede some old favourites.

"Pruning and training are key to getting the best from your climbers. As a general rule, first remove the three ‘Ds’ — damaged, diseased and dead wood — then stagger pruning by splitting the height of the plant into thirds, pruning approximately 30 per cent of each third. Once complete, tie in the new growth as horizontally as possible. This will encourage flowering shoots to break from the base of the plant, which will reward you with beautiful flowers from the bottom right to the top the following year. It is a good idea to feed repeat-flowering climbers with a slow-release granular fertiliser after flowering. Along with deadheading, this will encourage reflowering.

R.‘Pink Perpétué’ - image: Floramedia

In practice

Steve Longbottom, head gardener, David Austin Roses Nursery, Wolverhampton

"When training climbing roses on walls, fences and trellises, try to fan out the stems and avoid anything growing vertical if possible. The more stems that are laid horizontally to 45°, the more flowers produced. Everywhere there is a leaf axil a new shoot will grow when laid — as opposed to leaving them upright, where you get just two-to-four shoots. Do not tie these shoots in horizontally while still growing strong because it can restrict growth. A slight bend is fine, then bend further when the plant is dormant.

"For upright post displays on pillars or pergolas, do not be in too much of a hurry to see them at the top. Twist the main stems gently around the post to encourage laterals to develop, similar to when we fan out on the wall. Treat those on obelisks and arches similarly — just make sure you prune a third of the stems to knee high, a third to chest height and leave the rest to give a top-to-bottom flowering effect.

"Once the laterals have developed and the framework is established, in the pruning season shorten them to about four buds. The following year you will have sub laterals. These should be pruned shorter to two or three buds. These sub laterals will get weaker after one-to-two years and then it is time to replace the parent shoot with a new strong shoot and start the process over again.

"There is often confusion between the rambler and climber. The most important is the treatment of new shoots. Ramblers can be left pretty much to themselves, unless there are restrictions, in which case they are treated the same as climbers. Having said that, they produce many more large shoots, which gives us more opportunity to replace old wood, and those that cannot be utilised should be cut back to about 10cm or even to the base if there is a surplus."

R. ‘New Dawn’ - image: Floramedia

Species and varieties

Rosa ‘A Shropshire Lad’ (PBR) Award of Garden Merit (AGM) (H6) has peachy rosettes and a delicious fruity tea fragrance. Exceptionally vigorous, healthy and reliable. Almost thornless. Height: 3m.
R. banksiae ‘Lutea’ AGM (H5) is a rambling rose with small, double cupped flowers of a fresh yellow. It flowers early in April/May. Light fragrance. Thornless. Height: 10m+.

R. Bathsheba is a vigorous repeat-flowering short climber with large, many petalled apricot blooms and a myrrh fragrance. Height: 3m.

R. brunonii ‘La Mortola’ is a large-flowered single white fragrant climber capable of considerable rambling in large gardens. A special feature is its silvery-grey-green foliage. Height: 6m.

R. Claire Austin (PBR) bears large, cupped, creamy white blooms with a strong fragrance of myrrh, meadow-sweet and vanilla. Height: 4m.

R. ‘Compassion’ AGM (H6) has dark-green, glossy foliage and shapely, scented flowers of apricot and copper with yellow highlights and pink shading. A vigorous grower. Repeat-flowering. Height: 5m.

R. The Generous Gardener (PBR) AGM has pale-pink, highly fragrant flowers. It is exceptionally strong growing and healthy, flowering from the ground up. Height: 5m.

R. Graham Thomas AGM (H6) is a vigorous, bushy, medium-sized shrub with an upright habit that means it can be an effective climber. Has glossy, bright-green foliage and fragrant, cupped, rich yellow flowers borne freely from summer to autumn. Probably the first David Austin rose to make an international impact. Height and spread: 1-1.5m.
R. The Lady of the Lake (PBR) is a lovely repeat-flowering rambler, bearing sprays of pretty semi-double, blush-pink flowers with golden stamens. Height: 4-5m.

R. ‘Madame Alfred Carrière’ AGM (H5) has lovely clusters of white, sometimes flushed soft-pink, double flowers. Vigorous and good on a north wall. Height: 3m.

R. Mortimer Sackler (PBR) AGM (H6) bears large sprays of loosely double, soft-pink flowers. It has a lovely old rose fragrance, is exceptionally healthy and repeat flowers well. Dark-purple stems are more or less thornless. Height: 4m.

R. ‘New Dawn’ AGM (H7) is one of the best climbers with an unusually long flowering period. It has pale blush, silvery pink, semi-double flowers with a lovely scent and dark-green foliage. Height: 3m.

R. The Pilgrim (PBR) AGM (H6) has large soft yellow rosettes with a delicious mixed fragrance of tea rose and myrrh. Very healthy and reliable with bushy growth. Flowers freely and repeats well. Height: 4m.

R. ‘Pink Perpétué’ is an outstanding rose with clusters of scented, fully double, deep-pink flowers on a healthy plant with dark-green foliage. Adaptable climber for pillars or walls. Height: 3.5m.

Thank you to Floramedia, which supplied the images for this article from its photo library

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