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How To Prune and Train Climbing Roses

Climbing Rose Care in 5 Steps

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Climbing roses make a big, big impact in the garden. Roses are aggressive growers to begin with and climbers are chosen to be some of the most vigorous of the bunch, capable of growing many, many feet in a season. They also take up tough spaces in your garden, like vertical walls that are getting a lot of sun with possibly poor or little soil at the base. Climbers can turn that bare wall or unsightly fence into a tapestry . . . or a new unsightly mess, a thicket of briars, if you get lazy about your pruning and training.

Climbers take work, painful work if you are not careful or don’t have thick enough hide gloves. You will need to spend many sessions a year in the pruning and tying up of these plants.

1) Preparing to Prune: Structure for Your Climbing Rose

As with all roses, you’ll need hide gloves to protect yourself and the usual hand pruners and hedge shears to cut with. Denim wear or tougher is also a good idea.

Climbers also bring in a new considerations you need to think about before you start pruning: a structure. You also need strong and non-biodegradable twine or tape to bind the plant to the structure.

You’ll need a structure of appropriate height, width, and—listen to me carefully, here—strength for your climber. Note that the cheap plastic trellis that the nursery sells your flower on is not a permanent plan. This thing will be crushed under the weight of another year of growth and weathering, and it is way too small.

Your far better structure will be something you can tie large rose canes to. A fence of horizontal metal wires tight between posts, as in espalier, is typical. Any strong fence will do, or armature screwed into masonry with wires.

It needs to be large enough to take the whole plant in the shape you intend for it to get. Six feet high and spreading is a typical, manageable plan not requiring a ladder for work but still plenty of room on the cheap and easy-to-build steel wire fence. Tall trellises up a house wall are also possible. 

I hesitate to offer this option, but as with any climber, you can choose to grow your rose as a sprawling rose on the ground, but over the long term this means giving up many hundred square feet to a plant that will never look tidy in any season, and utterly scary in the winter. You’ll never walk there again. It’s not a common plan.

2) Wait a Year After Planting

Here’s an easy step: wait. But it’s important. After you plant it, wait a year or two with only minimal pruning just to let your plant overcome any transplant shock and put on some bulk. Of course remove canes that get in your way, but otherwise let the rose get wild looking, with long growth. You will use this long growth in the next step.

3) Choose and Train Major Canes

Your bush now has some canes that are very long, hopefully in many directions. They tend to bolt towards the sun, perhaps upwards, but rose wood is flexible. You’re going to train these major canes in the directions you want on your armature, usually spreading them out from the plant center.

One at a time, choose a healthy and large cane and bend it to the armature, then tie it there. Bend the cane as horizontally as your space and its direction permit, and cut off any growth that extends beyond your area. Continue to do this until you have all the major canes your plan needs: perhaps one in each direction on each slat on a wood fence, or seven canes radiating out on a chain link fence.

You want to bend the canes horizontally because these are the primary canes, the structural part of the plant. They will not flower much. They will, however, put out short shoots that will flower a ton. There will be more of these short shoots if the structural canes are horizontal, partly due to the increase in sunlight.

4) Spring Maintenance

Every year, ideally in early spring before the plant leafs out, you’ll need to trim the plant back to near its structural canes and make any needed updates to the main canes.

  • Cut all flowering shoots back to a few nodes from the main canes. This will tidy the plant and make sure the flowering growth of next year is strong enough to hold the flowers.
  • Cut out old and weak, dead, or very damaged main canes. It may be hard to do, but these have to go. Remember that “brown” does not mean “dead,” it just means older and woody. If you are unsure, check if a cane is still alive by tracing. A cane can be alive but weak if it produced very little last year; these should go too. Plenty more where they came from.
  • Train and tie up new major canes as needed, just as you did in Step 3. New major canes can replace old ones you had to cut down or can be directed to a new area of your growing space.
  • Cut out all other unneeded major canes. These new major canes will often come from suckers from the plant base or bolting growth from another major cane. Those that are not useful to you should be removed at their bases; don’t feel everything the plant produces should be tied to the fence.

5) Summer Deadheading: Probably Don’t Bother

You can deadhead climbers as they bloom like any other rose, but it’s kind of a pain in the butt. If you do, you can handle them the same as hybrid tea roses, or take the easier and more imprecise way with the deadheading instructions in floribunda roses.

I suspect only the most fastidious gardeners or those with very small gardens bother. Climbing roses aren’t meant to be viewed from up close, after all—though if yours is in a frequented sitting area, maybe the extra work is worth it. You will get more blooms.

References

Ginenthal, Leon. Der Rosenmeister.

Walheim, Lance. Roses for Dummies. IDG Books Worldwide, Inc. 2000.

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