Taking Climbing Roses to New Heights

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
Taking Climbing Roses to New Heights

When it comes to pruning and training, in many ways, climbing roses are a whole different animal than regular shrub roses like Double Knockout® pictured above.

Although they come from the same genus Rosa, climbers have the genetic ability to grow very large and long canes. Climbing roses are often classified into three different groups: ramblers, vigorous climbers and more mannerly ones. Within these designations are Hybrid Teas, Polyanthas, Chinas, Floribundas, and others. It can all seem very confusing, but it doesn’t need to be.

Climbers with R. wichuraiana in their lineage will tend to be more aggressive. ‘New Dawn’ is a prime example. True ramblers have either R. multiflora (an invasive Japanese import which carries rose rosette disease) or R. wichuraiana crossed with leading roses from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. With people having smaller gardens, you don’t see many ramblers in cultivation today.


The first consideration for training is the structure your climbing rose will grow upon. Choose wisely when considering both the rose and the structure. If the rose is vigorous, it will require excellent support. Some of the more vigorous climbers I’ve grown over the years are ‘Mermaid,’ ‘New Dawn,’ ‘Cl. Cecile Bruner’ and ‘Cl. Old Blush.’ Of these, in my garden, only the latter two remain. Although beautiful, ‘Mermaid was too aggressive and thorny even for me. ‘New Dawn’ eventually took over the back fence of my lower garden, but last year it succumbed to rose rosette disease. Tuteurs, pillars and obelisks are fine for more mannerly climbers like ‘Altissimo’ and Winner’s Circle™, but more aggressive climbers should be grown on a more permanent structure like a wrought iron arbor.


In the southern climate, even those climbing roses touted to be rebloomers only bloom well when the weather is cooler. So, rebloomers will flower heavily in the spring and then take a rest during most of summer. Give them plenty of irrigation (about an inch per week) and plant food once a month during the growing season to keep them healthy. I grow my roses as organically as possible. You can’t buy organic roses where I live, so they often come with long acting plant food within their container unless I order them bare root. I scrape away as much of this fertilizer as possible and instead use a variety of natural plant fertilizers which are becoming easier to find everywhere.

Because so many climbers only bloom once, they should be pruned right after they bloom, and then they will do most of their growing. All at once, your beautiful rose arbor looks like it’s covered with a giant, green monster, and it’s up to you to cut it back and tie it to its support.

Hint: To keep an arbor blooming, plant a perennial or annual vine to take over when your rose is no longer in flower.


When you first bring home your climber, it may seem like it’s such a small plant. It is difficult to believe that with tender loving care, your rose will expand to cover at least one side of any arbor or trellis. As with so many perennials, it takes two to three years to get its footing and then spread its canes open wide. Although they are called climbers, roses do not have spiral tendrils to grab onto the trellis, so you will need to attach them. You can use jute, stretch tape, or Velcro fasteners, but I really like a type of soft wire. To help a rose climb against a house, insert eyebolts into the exterior wall and string wire across these. I would paint the wire green to make it less conspicuous. To keep things tidy and also encourage a climbing rose to grow at its best, every six or seven years you may need to remove the number of canes down to three or four. With more mannerly climbers, this isn’t as necessary.


Most roses trained horizontally will produce many more blooms along their canes. However, be sure to choose a cultivar which doesn’t mind climbing horizontally. I nearly killed two different roses, ‘Zephirine Drouhin’ and ‘Altissimo’ because I insisted on trying to train their canes along a split-rail fence. Later, I read these two roses, the first a Bourbon which can also be grown as a large shrub and the second a mannerly climber, like more verticality. In fact, the name ‘Altissimo’ is Italian for “very high.” The same holds true for roses which like to grow horizontally. Don’t try to train them up a pillar.

Follow these tips, and your garden can take on a whole new romantic appearance. The sky is the limit. Which roses will you decide to grow?