4 August 2020

Alan Titchmarsh’s top tips on pruning roses for your garden

Roses are traditional climbers for covering walls, pergolas and arbours, but few cultivars have a truly continuous flowering season, so team them with honeysuckle or clematis to fill gaps.

Climbing roses need a permanent framework to cover the designated area because the flowers are borne on side shoots that are pruned back annually. They are good for training on walls, fences or a trellis, up pillars or over arches, but choose one that fits the space available to make sure that you won’t be constantly chopping it back to size.

Pruning climbing roses

When you first plant a climbing rose, it’s essential to space the main stems so that they cover the space evenly. Fix them in place by tying them to horizontal wires, trelliswork or wall nails. Tie new shoots in to fill in the framework so that you can cover the space with a network of stems 20-30cm (8-12in) apart. Anything you don’t need can be cut off and the rose will flower on short stems growing from the framework. As the flowers fade, remove deadheads leaving behind 8-10cm (3-4in) of stem. This does two jobs: deadheading and summer pruning, so the plant stays tidy. With old climbers in winter, cut an occasional old, unproductive stem back to a junction with a young stem, which can be trained in its place. 

Training a climbing rose on a pergola

If you let a rose run straight to the top of a pergola post, all the flowers appear at the top of the stems, where you can’t see them. Roses tend to flower best on stems that are as near to horizontal as possible, so if the stems spiral round a post, they’ll flower all the way up. At the side of a post, dig a planting hole three times bigger than the pot the rose came in. Add lots of well-rotted compost and mix in a handful of rose fertilizer. Plant the rose with the bud union (the bulge where the cultivar joins the rootstock) about 2½cm (1in) below the surface, then water the mulch generously. Cut off any dead, weak or sticking-out stems, leaving the most upright ones. Gently wind round the post and tie firmly in place with garden twine. As the shoots grow, continue winding them in while they’re still flexible.  When they reach the top of the post, let them run along the pergola top, but keep them tied down.

Roses for climbing

Here are some of my favourites:

  • Rosa “Compassion” is a medium-sized climber with highly perfumed, peach and apricot flowers. It grows to 2½x2m (8x6ft).
  • “Danse du Feu” is a very free-flowering climber with scarlet flowers in two flushes each season. It’s good for a north-facing wall or a spot in light shade and grows to about 3×2½m (10x8ft).
  • “Golden Showers” has yellow flowers from early summer to autumn. It grows to 2½x2½m (8x8ft).
  • “Madame Alfred Carrière” is an old climber with scented pink-flushed white flowers. It’s good for a north wall and grows to 3½x3m (12x10ft).
  • “Swan Lake” is one of the best white-flowered climbers. It’s good for growing on pillars and posts or on a wall. It grows to 2½x2m (8x6ft).

Roses for scent

Here are some fine roses known for their heavenly perfume:

  • “Albertine” is a pink rambler.
  • “Gloire de Dijon” is an old climbing rose with buff-peach flowers.
  • “Alchymist” is a climber with egg-yolk yellow flowers.
  • “Wedding Day” is a rambler with single white flowers.
  • “Madame Grégoire Staechelin” is a climber with frilly, pink flowers.
  • “Zéphirine Drouhin” is a climber with mauve-pink flowers.
  • “Crimson Shower” is a rambler with crimson-red flowers.

Rambler roses

Ramblers are vigorous roses that flower on long canes, with large clusters of fairly small flowers at the tips. They are less disciplined than climbing roses and the bigger cultivars are best to scramble up trees. Not all ramblers are huge, there are lots of small cultivars that are suitable for covering modern structures.

Prune ramblers after they finish flowering. Some cultivars have a single flush of flowers that’s over by midsummer, but others have two flushes, in which case, wait until the autumn.

To prune, cut back all the stems that carried flowers to just above an unflowered shoot. That removes a lot of this year’s growth, but leaves all the stems that will carry next year’s flowers. The new, vigorous, unflowered shoots are the ones to leave.

Roses that ramble:

These examples are a fairly well-behaved bunch:

  • Rosa “Albéric Barbier” is a medium-sized rambler, growing to 4½x3½m (15x12ft). Its yellow buds open and mature to cream.
  • “Albertine” is another medium-sized rose with copper-pink flowers.
  • “Bleu Magenta” is a good choice for a north wall or light shade, with grape-purple flowers.
  • “Kiftsgate” is a huge rambler, reaching 9x3m (30x10ft) with large, white flowers.

Watch out for: Rust, blackspot and mildew. The traditional remedy is to spray every two weeks from late spring to early autumn with a rose fungicide. In my garden, I prefer not to spray, which means making sure that the roses are never under stress or short of water. Originally enriched soil and thick surface mulches are a help. I also plant disease-resistant cultivars and keep my plants well fed.

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