Climbing Roses and Their Wandering Ways

This is just how a climbing rose should be: hanging in luxuriant flounces and reaching in all directions. The white climbing rose is Lamarque and it is growing across the front of the home of respected rosarian, Walter Duncan, in his beautiful Heritage Garden in South Australia’s Clare Valley.  The garden is open to visitors.

‘You can almost never have too many climbing roses,’ says Monty Don, well known English broadcaster and garden writer. I absolutely agree. In fact, I agree with everything Monty Don has to say about gardens and have kept an eye on his writing ever since 2008, when he won me with his television series Around the World in 80 Gardens.

He is an interesting man. He is a self-taught horticulturalist and came to gardening in a round-about way after a series of jobs and an unsuccessful attempt at writing fiction. Of himself he says: ‘I was – am – an amateur gardener and a professional writer. My only authority came from a lifetime of gardening and a passion amounting to an obsession for my own garden.’

One of the obsessions in his own garden, other than his passion for organic gardening, is his roses and he writes about them frequently. I have a similar obsession and having just pruned my climbing roses I was interested to read what he says about these particular plants. ‘Just let them grow’, he says. ‘Allow them to grow as big as they really want to, rather than being constantly curtailed and clipped to stay within the limits imposed by our back gardens.  If you have room on your house or a suitable tree (an old apple tree is perfect), try growing a rose up it so it can grow untrammelled, and if this is not practical, then pergolas, arches, fences, walls and bowers are all ideal for training a rose over.’ That’s his very good advice.

My first garden was a tiny space behind a tiny terrace house. I was new to gardening but my head was full of wild fantasies about what I would grow there. I would have trees and flowers and a pond and vegetables, and the flowers would be mostly roses, masses of them. When the more practical aspects of what would actually fit into this tiny space finally dawned on me, I settled for one small-growing tree, a ‘pond’ contained in an old Chinese bowl, some vegetables in pots and three climbing roses. But the climbing roses did have masses of flowers, so my fantasy came true in a small way.

And they climbed everywhere. Against the fences, and then over the fences into my neighbours’ gardens (where, thankfully, they were welcomed). They climbed over an arch built specially for them; they climbed on the wall of the house, looking very beautiful against the mellow bricks of the old terrace, and they formed a sheltered bower in an otherwise exposed west-facing corner of the garden. They grew untrammelled because I had no idea how to tame them, and because they grew so tall they were out of reach. And because all three were naturally vigorous growers.

LamarqueLamarque is a true old fashioned rose with its dishevelled petals and its heavenly, fragrance. Its French breeder named it after a general, who, being a soldierly type, no doubt had misgivings about its untidy appearance but was probably too polite and flattered to say so. 

I chose them from a catalogue, mainly because of the beautiful flowers and with little thought about what sort of climbers they were or how they would grow.  It was a mostly lucky choice as one proved ideal, another almost ideal and the third, though lovely, not quite ideal. I have planted the ‘ideal’ climber in this my new garden and already, after only one season’s growth, it is covering a corner of the pergola over the east-facing deck. It is the truly beautiful Lamarque, an old fashioned rose, a creamy-white noisette bred by an amateur rose grower in France in 1830 and named, of all things, after a general, Jean-Maximilien Lamarque. It is classed as a climber. One of the things I love most about it is that the flowers modestly droop in their clusters so that you look up into them, seeing their lemon-tinged centres and how very beautiful they are. Another is that their sometimes violet, sometimes citrus, always heavenly fragrance seems to flow down out of them rather than waft away on a passing breeze as it does with roses that boldly hold their heads up high. But perhaps that is my wishful thinking!

The almost-ideal rose was Madame Alfred Carrière and I have planted her too. I had seen Madame Carrière a few years earlier when I lived and worked in England for a time and visited the wonderful garden that Vita Sackville West had created at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent. It was growing on the wall of the South Cottage and in the eyes of a young Australian girl, new to England and new to gardens of such beauty, it took my breath away, and the lovely picture it made has stayed in my mind all these years.

The not-so-ideal rose was Albertine, a true rambling rose bred in 1921. Its shapely dark salmon-pink buds open to an exquisite soft pink, but, being a rambling rose, only for a brief time in summer alas, so it could not justify its place in the grand scheme for masses of roses for much of the year, which is important when a garden is small and there is room for only a few flowering plants (something I did not understand in my early days of gardening).

As I said, my first garden was a tiny space at the back of a small terrace, but now, in my new garden, I have a very large space in which to indulge my passion for trees, a pond and walls of climbing roses. And I have done just that. The roses were the first plants to go into the ground on the boundaries: there is Lamarque, of course (two plants, in fact), Madame Alfred Carrière, its flowers a delicate pink and headily fragrant, and Papa Meilland, with its velvety dark crimson blooms. Unfortunately, I don’t have an old apple tree over which to grow yet another favourite rose, because that sounds wonderfully romantic, but there is the pergola over the deck, where there is surely room for another rose,  and I am eyeing off a likely spot for a rose covered archway as a grand entrance to the garden, and then there is also … As Monty Dan says, you can never have too many climbing roses.

It is early days yet, but I think I will eventually have that long cherished fantasy of a garden surrounded by walls of massed roses.

PS. Monty Don makes the distinction between the two types of climbing roses very clearly and has some good advice about cultivating them. If you too love climbing roses and would like to read it, I have quoted him directly.There are two types of climbing roses: climbers and ramblers. The major difference between the two is how and when they flower: ramblers flower only once during the summer months, and they tend to have many more, and smaller, flowers than any climber.

Ramblers also produce their flowers differently. While climbers form their flowers on new wood that grows in spring before flowering, ramblers do so on the growth that took place in the summer and autumn after flowering. This is why you often see a mass of hugely vigorous fresh growth on a rambler in late summer, whereas, by that time of year, many climbers are beginning to look a bit weary.

It follows from this that the two types of climbing roses need very different pruning regimes. Put very simply, ramblers should be pruned after they have flowered, and climbers before they flower. The best time to prune climbers is in late autumn … The ideal is to try to create and maintain a two-dimensional framework of about five long stems, trained laterally and tied firmly to some support, with side branches shooting out all the way along these main stems. It is these side branches that carry the flowers.

Ideally, a third of the plant — the oldest, woodiest stems — is removed right to the ground each year, so that it is constantly renewing itself. Left unpruned, a climber typically becomes very bare at the base, with a cluster of flowers right at the top or at the edge of an impenetrable tangle. If you do have such a tangle, then prune it all back very hard and start again with the subsequent regrowth.

Ramblers are even more prone to creating an unholy, and very thorny, tangle, and this is often a result of trying to restrict too vigorous a plant in too small a space.

If you wish to train a rambler to a specific shape, then it needs careful control from the outset and should be pruned back in late summer after it has made most of its annual regrowth, with the aim of leaving enough new wood to provide a good display of flowers next summer. Otherwise, the best time to prune is immediately after flowering, cutting the rose to well within the growing limits allotted to it.

The third option is to plant it up the side of a tall tree, and simply let it grow.

Finally, there is a simple but effective form of daily pruning: deadheading. By cutting off the faded blooms of climbers (but not ramblers), you stimulate the bush to produce more, as well as removing the ragged appearance of dying petals. Always deadhead with sharp secateurs rather than pulling off the petals, and cut back to a healthy leaf or bud.

3 thoughts on “Climbing Roses and Their Wandering Ways

    1. So glad you liked the pic of the climbing roses, Mary. I visited the Heritage Garden in the Clare Valley a few years ago and could hardly tear myself away when it was time to leave, it was all so lovely. Also glad that you found Monty Don’s rose pruning advice helpful; he is a consummate gardener and I hang on his every word.


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