Best climbing roses for the gardener


Sometimes a plant is worth building it a home: Here, Laguna, a climber with disease resistance, repeat flowering and fragrance on top of beauty. The rose is by Kordes. (Annette Timmermann/KORDES ROSES)
Adrian Higgins
Gardening columnist May 23, 2012

Even the casual observer of roses, if there is such a person, will have noticed the climber named New Dawn. It is the rose you will find from pillar to post.

I’ll resist the urge to call this ubiquitous beast New Yawn, because it really is a lovely rose: The blooms are a soft but silvery pink, the leaves are a deep, glossy green that looks blue in certain light. It is extremely vigorous, generally free of black spot and puts up a fair repeat of bloom during the growing season. It could do with more fragrance, and it gets too vigorous and brambly for its setting — this is a rose for a large arbor, not a mailbox — but other than that, it’s a plant worth growing.

Adrian Higgins has been writing about the intersection of gardening and life for more than 25 years, and joined the Post in 1994. He is the author of several books, including the "Washington Post Garden Book" and "Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden." View Archive

The problem is that New Dawn is so good that it has eclipsed many other climbers and ramblers of merit, so allow me to offer some others for consideration.

Follow your nose

I have noticed this month a red and cream peppermint, single-flowered climber named Fourth of July, and it is a gorgeous thing: Trained in a fan about six feet tall and eight feet across, it is a real eye-catcher. I asked Peter Kukielski of the New York Botanical Garden what he thinks of it. He grows many hundreds of roses with a regimen of tough love. As for Fourth of July, I could hear him hesitating on the other end of the telephone.

“It’s beautiful; it’s certainly a conversation piece.” But? “It does get black spot, and the canes are very stiff, difficult to work.” He likes climbers that are more limber, more willing to be manipulated to grow sideways. Why?

The stem of a climbing rose wants to bloom once it has reached its acme. By training the canes sideways, you make them produce a series of vertical shoots that compound the flowering. If you want to grow them up a phone pole or post, twisting them in an upward spiral will create the same response.

His top 30 list includes old varieties, including many I have grown over the years: Alexandre Girault, Mme. Alfred Carriere and Zepherine Drouhin. But it is dominated by more modern varieties that do better in the uniquely stressful climate of the Eastern Seaboard, with our beloved heat and humidity.

Among Kukielski’s favorites, which I don’t know but would like to, are Alister Stella Gray, one of those pale yellow, limp-flowered noisettes of surpassing charm and fragrance; Renae, pink like New Dawn but without the wicked thorns; Garden Sun, a large-flowered apricot-orange rose, and Awakening, a form of New Dawn but with larger flowers and better repeat bloom.

For the past three weeks, I have been enjoying Chevy Chase (not the locale; I enjoy that year-round), a climber with small but multi-petaled and crimson flowers. It is a beauty. It doesn’t repeat through the year, which is fine, but it doesn’t have much of a scent. I think if you are going to go to the trouble of growing and training a climbing rose, it should have an intoxicating fragrance among its romantic bag of tricks.

To that end, Kukielski commends several on his best-performing list: Any with noisette blood in them will be scented, along with some new varieties by the respected German breeder Kordes. Laguna, a repeat-flowering magenta pink, has a strong fruity fragrance. Jasmina is rich pink and a classic old rose form. “Incredibly fragrant,” said Kukielski, curator of the botanical garden’s Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden, now in glorious and early flower in this roller-coaster spring.

Fatal attraction

On the arbor of my vegetable garden, I have a grapevine whose young leaves already are netted by some pest — mites or flea beatles, I don’t know. I am rooting for this grape, and see that it has the late spring flowers that will become late summer’s fruit, but there is something in the impatient Higgins (my piano teacher can tell you about the impatient Higgins) that wants the arbor to be festooned now with Jasmina or Garden Sun or Alister Stella Gray.

Six-foot trellised obelisks look good in the plant border and are a good armature for a small climber, but if you want to support a larger variety or a sprawling rambler such as Aviateur Bleriot, Francis E. Lester or Seagull, find an excuse to build an arbor or pergola. Roses will grow happily against sunny walls or fences. Anchor eye hooks into the wood or mortar and string sturdy copper wire between them. The rose canes then are tied loosely to the wire. The ties can be cut for annual pruning if needed. Do wear thornproof clothing and thick gloves, for these plants are as biting as they are beautiful. I have a doctor’s bill floating about to prove it, though I survived.

The great English gardener Gertrude Jekyll was familiar with a less fortunate soul. “I knew an old labourer who died of a rose-prick,” she wrote in “Wood and Garden.” “He used to work about the roads, and at cleaning the ditches and mending the hedges. For some time I didn’t see him, and when I asked another old countryman, ‘What’s gone o’ Master Trussler?’ the answer was, ‘He’s dead — died of a canker-bush.’ ” Canker was a dog rose in the parlance of the day, and bush a thorn.

But there you go. Beauty to die for. Makes it all the more alluring. Whichever climber you pick, know that it will need some human intervention to look good, that it will take three years to put on a great show, that it can be tamed to a degree by pruning and that you should marry its vigor, or lack of vigor, with its setting. Oh, and get a tetanus shot.

Follow @adrian_higgins on Twitter.

Pruning ramblers

When: Rambling roses tend to be even more rambunctious than climbers and, because they typically flower once (and spectacularly) in May and June, are given their annual pruning and retying in early summer, after flowering. Repeat-flowering climbers, as with shrub roses, are trimmed and deadheaded after blooming but receive their major haircut in late winter.

Why it’s important: Pruning removes the old and unproductive canes, brings vigor and health to the plant and avoids an unkempt look. To my eyes, a groomed climber or rambler, dutifully tethered and sweeping horizontally along a picket fence, against the side of a house or beneath the eave of a porch telegraphs to the world that here lives a gardener, not someone who signs a check to a landscape company.

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