My climbing rose has become a tangled, thorny mess of branches and badly needs to be pruned. I’m just not sure how and when to do it. Any tips?
Depending on the variety, a mature climbing rose can easily cover a house façade or cloak a high garden wall with its long, thorny branches. Some of the tallest, most vigorous varieties such as the pale-pink flowered climbing rose known as “Climbing Cécile Brunner” or the shade-tolerant, deep-pink flowered “Zépherine Drouhin” can reach a height of 4m-5m/13ft-16ft, so pruning them is a job that requires a ladder, a steady hand, and a good head for heights. But any of the smaller, more compact varieties of climbing roses such as the peach-flowered “Penny Lane” or the pink-flowered “Gertrude Jekyll”, which typically reach a height and spread of 2m-3m/6ft-10ft, are perfect for growing up a trellis or ornamental garden structure and are a lot easier to tackle.
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November-March, after the plants have dropped their leaves and entered winter dormancy, is the perfect time to prune them. Wear protective gloves and an old coat that you don’t mind getting snarled up in those sharp thorns and use a sharp clean secateurs or long-armed garden loppers to cut out all dead, damaged and diseased wood (or what’s known as the “Three Ds”) as well as any very thin, weedy stems rising from the base. If your climbing rose hasn’t been pruned for a very long time, then you’ll also need to remove a few of the oldest, thickest stems by cutting them right down to the base of the plant to encourage healthy new growth. Cut away any remaining leaves and faded flowers at this stage also, carefully bagging and binning all of the prunings to reduce the risk of common rose diseases re-infecting any healthy young growth as it emerges in spring.
Then step back and take an overall look at the plant to identify its main structural stems. To encourage a great display of flowers next summer, all the old flowering side shoots on these main stems need to be cut back by roughly two-thirds to leave roughly two to three strong buds per side shoot. Finish off by firmly tying the main structural stems on to horizontal training wires with lengths of garden twine, splaying them out across the wall or garden structure to maximise the display. The more horizontal they are, the better they’ll flower.
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But one gentle world of warning: are you certain that it’s a climbing rose rather than a rambling rose? The reason I ask is that these are easily confused, but require different pruning regimes. Rambling roses are bigger, even more vigorous, and are great for training up large, tall, sturdy structures. Examples include the pale-pink flowered “Paul’s Himalayan Musk” (eventual height of up to 12m/39ft) and the creamy-white “Rambling Rector” (eventual height of up to 8m/26ft). Unlike climbing roses, which are typically repeat-flowering, rambling roses typically bloom once a year, producing abundant sprays of smaller flowers and should be pruned in late summer just after they’ve finished flowering.