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Roses – to climb or to ramble?

Sombreuil climbing rose

People always say that you give the presents that you actually want yourself but I am not sure that that is right because one of the best presents I have received were ten bare root roses from a complete non-gardener friend of mine who loathes roses because she hates the surprise of the hidden thorns behind those innocently deceptive blooms.

The pack included a mixture of ramblers, climbers and shrub roses. Two years later I have to admit to one dying; my fault because I planted it next to an existing climbing rose fondly imagining that they would intertwine and look glorious but instead the new rose shrivelled and died. (See the advice note on Rose Replant Disease).

The others roses remain in fine fettle largely because I managed to put them somewhere where they would flourish. It is such an obvious mantra but “right plant for right place” is essential if you are going to avoid massive disappointment and huge expense ….. and remain gardening happily. Roses framing a door or scrambling artfully through a tree Vita Sackville-West style are so much part of our gardening psyche that they would seem to be necessary in all gardens.

Before using them, though, It might be worth considering the difference between a rambling and a climbing rose. The former are more vigorous, will cover a greater area and are ideal for interweaving through trees, covering unattractive oil tanks, disguising wooden fencing (careful that the fencing is strong enough!) and consequently they can be hard to contain.

Ramblers usually flower once a year in an explosion of clusters of small blooms on the long canes that grew last year. Pruning is simple in that you only need to cut back the shoots that are encroaching into gutters or over roof tiles and, over time when the plant gets crowded, remove some of the old stems once they have flowered. My present included a blush pom-pom type – Rosa Felicite Perpetue.

I 'saw' it climbing through some pear trees (Pyrus Beurre Hardy) that grow against a west facing wall, chosen for their frost-proof, pretty blossom. The roses would perpetuate (just like the name) the “blossom” well into June. It worked well and so the next stage was to keep the wall interesting by adding a clematis or two. My preference was to use an early flowering clematis like Clematis Macropetala Blue Bird to contrast with the white pear blossom, and then a late, deep red clematis like Clematis Viticella Abundance or the wonderfully beautiful Clematis Niobe to complement the Astrantia ‘Claret’ and Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’ that are growing below.

Niobe’s story is so sad however - a mother boastfed of her fourteen progeny to Leto, mother of only two but . But they happened to be Apollo and Artemis - who Leto commanded to slay the fourteen – so I shall probably play safe with Abundance!

Climbing roses on the other hand behave more like the 'normal' bush and shrub roses from which they often spring: so for example you can have an Iceberg Floribunda rose and an Iceberg Climbing rose…go figure! (In a wonderful use of language the climbing variety is known as a sport and very successful at climbing it is too.) As a consequence, climbers’ flowers are often more showy, benefit from being viewed from below as they droop slightly, and they generally repeat flower, especially if you dead head the first flush of flowers.

Rambling rose - Coopers Burmese

All of that energy expended on flowering twice (or continuously) means that generally climbers don't grow as tall as ramblers. They also produce fewer shoots each year which need to be trained in a balanced fan shape.

Climbing roses also insist on a more exacting pruning regime to ensure maximum floral impact, the niceties of which I am not even going to begin to describe. There are lots of books on the subject. Suffice it to say and let’s call it Rule 2, wherever possible train climbing rose shoots as horizontally as possible so that the flowering laterals are produced all along their length to create an amazing display.

My surprise climber was Constance Spry. Named after the great flower arranger, she is a perfection of pink, rococo flowers. Beside and over a dark, green door onto the terrace she has Trachelospermum jasminoides snaking through her branches to double the scent. Later in July Clematis Viticella Polish Spirit joins in to create a riot of flower and colour.

The fun you can have and the combinations you can create using climbing roses as a canvas is endless. Bear in mind that roses can be bought more economically bare-rooted in the winter….if you can wait that long!

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