Do you ever feel vaguely jealous when your visit rose gardens dotted with magnificent pillar roses, those upright columns of spectacular and often scented blooms? You’ll often see them in Europe (Europa-Rosarium in Sangerhausen, Germany has many of them), and to a lesser degree in North America, but how do they do it? Your garden roses never grow that tall or that dense!
The secret is that, under the foliage and flowers, there is a tubular grid structure, like a tomato cage, but sturdier. The garden’s employees allow the rose to grow up through the structure and prune the branches that peek through, keeping them short to maintain the pillar effect. And did I mention they put a lot of time into getting just the right effect? (One of the reasons you don’t often see rose pillars in North American public gardens is that garden administrators don’t want to pay for the extra hands they’d need to maintain them.)
Well, you can do something similar in your own garden, but with much less effort. Let’s call it an “arching pillar”. Here’s how to do it:
First, build a cage with three or four sections of trellis or simply buy one of those garden obelisks that are so popular these days. You’ll need a very tall one, at least 6 feet (1.8 m) high, and 8 feet (2,5 m) would be even better. You need height to create a good pillar effect.
You now need to pick the right rose. In most colder climates, the grandifloras and hybrid teas often used in rose pillars in public gardens are cut back by the cold each winter and will simply never reach the height you need. Look instead for a climbing rose that is fully hardy in your area. In the coldest climates, I suggest hardy shrub roses with climbing tendencies, like ‘John Cabot’, ‘William Baffin’ or ‘Henry Kelsey’, but in zones 5 and 6, there are a few fairly hardy true climbing roses you could use, like, ‘New Dawn’, ‘Zéphrine Drouin’, ‘Blaze Improved’, and ‘White New Dawn’. Some of the English roses, like ‘Gertrude Jekyll’, ‘Graham Thomas’, ‘Constance Spry’, and ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’, make good pillar roses too and should be hardy in zone 5.
Now plant your rose bush and install structure over it, making sure it is solidly fixed to the ground (a few sturdy pegs will likely be needed). At first, you’ll need to cut back any stray canes that wander out of the structure, but once they reach the top, let the roses grow pretty much on their own, removing only stems that get in your way (who wants to be grabbed by a thorny rose cane as they stroll by?).
With such minimal pruning, you’ll end up with a what I call an arching rose pillar: a pillar coiffed with an arching dome of composed of those canes that reached the top and are now stretching out in all directions: a real firework of flowers! And because you used hardy roses, you’ll only need to offer minimal care… well, minimal care for roses, that is: watering during periods of drought, fertilizing, suppression of dead or damaged canes, insect and disease control, etc.