Climbing roses are much less work if you cage them. This is Rosa ‘Graham Thomas’. Photo: agardenforthehouse.com
Traditionally, climbing roses are fixed to a wall, trellis, arbor, pergola or other structure. That’s because despite the name “climbing rose,” they really don’t climb unaided. Unlike true climbing plants, they have no tendrils, twining stems or clinging aerial roots they can grasp onto the structure with. You have to take their long, fairly rigid canes and force them to bend toward their support, then tie them to it, manually, with twine, clips or ties. And all that using the greatest care, at that, as those canes are very thorny.
Helpful Hint: When working with roses, always wear thick, long-sleeve rose gloves.
But as the season progresses, and at the risk of getting seriously scratched once more, you need to go back again and again and tie any branches that have grown free back to the support. It almost feels like the rose is purposely to sending its branches in all the wrong directions, nowhere near its support, just to annoy you!
Generations of gardeners have done just that. But does it really make sense to keep attaching these plants to the outside of their support over and over all summer? At least, when there is an easier way?
The secret to easy climbing rose support is to grow it not outside its support where it will need to be tied into place, but inside a hollow support it can lean on, yet not escape. So it can grow mostly on its own. A structure that could be a cage, a column, a tower or an obelisk. And it turns out it’s so easy to do!
For example, you could build a basic cage just by fixing three or four sections of sturdy trellising together or simply buy one of those garden obelisks that are so popular these days. You’ll need a fairly tall one, at least 6 feet (1.8 m) high. 8 feet (2.5 m) would be even better if your favorite climbing rose is a tall one. You need considerable height to create a good pillar effect.
Or use a tomato cage and simply grow a rose bush inside it. Of course, not one of those everyday, flimsy, wire tomato cages that can barely support the weight of a tomato plant let along a rose and which, besides, aren’t even close to being tall enough, but a good, sturdy, extra-tall tomato tower. There are some great models available in all sorts of shapes, materials, colors and sizes.
Or you can build your own “rose pillar.” In fact, it’s a just a basic tomato cage, the very model I use for my own tomato plants, but if you tell visitors it’s a rose pillar and plant a climbing rose inside it, I guarantee they’ll believe you.
A Tomato Cage-cum-Rose Pillar
A roll of concrete mesh cut into 6 foot lengths will make great tomato cages… I mean, rose pillars! Photo: diynetwork.com
To make your own rose pillar, you need concrete mesh, also called concrete reinforcing wire. It’s used to make reinforced concrete and should be available in any hardware or building supplies store. You can find it with either 4- or 6-inch (10- or 15-cm) openings (both work fine) and in widths of 4 to 6 feet (120 to 180 cm). In fact, even greater widths are also available, but harder to locate. 6 ft/180 cm is sufficient for a rose pillar for a moderately robust climbing rose. If it’s rusty appearance bothers you, you can splurge and buy galvanized concrete reinforcing wire.
Cut the concrete mesh with wire cutters into sheets 6 feet (180 cm) wide. Wear rose gloves for this as well: cut wire can make nasty gashes! Better yet, have the clerk at the hardware store cut it for you.
Once home, roll each sheet into a column, bending the metal ends into hooks to hold the column together.
Now just place the cage over a young climbing rose and fix it solidly to the ground with tent stakes or some other kind of staking method so it remains upright … then just let your rose grow! All you have to do, as mentioned above, is to push any wayward stems back into the confines of the cage during the early stages.
The Right Rose for Your Climate
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, ideally one that is fully hardy in your area. That way, you won’t have to deal with winter protection.
In cold regions, such as hardiness zones 3 and 4, the “climbing” roses from the Explorers series, ‘John Cabot’, ‘William Baffin’ or ‘Henry Kelsey’, or ‘Félix Leclerc’ from the Canadian Artists series, are good choices. They aren’t really pure climbing roses, but rather shrub roses with climbing tendencies.
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’, ‘The Generous Gardener’, ‘Strawberry Hill’ and ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’, make good pillar roses too and should be hardy in zone 5. If not, certainly in zone 6.
And if you live in an even milder hardiness zone, 7 to 9, well, the sky really is the limit, isn’t it? There are hundreds of climbing roses you can grow, some actually far too tall for a 6-foot (180-cm) rose cage. (Some of those rambling roses can easily reach 20 feet/6 m in height!) Ask a local rosarian for few varieties of modest height that do really well in your climate.
Plant your climbing rose in full sun or nearly full sun in good, well-drained garden soil and place the cage or obelisk over it as mentioned above.
Early in the season, you’ll need to push any wayward canes that wander out of the structure back inside, but the rose usually switches to a convenient upward growth habit and won’t need much encouragement. Once it reaches the top, just let it grow pretty much on its own, removing only stems that get in your way (who wants to be snagged 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 roses adapted to your climate, 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.
So, what do you think? Wouldn’t a rose pillar make a rather neat little garden project for the coming summer? All you need is sun, a tough, no-nonsense climbing rose and a robust cage or obelisk. So simple!
Adapted from an article originally published in this blog on May 28, 2015