Cage Your Climbing Roses

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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.

Man attaching a climbing rose to a trellis.
Traditionally roses are attached by hand to the outside of their support. Photo: Heirloom Roses
Climbing rose growing up inside an obelisk
When a climbing rose is planted inside a cage or obelisk, it can lean on one side or the other of the structure over its entire height and won’t need you to tie it into place. Photo: kinsmangarden.com

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.

If you search a bit, it’s possible to find some truly sturdy tomato cages—sometimes called tomato towers—that would be perfect for a climbing rose. Photo: rodalesorganiclife.com

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. 

Concrete reinforcing wire rolled into a tube.
Roll the concrete reinforcing wire into a cut and hook the cut ends over to hold them in place. Ill.: Claire Tourigny

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. 

John Cabot rose with double pink flowers.
The ‘John Cabot’ rose is perhaps the hardiest of the climbing roses. Photo: Doug Waylett, Flickr

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.

Climbing rose ‘White New Dawn’ with white flowers
Climbing rose ‘White New Dawn’. Salycina, Wikimedia Commons

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.

Climbing rose with pale orange flowers
The milder the climate, the easier it is to find climbing roses that will be easy to grow. Photo: Paul Zimmerman Roses

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.

Basic Care

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. 

An ‘American Pillar’ rose at the “arching rose pillar” stage. Photo: Petals from the Past

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

Rose Classification Simplified

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20180423L T.Kiya, WC.jpg

With over 300 species and nearly 20,000 cultivars of roses to choose from, it’s easy to understand why it’s helpful to categorize them according to their most obvious traits. Source: T.Kiya, Wikipedia Commons

Confused about rose classification? Is that rose a hybrid tea or a floribunda? Or perhaps an old garden rose? If you’re lost, here are a few quick and easy pointers to point you in the right direction: just the right thing to bone up on before you head to the Rose Show!

Rose Classification

There is no single system of classification for garden roses. Pretty much every rose society has its own. In general, however, roses grown commercially these days are placed in one of the following categories:

1. WILD or SPECIES ROSES

20180423A Fosa glauca, Wouter Hagens, WC

If the rose’s name is written in italics, it’s probably a species rose, like this Rosa glauca. Source: T.Kiya, Wikimedia Commons

• grow spontaneously in the wild
• single flowers, scented or not
• bloom once a year
• fruits (rose hips) often ornamental
• bear species names (Rosa blanda, Rosa glauca, etc.)
• variable hardiness (1 to 10, depending on the species)

2. OLD GARDEN ROSES or HERITAGE ROSES

20180423B Rosa Mundi Libby norman, WC.JPG

Old garden rose ‘Rosa Mundi’. Source: Libby norman, Wikimedia Commons

• date from before 1867 (1920 according to some definitions)
• generally small to medium-size flowers, often double
• often very fragrant
• most bloom only once a year
• many subcategories: gallica roses, damask roses, moss roses, etc.
• variable hardiness (4-9, depending on cultivar)

3. BUSH ROSES

Repeat-flowering roses, most developed after 1920. They were, through the 20th century, the most popular garden roses, but are now being replaced by the easier-to-grow shrub roses (see below). There are several categories:

A. Hybrid Tea Roses:

20180423C Rosa 'Peace', Arashiyama, WC.jpg

Hybrid tea rose ‘Peace’. Source: Arashiyama, Wikimedia Commons

• large, double, reblooming flowers with high-centered buds
• one flower per stem, rarely more
• stiffly upright habit with sparse foliage, making a fairly unattractive plant
• height: usually 3-5 ft (1 to 1.5 m)
• usually grafted
• not very hardy (zone 8); winter protection needed in most climates

B. Grandiflora Roses:

20180423D Rosa_'Queen_Elizabeth' Captain-tucker, WCJPG.JPG

Grandiflora rose ‘Queen_Elizabeth’ Source: Captain-tucker, Wikimedia Commons

• essentially a hybrid tea with 3-5 flowers per stem
• all other characteristics like hybrid tea
• not very hardy (zone 8); winter protection needed in most climates

C. Floribunda Roses:

20180423E iceberg_rose pxhere.com.jpeg

Floribunda rose ‘Iceberg’. Source: pxhere.co

• smaller flowers, single or double, carried in large sprays (5 and above)
• stiff habit, but smaller, bushier and more attractive than hybrid tea
• height: around 3 feet (90 cm)
• usually grafted
• usually hardier than hybrid teas (usually zone 7, sometimes zone 6)

D. Polyantha Roses:

20180423F Rosa_'The_Fairy'_Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz, WC.jpg

Polyantha rose ‘The Fairy’. Source: rzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz, Wikimedia Commons

• significantly smaller flowers, borne in dense clusters
• abundant bloom most of the gardening season
• attractive habit, often spreading
• height: 30-60 cm
• usually grafted
• often fairly hardy (zones 4, 5 or 6)

E. Miniature Roses: 

20180423G Mandarin Sunblaze. www.starrosesandplants.com.jpg

Miniature rose Mandarin Sunblaze®. Source: http://www.starrosesandplants.com

• small flowers, individual or clustered
• most rebloom
• height: usually between 6 and 24 inches (15-60 cm)
• grown on their own roots (not grafted)
• often fairly hardy (zone 4 or 5)
• can be used as houseplants if given a period of cold dormancy

4. SHRUB ROSES

(includes ground cover roses, landscape roses English roses [David Austin roses], etc.)

20180423I Henry Hudson eaglelakenurseries.com.jpg

Shrub rose ‘Henry Hudson’. Source: eaglelakenurseries.com

• various origins
• usually robust, informal habit creating a shrub effect
• single or repeat blooming
• variable height, usually more than 2 ft (60 cm)
• grown on their on own roots (not grafted)
• often offer good disease resistance
• excellent hardiness: up to zone 2 for some

5. CLIMBING ROSES

20180423J Blaze Improved www.jacksonandperkins.com

Climbing rose ‘Blaze Improved’. Source: http://www.jacksonandperkins.com

• long flexible canes from 8 to 20 feet (2.5 to 6 m) in length
• can be trained and tied to arbors, trellises and pergolas
• all other characteristics are highly variable; flower size, abundance, appearance, rebloom, hardiness, etc.

6. TREE ROSES (ROSE STANDARDS)

20180423K Roses_trees, Наталия19, WC.JPG

Tree roses. Source: Наталия19, Wikimedia Commons

• grafted onto on upright canes
• most are bush roses
• generally very tender (zone 7 or 8)
• often need to be buried in trenches for better winter survival in cold climates
• some are non-grafted, produced by selective pruning of shrub roses, and these are sometimes quite hardy (zone 5 or even 4)


There you go: the basic rose classifications you need to know. Good growing!20180423L T.Kiya, WC

To Climb or Not to Climb?

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A climbing plant climbs, doesn’t it? So all you have to do is to plant it near some sort of support (trellis, fence, obelisk, pergola, etc.) and away it goes. Except it isn’t always true!

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A climbing rose needs to be attached to its support.

Some so-called “climbers” are actually scramblers (the botanical term is scandent), that is to say, they don’t really climb, they lean. In the wild, they send off long stems in all directions until they find a support they can lean against (a tree, shrub, etc.), then, as they grow, they mingle with branches of their host and therefore manage to climb. In the garden, these plants will rarely climb on their own: you have to direct them to the desired support and tie them to it.

You can use strips of cloth or old pantyhose, foam-covered garden ties, tomato clips, etc. to attach them, but if you use garden twine, wire or plain twist ties, make sure you tie them loosely, as otherwise they will dig into the stem as it expands and eventually “strangle” it (cut off the circulation of its sap).

Climbing roses are the best known scramblers… but indeterminate tomatoes and blackberries also fall into this category. Other plants that scramble rather than truly climb include some honeysuckles (Lonicera x italica ‘Harlequin’ notably), bougainvilleas (Bougainvillea spp.) and plumbago (Plumbago auriculata) . All these plants will crawl rather than climb if you don’t attach them to their support.