Climbing up the wall: A climbing rose is refusing to live up to its name. It's time to dig up the old guard and bring on the new, says Anna Pavord.

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The Independent Online

She's had two verbal warnings and though she hasn't had the written one yet, she's for the chop. I've given her every chance to prove she can do the job but she continues to go her own unsatisfactory way.

I like anarchic spirits, but she isn't one. She's stubbornly tedious and just hasn't got what it takes to fill an east-facing wall with grace and beauty. There are others, I feel sure, who could transform the into something much more interesting.

I'm talking about 'Shot Silk', one of the climbing roses we inherited when we came to our new place. Not having much experience with climbing roses of the Hybrid Tea kind, I waited to be won over, as I was by 'Compassion', another HT climber of a similar peachy pink colour, which was growing on the south wall of the house. 'Compassion' is astonishing. Its foliage is dark and glossy. It produces flowers over a long summer season. It smells gorgeous and the colour is not too brassy. It's not an easy rose to train against a wall because its habit is stiff and gawky, but it has plenty of oomph and does not allow itself to be swamped by the wisteria that shares its space.

'Shot Silk' doesn't have to share with anything. It has an entire wall to itself, though I've never been able to persuade it to flower anywhere but up under the eaves. We've left it unpruned and bent the growths over horizontal; we've done the opposite and hard pruned it. But all it does is shoot long bare stems up to the sky and then cover itself in mildew.

It was a wonder when it was first introduced in the Twenties because it was the first yellowish Hybrid Tea that also smelled gorgeous. For the sake of its scent, gardeners forgave the fact that the flowers faded badly in sun. But we've never had the benefit of the scent because the flowers, nowhere near as prolific as those of 'Compassion', are up where we can't see them.

I've not been in a hurry to get rid of 'Shot Silk', partly because I wanted to give it a chance to show what it could do, partly because the terrace came right up close to its stem. To get it out, we had to unpick some of the brickwork around it. While the hole was there, we hauled the old earth out of it and filled the space with fresh soil.

Even so, I don't think it will be safe to plant another rose here. Neither roses nor apple trees flourish in places where their like has been growing before. The reason isn't exactly clear, but it seems that micro-organisms intimately associated with the roots of the old plant do not welcome the new one, but positively repel it.

East walls can be treacherous things. They are cold, but they get a burst of sun, if there is any, at the beginning of the day - fatal to plants frosted overnight. Most gardeners know that east walls are bad news for camellias. Other plants can react just as badly. Cells that may be frozen need to thaw out gently, just like water pipes. An early blast of sunshine may cause too quick a thaw, rupturing cell walls. Plants collapse and may die. I once lost a 30ft 'Mermaid' rose on an east wall, though it had a trunk as thick as my arm and seemed invincible. Chaenomeles and pyracantha are never affected. More surprisingly, the evergreen shrub, piptanthus, with its fine hand-shaped leaves, used to thrive on an east wall of our old house.

Chaenomeles (japonica) and pyracantha are standard choices for an east wall but I don't want either of them. I've gone off chaenomeles, which is stiff, spiky and not easy to train, when growing against a support. We often eat at a table close up against this particular wall and don't need spiky things dipping into the space.

Pyracantha is deservedly popular, because it is evergreen and gives two meaty performances a year. It is as happy on a north wall as it is on an east one. I prefer it in berry than in flower. A mixed hedge of different pyracanthas I saw earlier this month looked like an old Turkey carpet with berries of tawny orange, yellow and several different sorts of red. It is spiny, but not viciously so, and it is not difficult to handle. The blossom is the same on all varieties, white with a musty scent. Yellow berries come from varieties such as 'Flava' or 'Soleil d'Or', orange from 'Orange Glow' or 'Orange Charmer' and red from 'Dart's Red' or 'Watereri'. But we've already got plenty of pyracantha about the place, orange-berried on a north wall and a hedge (failing) of red-berried along the southern boundary. Pyracantha is not the answer.

Because rain tends to come in from the south and the west, north and east facing walls and fences act as barriers in a garden, preventing the ground under them from getting properly wetted. There has been no lack of water this winter, but drought is not just a summer problem. East and north walls face winter's coldest and most drying winds. Evergreens suffer more than deciduous shrubs. Foliage loses moisture faster than the roots can take it up. Leaves turn brown and die. But this east wall, joining on to the south wall of the house, is not too cruelly exposed to wind.

So what are the options? I'm thinking of three possibilities. Azara microphylla is a wall shrub rather than a climber with small dark, shining evergreen leaves and powdery tufts of bright yellow flowers, smelling strongly of vanilla. It's not fully hardy, but here in the southwest, gardeners are used to taking risks with tender plants. Azara flowers in March, needs no pruning and suffers from no particular nervous tics.

Pileostegia viburnoides is also evergreen, but is a self-clinging climber, though slow to get going. In late summer and autumn it has clusters of white flowers. Schizophragma integrifolium is a deciduous clinger, but like the climbing hydrangea it so much resembles, it doesn't really get going until it feels its stems are securely plastered against a support. The flowers are like a lacecap hydrangea's, but with teardrop-shaped bracts rather than rounded ones. I think schizophragma will win, combined perhaps with a Viticella clematis for late summer. If only they were scented. Then I'd really know I'd made the right choice.

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