Thorny issues: Climbing roses are full of spite and malevolence come pruning time

 

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I hoped I would never have to prune the 'Kiftsgate' rose that, a few years ago, we planted in our boundary hedge. The hedge is a rough mixture of ash, hazel, thorn and holly, tough enough to support 'Kiftsgate', which is a monster. It got its name from the Gloucestershire garden where it was first found, scrambling into a copper beech tree. That rose is now reckoned to be the biggest in Britain, flinging its stems 25m (82ft) into the tree's canopy.

So, it's a plant to treat with caution and it was mad of me, in our last garden, to think that I could ever keep it on a pergola. Pruning it every year was a business I dreaded. Vast lengths of new growth lashed about in the wind, thorns caught in my hair and gored bloody tattoos on my face. But I couldn't leave it unpruned. If the new growth hadn't been checked and tied in, the path through the pergola would have been impassable after a year.

Keeping 'Kiftsgate' within the confines of the pergola was like having a panther in your back yard. It was always trying to escape. I got it because I love the kind of rose that 'Kiftsgate' is, with small, beautifully-scented cream flowers bunched into airy clusters of perhaps a hundred blooms. It produces good hips, too, on long, rather lax stems. The birds usually left them alone, so long after the holly berries disappeared, the 'Kiftsgate' hips hung in their bunches, a welcome decoration on the pergola's bare winter poles.

In the new garden, I thought I could have the pleasures of 'Kiftsgate' without any of the pain. Planted in the hedge, it could have all the space it wanted, growing untrammelled, as it does in the wild. It's thought to be a seedling of the Chinese species Rosa filipes (the filipes tag describes the threadlike stems from which the flowers and hips hang). In the wild, the hooked thorns that make it such a nightmare to prune, are a brilliant help to the plant in hauling itself up to the sun.

Having planted the rose, I forgot about it. So it was an unexpected surprise in late June last year to see huge clusters of Kiftsgate's flowers lolling out of an ash tree. The rose had also pushed its way into the prickly depths of a big holly where its flowers lent a new kind of frothiness to the holly's sober, dark foliage. How effortless it all seemed. What a gift the rose was in this situation, where it could go where it wanted. All I'd had to do was stick it in the ground.

But... then we were hit by vicious winter gales. Various branches crashed down from the oak, bringing great swathes of rose with it. So, once again, the thorns had to be faced. I took the easy option and this week cut all the stems down to 60cm (24in). With its roots now well established, I'm hoping it won't take long to get going again this spring.

Roses such as 'Kiftsgate' flower only once and for some gardeners, this is enough reason not to plant them. I'd prefer, though, to have one knockout performance than a rose that dribbles on into December, producing blooms that are too ragged to pick, in conditions which only a masochist wants to experience. And if you are worried about liberating 'Kiftsgate' into your back yard (as you should be) there are other roses that share its qualities without being so frightening in their vigour. 'Rambling Rector' is a beauty, but easily contained, as the stems rarely reach beyond 4m (12ft). We've got it trained out on a long trellis that we put up in front of a laurel hedge. The growths are more lax than those on 'Kiftsgate' so with relatively little trouble, you can pull them over and tie them in horizontally to a support. 'Félicité Perpétue' is equally good.

Ramblers such as these produce their flowers on growth made the previous season, so they are best pruned in summer, as soon as they have come to the end of their display. The object with ramblers is to cut out some of the old stems entirely, to make room for the zesty new growth. These new stems need to be tied in before winter, so that they do not lash about and damage themselves.

The roses that will need pruning in the next couple of months are the stiffer, more upright climbing roses with big flowers that look like Hybrid Teas. Climbers of this kind mostly flower on growth made in the current year. Pruning in winter or early spring stimulates that potential growth (and helps to sort out the tangle that can develop if roses are left too long to their own devices). If you grow late-flowering clematis through your climbing roses, both can be tackled at the same time. Cut the clematis back to within 45cm (18in) of the ground. When all its top hamper is pulled away, you'll be able to see more clearly what you are doing with the rose. February is the best time for a joint operation such as this.

An established climbing rose will be presenting you with three different kinds of growth. The oldest will be the branches which make up the main framework of the rose, spread out over its support. Springing from these are shorter, lateral shoots, which are the ones that have borne the flowers this last summer. There will also be some young, sappy growth, which is the stuff you want to protect. You may need it to replace old wood that has become unproductive.

Some climbing roses – 'Guinee' is a classic case – get very leggy. You want to be able to stick your nose into a bloom at nose height, not crick your neck looking up at flowers. If your rose has kindly provided some vigorous new growths towards the base of the framework, cut out the old growth forward of the new shoot and tie in as much of the new as you can. If the climber hasn't given you any new growth, cut out one old stem entirely to shock it into doing so.

When you've used up the new growth in this way, attend to the lateral shoots springing from the old wood that remains. Cut them all back to within two or three buds of their starting point. You should now be looking at something that resembles a river delta on a map, the growths of the rose tied in flat to a support, so they do not lash about in winter storms. For tying in, I generally use 10cm (4in) vine eyes knocked into the house wall and the soft twine called fillis. It easily lasts a season and is kind to soft stems.

Each rose you tackle seems to call for a slightly different approach. 'Compassion', for instance, grows vigorously and produces masses of fresh stems. It is not too tall – it rarely gets higher than 3m (10ft), whereas 'Constance Spry' can double that – the leaves are clean and glossy and it is generous in the amount of flower it produces in a single summer. It's an easy, peachy colour and smells fantastic. But it grows in an upright, angular fashion. It is extremely vigorous, so you don't have to worry about inducing fresh growth, but you do have to spread it out before it gets too set in its ways.

In summer, with the sun on its flowers, your climbing rose may look as benevolent as a bishop at a bun fight. But at pruning time their disposition changes. They become creatures full of spite and malevolence. Be prepared.

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