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How and when to prune a climbing rose

Got a climbing rose and wondering how – and when – to prune it? Here's what you need to know.

By Staff writer / April 5, 2010

Climbing roses are romantic and appealing, but often they don't grow and bloom as well as they should because they're pruned incorrectly.



"I live in Chicago, and planted a Climbing Peace rose (bareroot) two springs ago. I feed it a coupla times per summer and trim it down to about 2' in fall. It's put out nice long canes but never a bloom. Have never seen signs of disease or critter infestation. Our soil is very alkaline but I try to balance it with coffee grounds. Help??"

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That's a question I was asked recently when I took part in a Monitor webcast with the paper's editor, John Yemma, to talk about gardening. Several questions were submitted via the Monitor's Facebook page.

And because pruning climbing roses is something that's often done wrong – and at the wrong time – I'd like to elaborate here in print on the answer I gave in the webcast.

When and how to prune climbing and rambler roses can differ from when and how you prune hybrid tea and shrub roses.

First, the "when."

In most parts of the country, you should prune rosebushes about the time forsythia blooms. Why not in fall? Because cold weather is on its way, and that can more easily harm canes that are freshly pruned.

You prune hybrid tea climbers – such as Climbing Peace – at the same time. But be aware that not all climbing roses are hybrid teas – roses that bloom repeatedly.

Old-fashioned climbing roses –- and most ramblers – flower only once a year – usually in late spring or early summer. That's why they're always pruned right after they finish blooming.

After all, if you pruned them in early spring, you'd cut off all the flower buds.

My advice? If you don't know whether a climbing rose blooms once or several times a year, wait and do any needed pruning after it finishes blooming the first time.

Then, if it reblooms that summer, you can schedule future prunings in early spring. If it doesn't, prune only after it has flowered.

What you want pruning to accomplish

Another difference in pruning rosebushes and climbers is the reason we do it. There are some similarities, but more differences.

By the end of the growing season, a rosebush is a mess of wildly crossing branches, numerous branches, and too many small canes. Not only does this look messy, but it isn't going to produce the best roses, or as many of them as you'd like.

So you trim out the deadwood, cut away crossing canes, and remove those that are the diameter of a pencil or less. Then you cut the canes back moderately so they will grow well.

You want to encourage strong growth because, in the case of hybrid tea and most shrub roses, that means more roses because rose blossoms are produced on what gardeners call new wood (canes that grow this season).

The bottom line: We prune and keep rosebushes at the best size for best growth.

But the whole idea of climbers is that we want them to cover a certain area. That's why we plant them where we do: along a rail fence, next to an arbor or a trellis.

If we cut them back to two feet tall each spring, they would never grow as tall as we want. Also, the plant would never grow the long canes that earn it it the name "climber."

Prune new climbers very lightly

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