Selecting Climbers

Few sights are as spectacular as a climbing rose in full bloom covering the side of a house like a grand work of art, or merrily rambling along a picket fence in a cloud of color and fragrance. Since climbing roses can take several years to reach maturity, and since they are often key elements in the overall scheme of the garden, it's important to start out with the best rose to succeed in your garden, before you invest all the time and space. There are five main parameters to consider when choosing a climbing rose: size, shade tolerance, disease resistance, rebloom, and aesthetics (color, fragrance, etc.). And, of course, it should be so beautiful it makes your heart sing every time you look at it!

Size: The first step is to determine how much room the rose will have to climb or ramble. Do you want a monster vine that will climb 30 feet, up onto the roof? Or do you need a delicate, well-mannered rose to cover a six-foot arbor over the garden gate? Many people make the mistake of choosing a rose they happen to like even though it wants to grow 25 feet or more, thinking they can keep it cut back to fit a five-foot trellis. This simply will not work. The constant pruning needed to keep it under control will butcher the plant, prevent it from blooming, and exhaust the gardener. If you're looking for an eight-foot climber but you love Climbing Cecile Brunner (which has been known to rip the front porches off houses with it's large mass), you'd be better substituting a smaller but similar rose, like Blush Noisette or the Hybrid Musk Bubble Bath. Beware of books and catalogs that give sizes for different climates, such as England or New England. With our long growing season and mild winters, the same roses often grow much larger here.

Shade Tolerance: Once you've determined the ideal size for your rose, the next thing to consider is the amount of sunlight that will reach the site. Although most roses need full sun and heat to bloom and stay healthy, there are a few climbers that will thrive in partial shade. In general, though there are exceptions, the white, light pink, and light yellow roses can tolerate more shade, while the reds, oranges, and stronger colors need more sun. Most of the Hybrid Musk Roses (which can be trained as small 6'-10' climbers), including Buff Beauty, Lavender Lassie, Kathleen, and Cornelia, will tolerate up to a half day of shade. The wrong rose will stubbornly refuse to bloom if there's not enough sun. If the spot is too dark, a rose may not be your best choice.

Disease Resistance: Even if you like to spray your roses (which I don't!), it can be very difficult to reach all the leaves on a climber that's tall and massive, so starting out with a healthy variety can save you a great deal of trouble. It's also important to choose disease resistant varieties if you're planning to grow the rose along a wall (which greatly reduces air circulation), or if you're planning to grow it in partial shade. Roses on a chain link fence or on top of a pergola in full sun will have fewer fungal problems than roses on a north wall, which will need to be chosen with great care. There are several varieties, particularly the Noisettes like Madame Alfred Carrière, that acquire disease resistance with age: a few years patience will pay off. Check our list of disease-resistant roses at the front counter.

Rebloom: Many climbing roses, particularly the old Ramblers, bloom only once in the spring, while others will continue to bloom spring through fall. If this rose is going to be the star attraction in a small garden, you probably want to choose one that will perform for more than a month or two. But if you have room, many of the once-bloomers are so beautiful they're worth growing for their annual spring show. For the most part, the exceptionally large (over 20') climbers like Belle of Portugal, Kiftsgate, Lady Banks, and Félicité et Perpétue put more of their energy into vertical growth and less into flowers, so they are once-blooming. There are a few exceptions which are large but repeat-flowering, such as the gorgeous, healthy, white Sombreuil, which can climb 25' or more. Many climbing roses will repeat with much greater frequency if given adequate water, fertilizer, and sunlight.

Color: This is a matter of individual taste. At our front counter, you can pick up a list of over 70 varieties of climbing roses sorted by color, which will also indicates, for each type: fragrance, shade tolerance, rebloom, and size. This can help you quickly narrow your search to a manageable number of possibilities. At this point, the most important consideration is choosing a rose that you'll love and enjoy for many years to come.

Elizabeth's Top Ten Very Favorite Climbing Roses:

  1. Abraham Darby: Apricot-pink English Rose, big cupped nodding flowers, heavily fragrant, continuous bloom, healthy, 6'-10'.
  2. Altissimo: Dazzling bright red climber, five-petalled flowers, light fragrance, continuous bloomer, vigorous and healthy, 8'-10'.
  3. Bubble Bath: Soft pink Hybrid Musk, large billowy clusters of flowers, spectacular fragrance, continuous bloom, healthy, shade tolerant, 8'-10'.
  4. Buff Beauty: Buff-yellow Hybrid Musk, large flowers, wonderfully fragrant, repeats well, healthy, shade tolerant, 8'-12'.
  5. Cornelia: Soft coral-pink Hybrid Musk, large clusters of small flowers, sweet fragrance, repeat bloomer, healthy, shade tolerant, 6'-10'.
  6. Graham Thomas: Yellow English Rose, large cupped flowers, fragrant, repeat bloomer, healthy, 8'-10'.
  7. Madame Alfred Carrière: Blush white Noisette, prolific and perfect flowers, delicious fragrance, good repeat bloom, healthy when established, tolerates some shade, 15' to 20'.
  8. Royal Sunset: Rich apricot climber, hybrid-tea flowers, fragrant, continuous heavy bloomer, healthy, 10'-15'.
  9. Sombreuil: Pure white climbing Tea rose, enormous cupped flowers, very fragrant, heavy repeat bloom, healthy, shade tolerant, 15'-25'.
  10. Westerland: Soft peachy-orange climber, big ruffled multi-colored flowers, very fragrant, continuous bloomer, healthy and fast growing, 10'-15'.