How to Prune and Train Climbing Roses

A pink climbing rose against a red brick wall

Acabashi/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

Climbing roses make a big impact in the garden. They are aggressive growers and climbers, capable of growing many feet in a season. They also take up tough spaces in your garden, like vertical walls that are getting a lot of sun with possibly poor or little soil at the base. Climbers can turn that bare wall or unsightly fence into a tapestry or a new unsightly mess—a thicket of briars—if you get lazy about pruning and training. But if start them right and follow a simple five-step process, the results can be glorious.

Be sure to get some heavy leather gloves (to protect yourself from the thorns) and a pair of good hand pruners and hedge shears. You also need strong, non-biodegradable twine or tape to bind the plant to its structure.

Provide Structure

The first step is to determine how you will support and train your plants. You’ll need a structure of appropriate height, width, and—most importantly—strength. Don't plan to use the cheap plastic trellis that your climbing rose came with. It will be crushed under the weight of a full year of growth and weathering, and it is way too small.

You need a sturdy structure to tie large rose canes to. A fence made of horizontal metal wires strung tight between posts, as in espalier, is typical. Other options include a cheap and easy-to-build steel wire fence, a tall trellis standing up against a house wall, or an armature screwed into masonry. Think about the shape you want the plant to take, and make sure the structure will be large enough to accommodate long-term growth. A height and spread of 6 feet is a good goal for a manageable plan.

Wait a Year After Planting

After first planting a climbing rose, wait a year or two (with only minimal pruning) to let your plant overcome any transplant shock and put on some bulk. Remove canes that get in your way, but otherwise, let the rose get wild-looking with long growth. You will use this long growth going forward.

Choose and Train Major Canes

After the initial growth period, your bush should have some canes that are very long and hopefully extend in many directions. You’re going to train these major canes in the directions you want on your structure, usually spreading them out from the plant center.

One at a time, choose a healthy and large cane, bend it to the structure, and secure it with ties. Bend the cane as horizontally as your space and the cane's direction permit, and cut off any growth that extends beyond your planned growth area. Continue until you have all the major canes your plan needs: perhaps one in each direction on each rail on a wood fence, or seven canes radiating out on a chain link fence.

You want to bend the canes horizontally because these are the primary canes, the structural part of the plant. They will not flower much, but they will put out short shoots that will flower a ton. There will be more of these short shoots if the structural canes are horizontal, partly due to the increase in sunlight.

Take Care of Spring Maintenance

Every year, ideally in early spring before the plant leaves out, trim the plant back close to its structural canes and make any needed updates to the main canes.

  • Cut all flowering shoots back to a few nodes from the main canes. This will tidy the plant and make sure the flowering growth of next year is strong enough to hold the flowers.
  • Cut out old and weak, dead, or very damaged main canes. Keep in mind that brown branches are not necessarily dead; they may just be older and woody. If canes are alive but weak and produced very little last year, they should go, too. 
  • Train and tie up new major canes as needed, just as you did before. New major canes can replace old ones you had to cut down, or they can be directed to a new area of your growing space.
  • Cut out all other unneeded major canes. These new major canes will often come from suckers from the plant base or bolting growth from another major cane. Those that are not useful to you should be removed from their bases; don’t think that everything the plant produces should be tied to the structure.

Deadhead in Summer (Optional)

You can deadhead climbers as they bloom, if desired, treating them like hybrid tea roses, or you can take the easier and more imprecise route and deadhead them like floribunda roses. But if you don't have a very small garden or you're not a fastidious gardener, you might choose not to bother with deadheading at all. Climbing roses usually aren’t meant to be viewed up-close, but if your roses are in a particularly visible area, such as a patio, perhaps the extra work is worth it. In any case, deadheading will lead to more blooms.