Saturday, January 1, 2011

How to Prune and Train Ramblers ... starring Albertine

When I tell folks that rambler roses can grow to be more than 20 feet across by the end of their third year, I usually see a look of fear spread across their faces.  With this post, I hope to show you that these roses are well within the reach of most gardeners ... and are a beautiful asset to the garden.

This is 'Albertine', a Hybrid Wichurana rambler introduced in France by Barbier & Company in 1921.  She will be our demonstration rose for this lesson.

Ramblers are once-blooming roses, which bloom profusely in the late spring on canes produced during the previous year.  New canes, which are long and flexible, grow from the base of the rose each year (called 'basal canes').  If left unpruned, a Rambler will grow into a large mound and spread across the ground.  Pruning them is very straight-forward, and can be accomplished on a large rose in about an hour. 

I find it best to do this in winter, when the canes are leafless and it's easy to see what I'm doing.  It feels good to get outside on a mild winter day and accomplish something in the garden.  (Temperatures here in Virginia have been in the upper 50's for the past two days ... perfect pruning weather!)

The older canes on 'Albertine' are those that are already attached to the fence.  The new canes produced during the growing season are the ones arching away from the fence.

The goal is to prune out old, excess canes and spindly, unproductive growth, keeping ten or twelve canes, and attaching them to the fence in a fan-shaped pattern. 

My ramblers each grow with a clematis in them, so I have the quick extra step of cutting off and removing the tangled, dead clematis stems.

This is what 'Albertine' looks like from the back of the fence.  Throughout the season, she sends shoots through the fence, seemingly heading for the neighbor's house.  Most of this growth will be removed.  Sometimes I will retain a particularly nice cane from the back of the fence, if I can maneuver it through the fence to the front side.

It is important to remove any canes that are dead or broken.

I cut out old, woody, unproductive canes, stepping back from time to time to get a good overview of my progress.  While I'm working, I keep my goal in mind ... retaining the long younger, flexible canes that will flower best in the spring. 

Don't be afraid to cut!  'Albertine' lost about half of herself while I was sorting canes and cutting.  Alberic Barbier, another rambler I pruned today, lost at least 3/4 of his canes.  He was REALLY overgrown, because I hadn't pruned him at all last year, and I only pruned lightly the year before. 

When in doubt, cut it out, is my motto.  If you cut a cane that you regret, arrange those that remain and you can cover up your mistake.  Ramblers are vigorous growers, and they recover quickly from hard pruning.

The old canes are gone, leaving the flexible new canes in the front.

The back of the fence is all tidy ...

... and the canes that remain are ready to be arranged and attached to the fence.

At this stage, I look at what I have left to see which canes will naturally go right or left, high or low.

I fine-tune my selections, and I sometimes discover that a cane is too stiff or pointing the wrong direction to go where I want it to go.  The cane marked below is healthy and I would love to have kept it, but there was no way I could have bent it enough to attach it to the fence without breaking it.

One by one, I attach the canes to the fence in a fan shape, as horizontally as I can get them without bending or breaking them. 

When rose canes are trained to at least a 45 degree angle, they produce more flowering laterals, which means that you will get more flowers. (Canes that are trained vertically will only bloom on the ends.)  The photo below shows one cane last spring, with its flowering laterals.  Look how many buds there are!

When we planted these roses, we stapled a single strand of fence wire between the boards of our fence to make it easier to attach the roses to the fence.  That's why it looks like the canes are floating between the fence boards.

Want to see the result?  I left 'Albertine' with ten healthy, flexible canes (five per side), attached to the wire.

Here is the pay off ... a well-tended rambler that produces maximum flowers on a healthy plant ... and, the way I do it, it only takes an hour or so per year to achieve.  (I'm using Leontine Gervais for this example, since these are such a good photos to show how many flowers ramblers produce.)

I make no secret of the fact that Ramblers are one of my favorite classes of roses.  Their flowers are beautiful and fragrant, their leaves are resistant to disease, they grow despite drought and neglect, and they are a powerful presence in the garden.

This is the upper part of the Rambler Fence in 2009.  The roses, left to right, are Alberic Barbier, Paul Transon, and Aviateur Bleriot. 

If you have any questions about Ramblers (or anything about roses, for that matter), send me an email or leave a comment.

'Albertine' wants to thank you for coming, and she hopes you will consider adding a Rambler or two to your garden


  1. Thanks so much for that tutorial. Roses are really the last thing on my mind in the middle of winter, but I'm going to bookmark this page for our next warm spell. We just had one, but it'll probably be our last until at least February.

  2. Hi Connie, Thanks for the info! Your roses are gorgeous and I hope I get a chance to see them in person when they are in bloom. Have a wonderful 2011.

  3. This was such an informative post. You would call me tentative too. I am always amazed at how they bounce right back. And they need this treatment too. I really do have to learn to prune like you. Your roses are testament to your knowledge and ability with them. Thanks for this great post.

  4. although I can't add roses here, it is always fascinating to learn from you.

    Per your comment on my blog -- the salvia B&B can be overwintered if you don't cut the plant back to the ground. It blooms for me all summer until frost kills it -- even goes through a few frosts. It is very late to emerge in spring and I often find the "runners" a few feet away while the "mother" is gone. It likes a bit more water than a lot of other full sun salvias.

    Hope all is well with you and yours (hug those greyhounds for me).

    Happy New Year!

  5. Hi Connie, Thank you so much for the tutorial. My three ramblers are planted on a hillside and I am hoping I can peg them so they are more a ground cover than a climber. Can't wait to see the blooms.

  6. Your ramblers are gorgeous! I really must try to do more with my Alberic Barbier -- at least his canes are arranged horizontally but he looks like a bit of a mess. lol Those canes are soooo long. We need to replace our fence posts with 4 x 4s, as we do with our pasture fencing, as Mermaid is starting to tear the fence down.

  7. PS What did you use to attach the roses to the wire?

  8. What a great post, clear and easy to understand. Very good pictures too.

  9. Custom Comforts, be sure you only prune ramblers and some other once-blooming old garden roses in the winter. These roses break dormancy in response to day length, and aren't fooled into waking up early by pruning or warm spells. Many repeat-blooming and modern roses may take this pruning as a signal that spring has come, and this makes them susceptible to freeze damage if winter isn't actually over.

    eagiffin, you don't have to peg these ramblers. They want to naturally crawl across the ground. Many an end on a new cane has been chewed by the lawn mower because it was creeping unnoticed through the grass outside the bed.

    sweetbay, I use a Max Tapener tool to attach the rose canes to the wire. It is a vineyard tool, and I did a post on it last year. Put 'tapener' in the search box on my sidebar and you'll find it. For gardeners who have only a few roses to train, I suggest using jute twine. It's natural, and it will disintegrage in a year or two ... about the time you'll need to remove it to retrain and prune the rose. Just don't tie it too tightly.

    Thanks for the compliments, Everyone!

  10. Nice tutorial Connie. And timely, since I've got to tackle 'American Pillar' soon.

  11. What a great and informative tutorial! I'm never quite sure what to do with my roses, and end up just cutting away those that behave badly throughout the season. I don't know that I have any official ramblers....are John Davis or John Cabot ramblers? I see you carry Veilchenblau. I've always been a bit obsessed with that one - it looks so pretty, but wouldn't make it through our winters. Oh boy, just reading your post gave me a dose of Spring fever!

  12. Thank you for this info Connie. Seeing those roses makes me want a bouquet for the house.


  13. What a great post on pruning ramblers. I planted my first one last year (New Dawn), hoping to train it over an arch at the entrance to the garden. It hasn't grown much yet. The arch doesn't offer as much horizontal area as a fence. Do you have any particular tips on training a rambler over an arch?

  14. I will soon be starting to write a presentation on pruning and training roses to arbors and arches. When I'm finished, I'll put a photo tutorial here.

    Since you planted your New Dawn just last year, I would leave it to grow this year. If your arch has horizontal supports, and you have long canes to work with, you can tie the canes at a bit of an angle as you attach them to the arch.

    I love New Dawn!

  15. Great Tutorial! The wheels are turning as I'm starting to make garden plans. I have a perfect fence for a rambler, and I am intrigued by adding a clematis. I am curious about one thing, what are the sun requirements for most ramblers?


  16. Hello Connie,

    I came across your blog on planting an Albertine Rose bush, while doing some research on how to plant them.

    (I have never been into botony, so please excuse my lack of vocabulary and knowledge)

    I was given a very small plant as a gift. My girlfriend, who passed away, was named Albertine, so this is a very precious gift to me.

    My sister was in position of the plant until I was able to pick it up from her. She saw a Botonist who informed her that she had been overwatering the plant. I received the plant early Sept, and there are signs of new growth.

    I was wondering if you could give me any kind of insight or instructions on how to take care of this plant. I'm living in Northern California Bay Area, where it has been in the 80-90s, but is now cooling off.

    Is there anything specific that I can do to nurse it back to good health. Some leaves were spotting and I was informed that was due to fungus, so I plucked them. I have attached some pictures so you can get an idea of the size and condition of the plant.

    Thank you very much for your time, and I appreciate any feedback that you may have.

    Steve C.

    I also emailed this to you along with a few pictures of the plant


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