From the pages of Landscape with Roses

Roses on Structures

Create visual fanfare by beautifying arbors and dressing pergolas in glorious color. This excerpt from Jeff Cox's book Landscape with Roses shows you how.

by Jeff Cox

R. wichurana 'New Dawn'
The R. wichurana hybrid 'New Dawn' festoons a beautiful arbor that leads from one part of the garden to another. (Kathy Whiteside garden, Madison, Georgia)
One of the most delightful ways to use roses in the landscape is to grow them on decorative yet functional structures -- trellises, arbors, arches, pillars, pergolas, gazebos, and fences. In the late Victorian period, such structures were at the height of their popularity, and homeowners bedecked their landscapes with them. But by the latter half of the 20th century, the more elaborate and decorative structures had quietly disappeared from the landscape. More recently, along with the renewed interest in Old Garden roses, these decorative structures have once again found a home in American gardens.

New building materials and tools, along with prefabrication techniques, have made them more affordable and available to all homeowners. As a general rule, arches, trellises, and pillars are the simplest of structures; arbors and pergolas can be either casual or grand; and gazebos, no matter what their style, tend to be the grandest of all garden structures. A pergola will make the strongest visual impact of just about any garden structure, especially when it's clothed in blooming roses. Arches and trellises take the least space, arbors and gazebos more space, and pergolas the most space of all. However, with some careful planning, even a small yard can support any of them, except, perhaps, for a gazebo, which needs a good swath of lawn around it to give it a setting. Fences have been, and will always be, an essential landscaping element -- so why not cloak them in a blanket of colorful blossoms?

Structures -- whether built from painted wood, wrought iron, rough-hewn cedar, rhododendron, aged-copper pipes, or even heavy-duty molded plastic--add a much desired vertical element to the landscape, bringing the color and fragrance of roses and other vines to eye level and beyond. They're a wonderful way to display roses beyond beds and borders, and--at least with arches, arbors, pergolas, and gazebos--to lure strollers into new areas of the garden.

'Sally Holmes'
'Sally Holmes', a vigorous Hybrid Musk, not only beautifies the arbor that forms a delightful patio seating area, but also shades the patio below. (Helen and Arthur Dawson garden, La Jolla, California)
Draping arbors
An arbor is an open, framed, boxlike structure -- either freestanding with four posts or pillars, or attached to a house or outbuilding with just two supporting posts or pillars. It makes a fine roof for a shady outdoor room, especially when timbers across its top support roses, grapevines, wisteria, or other vines. Place a picnic table or grouping of chairs beneath the arbor to create a shady sitting or dining area.

Sometimes arbors are little more than big arches -- with four posts instead of two, and perhaps a series of crossbars or lattice covering them. Arbors can highlight the entrance to a house, patio, or pool house, or mark the transition from one garden area to another. They are the doorways through which we enter these places, and they are never more beautiful than when adorned with roses. Growing roses on an arbor attached to a doorway is a simple alternative to training roses up a wall and over a doorway in espalier fashion.

Arbors should be stout
Many building-supply centers, home and garden centers, and mail-order companies carry prefabricated arbors that are easily assembled. And constructing an arbor from scratch doesn't have to be a complicated building project -- although you can certainly make it so by erecting brick or mortared piers and columns, fancy-cut finials, and such. Just make sure your arbor is built of stout, sturdy materials and the posts are sunk into concrete or strapped with metal braces to concrete piers. Posts sunk into moist soil will rot out in short order.

Attached arbor
An attached arbor opens new possibilities. This one supports Clematis 'Jackmanii' (left). The Hybrid Musk 'Sally Holmes' reaches up to touch the out-of-bloom Wisteria. (Joy and George Wolff garden, Healdsburg, California; designed by Greg Lowery)
An arbor should be at least 5 feet wide and 7 feet tall. This is big enough for one person to walk underneath comfortably, with plenty of room to spare, and it keeps the vegetation from grabbing the hats off the heads of passersby. It can be as deep as you want--12 feet or more to cover a patio for dining and relaxing, or just a couple of feet if it covers a gateway into an adjoining part of the garden or frames a doorway.

When attaching an arbor to a house, you can either leave the sides open or affix lattice to them, but it's a good idea to use 2x4s or sturdy poles across the top, as 1/2-inch lattice up there will soon rot out under dense foliage or break under the weight of heavy vines. These arbors should be securely attached to the house or outbuilding with joist hangers.

Because an arbor adjacent to a house is so frequently seen, the roses there need more tending to keep looking their best (see Helping rose canes to arch downward). Too often the sides of rose arbors are simply a number of almost leafless, twisting, wickedly thorny canes that signal more of a warning than an invitation. Most of the foliage and almost all of the flowers are perched on top of the arbor, where they can hardly be seen, except from a second-story window. The canes at the top get the most sunlight, so they will be the more floriferous ones -- smiling back up at the sun that called them forth, but leaving the gardener and her visitors out of sight down below.

What we want are roses in leaf and flower blooming up the sides of the arbor and along the top. You can manage this, but careful choice of cultivar is important here. To choose carefully, you need to know the different forms and habits of Climbers and Ramblers so you can put them to use to get the effect you want.

Modern Climbing Rose 'America'
An arbor bedecked with the Modern Climbing rose 'America' creates a visual fanfare that introduces the steps leading up to this home. (Pat Welsh garden, Del Mar, California)
Distinguishing Climbers and Ramblers
Climbers tend to be rebloomers, which is all to the good, but they also tend to have stout, vigorous canes that, when they reach the top of the arbor, want to keep growing straight up; you want them to lean over and crawl along the top. If you bend them over and tie them along the horizontal supports atop the arbor, they tend to throw up strong vertical laterals that will be very floriferous the next season.

You can stimulate leaf and bloom up the sides by staggering the height of young canes when doing your late-winter or early-spring pruning. To do this, cut weak, one-year canes back to 18 to 24 inches; a slightly stronger one-year cane to about 3 feet; and a more vigorous one or two-year cane to 4 feet. Allow vigorous, older canes to reach the top and form the horizontal stems. All the canes will put out new growth that will flower the following season.

Unlike Climbers, Ramblers have slender, flexible canes that will more easily bend over the top of an arbor and hang down in pretty ways, making their blossoms more visible from below. Their laterals are also lax and are the desired form for arbors--and for archways and pergolas, for that matter. Ramblers, as a class, are healthy plants that don't require much protection from pests, diseases, or the cold. However, hardly any Ramblers are rebloomers, so you'll have to admire them for their single show.

For a season-long display on an arbor, try combining several roses. Run a Rambler up one side to cover the top, then cover its bare trunk with shorter Climbers or Shrub roses. Another short rose can be planted on the opposite side of the arbor for color from the ground up. Some beautiful Climbers, including some strongly reblooming Hybrid Teas, only reach 7 or 8 feet. Stagger their young canes as mentioned above. If you choose different varieties for the same arbor, carefully coordinate their colors so that they harmonize. Use the boldest colors closest to the ground if there's a strong differentiation, or intermingle lighter and deeper, related shades together.

You can also combine Ramblers with perennials (see Flowering vines to follow ramblers' big show). For instance, if your gateway arbor is topped with a pink or red Rambler, make sure a few lax canes come over a side where you've planted blue Delphinium (both the Elatum Group and Pacific Coast hybrids will work). The blue, 5- to 6-foot, majestic spires reach up as the red or pink roses come tumbling down toward them, perhaps mingling in places. The sight is extraordinarily beautiful.

On many properties, the area along the side of a house is a short, narrow passageway leading from a generous front yard to an even larger backyard. An arbor attached to the house and topped with roses can turn this uninteresting stretch into a delight. Just be sure the area will receive enough sunlight for your roses.

Formal pergola
Roses climb the supports of a formal, rectangular pergola and strew the pathway below with petals. Such a structure gives a classic, formal look to the landscape. (Ellsworth garden, Yountville, California)
Embracing a pergola
A pergola is actually a series of arbors strung together to make a long, colonnaded structure (see Perfect proportion for a pergola). It often enhances a walkway, and easily becomes the most dominant element in just about any landscape--especially when it's dressed in glorious roses. The pergola should begin and end at defined points or features in the landscape, even if that's just from one end of a garden to the other. In fact, the perimeter of a garden is actually a good place for a pergola, where someone walking under it would be able to look into the garden, seeing it as a series of pictures framed by the pergola's rose-covered pillars.

Leave some structure showing
It's not appropriate to completely cover the pergola with roses. Doing that creates a very shady interior where no roses will bloom. They'll all be on the sides and top, mostly unseen by anyone walking inside the pergola. The shape of the structure should be partially seen between the billows of roses. It's the contrast of the sturdy structure of the pergola with the natural tumble of roses that gives the most impressive effect. With no roses, it's an empty pile of wood. With no structure, it's an overgrown jumble of thorny canes. Somewhere around one-half roses and one-half wood is ideal. This may mean planting Ramblers and Climbers along opposite sides and doing some judicious pruning in the dormant season.

Informal pergola
A series of metal arches curves to form an informal pergola. The Modern Climbing rose 'Alchymist' graces the pergola, which shades the Lutyens bench below. (Douglas garden, Baton Rouge, Louisiana)
Although many pergolas are built down a straight path, they can also curve gracefully as they go, especially along the perimeter of a curved garden. If used to divide a garden, the pergola should be bordered with enough lawn so that it can be fully seen from outside, and the garden it divides can be seen from inside. However, a green, grassy swath is not always the best choice for ground cover beneath the pergola. As vines cover the pergola, it will tend to get too shady for most grasses. And because people tend to walk down the middle when they pass beneath a pergola, a bare path often gets worn down the center. Instead of grass, build a 5-foot-wide walkway through your pergola. While a brick or stone path would be eye-catching, crushed gravel or shredded bark are also excellent choices for surfacing because they are affordable and easy to install. The pathway has the added benefit of drawing your eye from one end of the pergola to the other.

Roses share the pergola
The general rules of growing Climbing and Rambling roses on arbors apply to pergolas as well. I would only add that it's important to do your pruning on pergolas in late fall, before strong winter and early spring winds whip the loose canes of these lanky roses back and forth, breaking or damaging them. (For plant choices, see Cold-hardy climbers for northern arbors.)

And like arbors, pergolas don't have to be limited to roses. Other color-coordinated, flowering perennials and vines can grace the structure as well. William Randolph Hearst espaliered all sorts of fruit trees to his mile-long pergola (quite an immense structure, what's left of it), which ran from his mansion at San Simeon, California, along the mountainside with its magnificent view of the ocean below. This was so guests on horseback could pluck fruit, as well as smell the roses, as they rode through the pergola.

HGTV and PBS series host Jeff Cox is the award-winning author of many gardening books, including Decorating Your Garden, The Perennial Garden and Creating a Garden for the Senses. Jerry Pavia is an internationally renowned gardening photographer.

Photos: Jerry Pavia

From Landscape with Roses, pp. 180-188