Climbers: training and pruning on planting

Climbing plants can quickly clothe a fence or wall. Careful training and pruning on first planting will help ensure that a climber grows attractively and healthily, covering the wall efficiently and remaining easy to maintain. 

Tying in a climber. Credit:Neil Hepworth/RHS The Garden.

Quick facts

Suitable for All climbing plants
Timing Just after planting
Difficulty Easy to moderate

Suitable for...

All climbers, whether twining or attached by aerial roots or pads, benefit from initial training and pruning. Typical examples include clematis, ivy, honeysuckle, akebia and Russian vine.

Putting up supports

Supports should be in place prior to planting. To allow plants to grow freely against walls and fences, fix supports about 5cm (2in) away from the wall or fence surface.

Possible supports include:

  • Taut horizontal or vertical wires held by vine eyes. Space the wires 30-45cm (12-18in) apart with the lowest wire 30cm (1ft) above soil level.
  • Wooden trellis screwed to thick wooden battens to raise it from the wall surface, with the bottom 30cm (1ft) above soil level to prevent rotting.
  • Free standing screens of post and plastic mesh, post and wire, or post and trellis panels (sheltered sites only).
  • Small obelisks can just be pushed into the soil, but larger structures may need anchorage into concrete footings.

Do not plant right against the support, as it will create a rain shadow. If planting against a solid structure such as wall or fence allow about a 45cm (18in) gap between the plant and the wall. Otherwise, a 20-30cm (8in-1ft) gap is sufficient. Some climbers (certain clematis for example) benefit from deeper planting.

Initial training and pruning

If you are raising your own plant from seed or cuttings, create a wigwam of split canes or slender bamboo canes within the pot as soon as the young plant needs support. Twine new stems up these, tying carefully with twine. Try not to let the shoots tangle together too much as they will need to be untwined when they go on their final supports. Add taller canes if necessary but ideally plant out as soon as the rootball is well developed.

Training against a wall

Make sure you have put up support wires on the wall first.

  1. Plant your climber about 30-45cm (1ft-18in) from the base of the wall, so that it has room for root development and will catch the rain.
  2. Remove all ties; with plants from a garden centre, use scissors to cut off plastic ties that hold the climber to its bamboo cane supports.
  3. Untwine the climber from any canes sufficiently to allow you to spread out the stems, but leave them still attached to their cane supports. Select three bamboo canes to train the climber at an angle up to the wire supports on the wall.
  4. Slip the bamboo canes under the wires to hold them in place, adjusting the positioning to create a fan shape. If your climber came twined around only one bamboo cane, then you’ll have to untwine it completely and find another two canes to train the stems.
  5. Tie the stems and canes to the wire supports. Garden twine is better than wire, which can damage the stems and leaves. Snip off the excess twine with scissors.
  6. After you have trained the main stems into a basic fan shape, you can use secateurs to prune off any weak or twiggy growth that doesn’t contribute to the main framework.

The end result is a well-planted climber, fan trained along bamboo canes that have been tied in to the wire supports on the wall.

Aftercare

Tie new growth in regularly, and extend the canes as necessary. You could fill out the fan shape with new rows of canes, to accommodate lengthening main stems and new sub-branches. Eventually, when the climber has formed thick woody stems, you can remove the canes, and the plant will hold its fan shape unaided.

Problems

If your climber has spindly stems without many growth buds, you can shorten the main stems by about one-third, to encourage vigour and bushing out.

If your climber fails to thrive, it may be struggling to establish, perhaps because of difficult soil conditions, poor planting technique, or inadequate aftercare.

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