How to Grow Up: The Art of Climbing Plants
The art of getting plants to scale the side of a house or wall has baffled some of the best gardeners. When done right, climbing plants can be used to cover an ugly fence or wall with vibrant flora. The trick is to look at the nature of the plant and understand how they are designed to climb. Then, all you need to do is match up the right support, and in no time at all, you'll have a wall filled with foliage.
Plants can climb several different ways: some need vertical support, others require horizontal supports, and some need no support at all. Climbing plants fall into one of five categories based on their characteristics: tendrils, twiners, scramblers, stickers, and stem roots.
Tendrils get their name from their slender, wiry growths that extend about an inch from the stems and curl when they encounter a support. They need thin horizontal supports they can grab onto, no more than 1/4-inch in diameter. Two-inch square netting works well for this. However, horizontal strings attached to poles are even more ideal for these plants.
Passionflowers or Passion Vines
There are over 500 species of passionflowers. They are easily grown in USDA zones five through nine, but can be planted in colder areas as long as they are mulched heavily in the winter. Under proper conditions, passionflowers can grow up to 30 feet in a single season. They need partial to full sun and like lots of water, so keep the soil around their roots moist, especially during the flowering season.
The porcelain ampelopsis is an attractive vine that will grow about six feet tall. It prefers full sun to partial sun conditions and grows best in zones six through nine. Deciduous woody perennials of the grape family, each ampelopsis plant produces berries of a variety of colors: lettuce green, turquoise, steel blue, and aquamarine. In the fall it bears round, blue-violet flowers.
Other beautiful tendril vines include the tropical mandevilla, the grape vine, and the Everlasting Sweet Pea.
Twiners have either twining leaves or twining stems that need something vertical to twist and turn around. To help twiners climb, give them a trellis, string, wire, or a post. Just make sure it's horizontal. Twiners include morning glories, Dutchman's pipe, honeysuckle, clematis, thunbergia, and wisteria. Twiners, especially honeysuckle and wisteria, can grow quite large and need a strong support to hold their weight.
Despite some misconceptions, morning glories are not perennial. Because they are so fast growing, they seem that way. Morning glories can be killed off with any frost, but reseed themselves the next year and are capable of reaching heights of 10 feet or more within two months. Morning glories should be planted in full sun after all danger of frost is past. Plant seeds about 1/4- to 1/2-inch deep and about eight inches apart. For best results, slightly nick the seeds with a file or soak them overnight before planting. Do not over-water or fertilize. These plants will flower from summer to fall.
Dutchman's pipe is a twining plant that does well in a shady or a partially shady spot. They are hardy perennials in zones eight through 10 and will bloom from early spring until fall. They can grow to be 20 to 30 feet high with long heart-shaped leaves and unusual, pipe-shaped yellow-green flowers. While they are attractive to butterflies and birds, their scent can make them somewhat unattractive to humans. Also, they are toxic if consumed. Prune regularly to encourage new growth and flower production.
There are over 180 species of honeysuckle; 20 of them are native to North America. They are hardy, fast growing, and easy to grow in five through 11. Their fragrant flowers attract hummingbirds and butterflies in the summer, and they produce a fruit that will attract songbirds in the fall. They prefer full sun but will tolerate partial sun and only require moderate watering. They should be planted in the early spring as soon as all danger of frost has passed. If you plan to have it grow upwards, plant it about six to 12 inches away from the support in order to give it plenty of growing room. Vines may need to be tied to their support using a strong, stretch material, such as strips of pantyhose or dental floss, that won't cut into the growing branches. Mulch the plant heavily in the winter to protect its roots from freezing.
Clematis has easily earned its title of the "Queen of Climbers." They prefer a spot where their roots are shaded with their tops in full sun, so it’s a good idea to pair them with a nice ground cover to give them some protection. The soil should be well-worked, loose, and porous to give their roots the opportunity to spread. They should be watered regularly, but not over-watered.
Because the clematis has twining leaves, not stems, it needs something thin to twine around, such as wire. A lattice made of one-inch slats will not work for this plant.
Also known as the Black-eyed Susan or the orange clockvine, this vine is a warm-season annual in zones two through nine but a perennial in zones 10 and 11. It needs full sun to partial shade conditions and regular watering. It is very easy to grow from seeds and grows to heights of about eight to 10 feet.
Tip: Deadhead blooms regularly to encourage new flowering. If the thunbergia is allowed to go to seed, it will cease to bloom.
Wisteria vines can be seen gracing the front of the Smithsonian Buildings along Constitution Avenue in Washington D.C. They grow best in zones six through nine, prefer full sun, and need to be watered regularly. Wisteria require some training before they will climb, but once they do, they produce fragrant white, pink, or purple flowers in long clusters in the late spring or early summer.
Tip: Wisteria can become very heavy and is famous for pulling down porches and other garden structures. Make sure you have strong support!
Other gorgeous twiners include the moonflower, the annual Cardinal Climber, and the climbing jasmine.
Scramblers are unable to climb on their own and need to be secured in place with either gardening string or wire. Of course, their thorns can make this tender work. Scramblers include bougainvillea and climbing or rambling roses.
Bougainvilleas need full sun and well-drained soil. They should be fertilized in the early spring and midsummer and only pruned after they have finished flowering. Do not wait too long before watering, as their soil should always remain moist yet never soaking. Bougainvillea need a happy medium to flourish. They are hardy in zones nine to 11. Bougainvillea are also stunning when planted in containers. Protect these warm-weather plants in the winter, although they will generally regrow after a freeze if it is not too prolonged.
Climbing and Rambling Roses
Climbing roses will grow very tall (25 feet high or more) and have very flexible canes that can be trained to climb almost anything. Most species of climbing roses need full sun, although a few species will grow in partial shade. The main difference between climbing roses and rambling roses is that climbers will repeat blooms through the season and have heavier canes than the rambling roses. Fertilize the roses at least twice a year—once in April and then again in July.
Tip: Prune climbing roses in the autumn, cutting back the stems that have bloomed for a second season as well as any damaged or dead limbs.
Other pretty scramblers include the Clove Currant Vine.
Stickers also have stem tendrils. However, these tendrils come with their own adhesive that allows them to climb virtually anything. Stickers include the Boston ivy and the Virginia creeper. They don't need any additional support other than a vertical structure on which to cling.
Boston ivy prefers full sun to light shade, slightly moist to slightly dry conditions, and a fertile loamy soil to support its rampant growth. It is hardy to USDA zone five, and it will tolerate soil containing clay or stony material. Flowers and berries are more likely to be produced if there is some exposure to sunlight.
Virginia creeper is a vigorous climbing perennial vine that can grow up to 50 feet tall. It is hardy in USDA zones three to nine, but care should be taken as it can choke a tree if it is not controlled. It will grow well in virtually any condition from full sun to full shade. During late summer, the Virginia creeper produces clusters of tiny yellow flowers, and in the fall, it produces a berry that is a favorite of many birds and animals; however, it is poisonous to humans.
The trumpet vine is another stunning sticker.
Stem root climbers use clingy stem roots to attach themselves to virtually any surface. These roots are so strong that they can actually damage paint and mortar when they are removed. For this reason, avoid planting them next to a house or shed, and instead have them climb a fence or trellis. They don't need any additional support other than a vertical structure on which to cling.
Climbing hydrangea can reach heights of 80 feet if they are given enough room to grow. They grow best in zones four to seven. Climbing hydrangea need full sun to partial shade and will tolerate virtually any soil conditions. This is a large, heavy vine that requires sturdy support.
English ivy will thrive in full sun conditions in temperate climates, but does better in partial sun or shade. It does best in zones three to nine and grows to a height of about nine feet. Plant them about 18 inches apart.
Tip: It is wise to keep an eye on these voracious growers and prune them back at the first sign of unruly growth.
Training Your Climber
Some climbers, like ivy, will naturally climb a structure without any help. Many flowering vines, however, need a helping hand in the beginning. Start by planting your vine at least eight inches from your trellis or arbor. If you are planting next to a structure like a house or shed, plant 12 to 18 inches from the base of the wall, as the structure will create a rain shadow. Tie the main stem of your vine to your trellis or fence. You can buy plant ties at most nurseries, but ordinary twist ties work too. If your vine is very young and delicate, use strips of pantyhose as gentle ties. Tie more stems to your structure and wait. Every few days check back to tie unruly stems and continue tying your main stem as it grows.
Once your plant no longer needs guiding, discontinue tying. To control the growth and direction of your climbing vine, you need to regularly prune it. If the vine begins to get heavy or bushy in one area, cut it back with a pair of gardening shears. Likewise, if a stem begins heading in an undesirable direction, cut it back.
Tip: If your vine does not seem to be growing, remember the old gardener's adage about vines: first it sleeps, then it creeps, then it leaps. Some vines may take two to three years to reach a steady growth rate and three to five years to bloom. However, this time is well worth it for a well-trained vertical stunner.