“One day, a young seedling found itself growing next to a noble large tree, with a mighty trunk, able to withstand the strongest gales. The young seedling was small, but it was smart. Realizing how long it had taken the mighty tree to grow its strong trunk, it began to fear it would never rise up and see the world. Despairing, the young seedling suddenly had an idea. It leaned against the big tree, and twisting its long, slender branches around it, the seedling quickly climbed to the very top of the tree. From there it could see the world and send out its flowers for all to admire. The first climbing plant had been born.”
This might not really be how it happened, but around the world there are plants that grow tall by relying on the support of other plants and are able to grow quickly as a result. In gardens these climbing plants are valuable for covering all sorts of structures, from fences to gazebos and arbors to walls. They fill spaces and throw shade, or hide unsightly structures, with green leaves and flowers, giving height and breadth with hardly any width. They add an extra dimension to your garden and enrich its appeal as no other plants can. Some of our most loved plants are climbers, from honeysuckle to roses and wisteria. So are some important food crops, most obviously the grape vine, grown of course for both those delicious clusters of grapes and also to make wine and brandy. Let’s explore the range and variety of these plants – there is sure to be one that would add something special to your garden.
Climbing plants are very useful for any situation where you have a vertical surface, or upright structures like arbors, that you want to turn green. They can bring color and shade without the need to grow trees, making them especially useful in today’s smaller gardens.
Almost every property needs fences, to protect it from unwanted visitors, to define the boundaries of your land, and often to satisfy local ordinances. You may move into a home and inherit old, unsightly fences, or you need to save money, so you put up a chain-link fence. A great way to transform that eyesore is to grow some climbing plants over it. That unsightly fence soon becomes an attractive green screen, perhaps with flowers too, and ‘ugly’ quickly becomes ‘garden feature’. As long as the fence is reasonably strong, and you choose a self-supporting plant, then your problem is solved in just a few seasons.
Sometimes your home has big areas of blank wall which you want to soften and merge into the garden. It can take many years to grow a tree to say 20 feet and hide that wall, and that means shade as well, and potential root problems. In far fewer years you could cover it with a climbing plant, without taking up any horizontal room at all, and keep the beds around your home as sunny as ever. Covering your home in green will save energy too, because the heat will be reflected away, meaning lower AC costs.
Nothing brings a touch of style and class to a garden the way an arbor or pergola does. There are many ways to design structures that use upright and horizontal elements, from a simple arch over a path to an elaborate gazebo for outdoor entertaining. Climbing plants will decorate both the vertical and horizontal parts with green, and you can grow the same plant or a variety, depending on your inclinations and style.
For a more natural look, and to deal with dead trees in a different way, think about covering them with climbers. This is how most of them grow in nature, scrambling and twining up existing larger plants. There can be a risk of damaging the supporting tree if the climber is too vigorous, but if the tree is dead, climbers are a perfect way to cover it with leaves and flowers. Some less vigorous climbers, like climbing hydrangea, can safely be grown into any tree, and if you have very large, old trees they can probably safely deal with even a large climber like wisteria.
Climbers can also be grown directly in your beds, even if you don’t have an elaborate structure for them. A few tall, strong tall canes is all you need to ‘go vertical’ in your beds, gaining height without adding width. Most taller shrubs will grow wide, but with climbers you can keep it narrow, and still have flowering plants to 6 feet or more.
Smaller climbing plants are great in big pots, tubs and planter boxes, as a novel way to get height. You can use a simple tepee of bamboo canes, some dead branches, or more formal trellis panels and boxes – the choice is yours. This really shows off the plants, and it’s a great way to grow those with beautiful flowers, like clematis or honeysuckle. Regular trimming might be needed, but it’s worth it when you see the result.
Growing your own food has become a big part of gardening, and there are valuable crops – like grapes and kiwi fruit – that grow as climbing vines and can be used for decoration and harvest. Few sights are more beautiful than an arbor dripping with bunches of grapes, and the leaves are beautiful when green, and even more so when gold and red in fall.
Some climbing plants are grown mainly for their leafy beauty, and most flowering climbers also have attractive leaves. For a different way to cover a shady wall, check out Fortune’s Euonymus, which is a dual-purpose evergreen ground cover with handsome leaves, often variegated in gold or silver. It will spread across the ground in shady places, and just as happily climb a wall to 6 feet or more, attaching itself with tiny roots that won’t damage brickwork.
The different kinds of ivies, evergreen or deciduous, are also great climbers for foliage. A wall covered in Boston Ivy in fall is indeed a gorgeous sight.
It is for their flowers that we grow most of the plants in our gardens, and it’s no different with climbers. Most of the favorites have beautiful flower displays at least once a year, and often several times. Wisteria in spring and often again in summer, Honeysuckle in late spring and through the summer months, or a fabulous splash of roses – all these things and more are yours with climbing plants.
With the current emphasis on growing food at home, it makes sense to consider climbers as a source of fruit. Grape vines are both ornamental and incredibly productive, and kiwi fruits are always popular at the table, and very easy to grow. Even something like a blackberry bush – choose a thornless variety for comfort – is attractive on a fence, and highly productive of tasty, nutritious berries as well.
The diversity of climbing plants is reflected in the many different ways they climb. No less a notable person than Charles Darwin himself devoted a whole book to it. Some plants simply throw long stems over the nearest support, perhaps using thorns to hold tight, as roses or blackberries do. Others, such as honeysuckle, wisteria or morning glory, have twining stems that wrap around any support their waving stems bump into. Some, like sweet peas, have modified parts of their leaves to wrap tightly around branches and twigs. Others, like the ivies, send out roots along the stems, gripping on tightly, often with tiny suction cups. Whatever method they use, it is amazing to see the different ways climbing plants have learned to defy gravity. Practically speaking, understanding how your plant climbs is helpful in choosing suitable supports and in training them up those supports.
The diversity of climbing plants is reflected in the different conditions they grow in, and there is a climber for every location. Consider a few garden factors when choosing, to give yourself the best chance of success:
Planting Zone – there are climbing plants for almost every zone, but remember that they are up in the air, where it is cold, without snow protection. If you push the limits and grow a plant in its coldest recommended zone, or below it, then you reduce the chances of reliable blooming and growth every year, and you may find it damaged to some degree by a colder-than-normal winter.
Sun or Shade? – make sure the light you have, especially in spring and summer, is sufficient for your choice. Flowering will be reduced in too much shade, even if the plant itself grows just fine.
Soil Conditions – most climbers will grow well in ordinary well-drained soils, and if you have drier conditions, take that into account. Don’t worry, there is something for just about any soil, just don’t forget to consider it as a factor in choosing.
Sufficient Space – unlike other plants, you of course need to have something for climbers to grow on. Look at the ultimate size of the plant you are considering. Do you have that much space available? Trying to fit a large climbing plant into a small space is a frustrating and ultimately losing battle, so do yourself a favor and choose something suitable for the space you have.
Suitable Support – Climbers are of different kinds. Some have twining stems, and just need something to twine around. They will usually fill a space without much help, once they get started. Others, like roses for example, need tying in to the supports, with something that is durable, strong, but won’t cut into the stems. Lots of good gardeners use old pantyhose – it’s ideal – but soft twines are good too. Avoid wire, or at least tie it very loose, as it can cut into growing stems and strangle the plant. With larger climbers it is important to make sure your structure is strong enough to support their future weight. Use sturdy timbers, and secure them well in the ground, protecting them from decay to give them a long life.
To help you get started in choosing suitable climbers for your needs, here is a run-down on some of the most popular. For more detailed descriptions and growing directions, look under each plant in our catalogue, where you will find a selection of the very best climbers available.
Wisteria – Noted for its stunning blue-purple clusters of hanging flowers, Wisteria is the plant for you if you have lots of room. It does take some care, and there are several blogs on our site on how to do that. The rewards, though, are worth the effort. With graceful foliage and twining stems, it will grow up into large trees, cover a larger pergola, or even the side of a large house. The most spectacular is the Chinese wisteria (Wisteria floribunda), with foot-long hanging flowers in early spring on bare stems. It only blooms once, or at least it does unless you grow Lavender Falls (‘Betty Tam’) which is a reliable re-blooming form, producing crops of new blooms against the summer leaves twice or even three times in a season.
The Chinese wisteria grows and blooms best in warmer zones, and if you live in colder ones, or want a smaller, more manageable plant, take a look at the American wisteria (Wisteria macrostachya). Although the flower trusses tend to be smaller, and in very cold areas it may bloom just in summer, it is certainly a reliable re-bloomer everywhere. Check out the different colors we have available, such as ‘Amethyst Falls’, ‘Blue Moon’ or ‘Aunt Dee’.
Honeysuckle – the sweet smell of honeysuckle, with vanilla overtones, is loved by almost everyone, and the graceful flowers of creamy yellow, pink or red depending on the variety, hang in attractive clusters. There are many species, but only a few are found in most gardens. By far the most popular is the Gold Flame Honeysuckle (Lonicera × heckrottii ‘Gold Flame’), a twining plant that is deciduous in cooler zones and semi-evergreen in warmer ones. The whorls of beautiful gold and white flowers decorate it all summer and into fall as well.
Roses – some roses grow long stems, which flop and fall onto other plants, held in place by the rose’s thorns. They fall into several categories that need different pruning, so it’s worth considering them briefly:
Rambling roses – these have long, slender stems that can reach 10 feet or even more, and develop into a plant reaching 15 or 20 feet. The stems flower in the year after they grow, and perhaps for a year or two more. The individual flowers are small, but carried in big clusters, so they make a colorful and charming display. They are pruned after they flower, by removing the stems that have flowered, and tying in the new shoots to replace them.
Species ramblers – These are wild plants that naturally produce long, climbing stems. The most spectacular and famous is without doubt Lady Banks’ Rose (Rosa banksiae), a Chinese wild rose of great beauty that grows best in zones 7, 8 and 9. Reaching over 20 feet tall (or wide, depending on how you grow it) it has a profuse early spring display of charming flowers that almost smother the leaves completely. There is a creamy-white version with cup-shaped flowers, or a yellow one (‘Lutea’) with pom-pom like flowers, and both are equally lovely. The almost-thornless stems are easy to work with, and it is pruned like a rambling rose.
Large-flowered climbers – these are roses with long, thick canes that can be as little as 6 feet long, or up to perhaps 12 feet. They have clusters of large flowers in early summer, and sometimes later too, which resemble ‘regular’ roses. After flowering the flowering side-stems are trimmed back to an inch or two from the main branches. On a well-established plant a few of the oldest stems should be removed completely at the same time, cutting them back to a strong new shoot pushing up from near the base.
Climbing Hydrangea – climbing plants that bloom in shady places are rare, but if you have a north-facing wall you want to cover in glory, plant the climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea petiolaris) against it. The big, dark-green leaves make a dense covering, and the dinner-plate-sized clusters of white flowers resemble the lace-cap type of hydrangea. Best in shade in warmer zones, but blooming better with some sun in cooler ones, it has self-clinging roots that support it on a tree or wall.
Euonymus – evergreen climbers are rare too, and Fortune’s Euonymus (Euonymus fortunei) is more often seen as a ground cover. But climb it will, sometimes to as much as 10 feet, and to cover a shady wall it has no equal. The colorful variegated varieties, ‘Silver Queen’ and ‘Emerald Gaiety’, will brighten that wall with gold or silver, all year round.
Ivy – lots of very different plants are called ‘ivy’, from the vigorous English ivy (Hedera helix) that will cover a wall in green or variegated foliage, to the beautiful Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) and Boston ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata). These two related plants are American natives that will cover a wall or climb into a tree to show off their handsome green leaves and their spectacular fall colors.
Grape Vines – if you want both ornament and usefulness, you can’t go wrong planting a grape vine (Vitis). Their bold foliage often colors well in fall and is always attractive, and whether you grow the hardy ‘Concorde’ grape in the north, or a delicious Muscadine like ‘Southern Home’ in the south, when you see those black, red or green bunches hanging from your arbor you will be in bacchanalian heaven.
Kiwi Fruit – unknown until relatively recently, the Kiwi fruit (Actinida arguta), with its furry brown exterior hiding that tangy green flesh, is today a big favorite. Not so many people realize how easy it is to grow your own, but it is. With long stems that need a little help to stay on a fence, it is tough and reliable, making a dense screen of leaves and carrying big crops of delicious fruit. In colder zones, and if you don’t have a lot of space, we recommend the Issai Arctic Kiwi, that grows even in zone 4, is relatively small, and is also self-fertile. One plant will give a big crop all through the fall.
Blackberries – Forget those thorny monsters encountered out hiking – today’s thornless blackberry varieties are easy to work with. The canes are usually only about 5 feet long, and they can easily be spread out on a fence. The leaves and flowers are attractive, and those delicious berries appeal to all the family. Check out our current selection to see how adaptable, easy and productive this plant is.
A garden without climbing plants is like a black and white drawing. You won’t believe the richness and extra dimension climbers bring until you start growing them. They are the best way to cover the unsightly or to decorate your prize gazebo, so explore our selection and start enjoying the pleasure of these twining garden companions.