Climbers Bring Interest and Drama to the Garden

Vitis ‘Roger’s Red’ tendrilsIf your garden needs a dramatic focal point, or a taller feature as contrast for lower-growing plants, or something that will fit into a limited space, consider a climber.

Climbers are a fairly large and diverse category of garden plants, with options for several different situations. There are several lists of climbing plants that particular gardeners enjoy. At times, it appears that some garden writers are obsessed with making lists. I try to resist that temptation and recommend instead that interested persons search the Internet for “climbing plants,” and browse through the lists that will appear on your screen. Another good resource is the Western Garden Book’s Plant Selection Guide for Vines.

There are two broad categories of climbing plants: those that thrive in full or partial shade, and those that need full sun. The shade lovers are mostly foliage plants, such as Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) and Algerian Ivy (Hedera algeriensis ‘Gloire de Marengo’). The sun lovers— a large group, too many to list— typically offer colorful blossoms.

Another important variable among climbers is their height at maturity. Some, like the Virginia Creeper and Algerian Ivy, already mentioned, can reach impressive heights, up to 150 feet. Another plant that is capable of both great heights and blossoms is the shade-tolerant Climbing Hydrangea (Hydrangea petiolaris), which can reach 80 feet. These vigorous climbers can be good choices for high walls or the side of buildings in need of decoration. I once recommended Climbing Hydrangea for a residence that was backed up to a steep slope that was quite close to the home’s rear windows.

At the other end of the scale are the climbers that typically grow to six feet or less, or that could be easily controlled to such heights. Examples include Sweet Peas (Lathyrus odoratus), Climbing Snapdragon (Asarina scandens), and certain species of Clematis, e.g. C. alpine or C. integrifolia). These climbers can be charming specimens for larger containers with a small-scale trellis.

There are many climbers that grow to heights between these extremes. As with all selections, be sure to know a plant’s mature size before adding it to your garden.

All climbers need a support of some kind in order to reach their maximum height. The necessary support depends on the given plant’s climbing method. Here are five categories of climbing methods:

Vitis ‘Roger’s Red’ Tendrils

  • Tendrils, which are wiry growths from the plant’s stems, can grasp thin supports, e.g., netting or metal grids. Examples include grapes and Sweet Peas.
  • Twiners are stems or leaves that can wrap around wires, strings, twigs, or other stems. Plants that use this method are called “bines.” Clematis, Morning Glory, Jasmine, and Honeysuckle use this method.
  • Scramblers have long, flexible stems that resemble vines, but lack a way to grip a support. Examples include climbing and rambling roses, and bougainvillea. These plants use thorns or prickles as “hooks” to assist in climbing, but they need to be tried to a trellis or other support. An interesting option for larger spaces is to use a bougainvillea as a spectacular ground cover.
  • Stickers are adhesive pads or tendrils that stick to many different surfaces. Plants that use this method include Virginia Creeper and its relative, Boston Ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata).
  • Stem roots are short, stout roots that grow from the plant’s stems and cling to various surfaces. English and Algerian Ivy use this method, as does Climbing Hydrangea. I planted Algerian Ivy as a ground cover and soon found it growing up a two-story brick chimney. Now I need a tall ladder or scaffold to remove it before it damages the mortar.

My garden includes a few climbing roses, one rambling rose, a sweet pea, Evergreen Clematis (c. armandii), Chilean Jasmine (Mandevilla laxa), California grape (Vitis ‘Roger’s Red’, actually a cross of a California a native grape and a commercial variety), rampant Algerian Ivy, and two Australian natives: Cape Arid Kennedia (Kennedia beckxiana ‘Flamboyant’) and Wonga Wonga Vine (Pandorea pandorana). Four of the five climbing methods are represented among these plants, save only the Sticker method.

Climbing plants bring variety to the garden, and often contribute color, drama and even challenges to the landscape. They are definitely worth a try, but as always do enough research to avoid surprises.