How to choose the best climbing plant for your garden
There are five important questions you need to ask before buying a climbing plant.
- Is your climbing plant going to be planted in sun or shade? And don’t forget a North-facing boundary is ‘shade’!
- How big is the climber going to get?
- Does it climb by twining, with suckers/aerial roots or only when tied in?
- Is the climber slow or fast growing?
- What are the flowers like? (least important!)
Because you need to decide how much work you’ll do…
Garden designer Posy Gentles points out that different climbers involve different amounts of maintenance. A wisteria, for example, is very beautiful, but it will need very specific pruning twice a year. And when it’s mature, there’ll probably be some extra cutting back when it gets out of control. Some of this may be on ladders if it grows high.
But a climbing rose, provided you choose one that doesn’t grow too rampant, will just need tying in plus a once a year tidy-up. And ivy needs virtually no care at all, although you may wish to stop it spreading too far.
My easiest-care climbing plant is my Variegated Hardy Kiwi (Actinidia kolomikta). It is also my most admired. Its pink-splashed leaves are a joy. I trim it when it spreads too much but it is otherwise free of diseases, pests or bother.
So look at these five questions here in more detail, so you can buy a climber that suits your lifestyle.
Is your climbing plant going to be in sun or shade?
If your climber is in the shade from a building or tree, it needs to be a plant that will grow happily in shade or semi-shade. A ‘full sun’ climber won’t be happy.
But you may not realise that your wall or fence is ‘shady’. If it’s completely open, with no over-shadowing trees or buildings, you may think that it is ‘sunny’. But if you plant a sun-loving climber against a North-facing boundary, your neighbour will get the best display. That’s what’s happened here in Posy’s garden.
Good climbing plants for shade
Good climbers for shade include ivy, honeysuckle, climbing hydrangeas and Japanese hydrangea vine (Schizophragma hydrangeoides).
Posy also recommends other climbers from the hydrangea family, such as Pilostegia viburnumoides and she adds that clematis like their roots to be in shade.
But to avoid having your clematis scramble over the fence to flower on your neighbour’s side, choose one that is specifically shade loving. Clematis montana, for example, does not qualify, as Posy’s wonderful display of flowers demonstrates.
Some roses also work well in shade but it’s essential to check carefully as most prefer sun. I’ve personally had success with growing the white climbing rose ‘Madame Alfred Carriere’ on a North-facing fence in my previous garden.
I’d suggest asking a knowledgeable supplier rather than just reading a label, as labels always seem to veer on the cautious side. I may be wrong but I suspect that ‘full sun’ goes on many labels of plants that cope quite easily with some shade.
Does your climbing plant cling or climb?
Find out how your climbing plant supports itself as it grows.
This is important because it affects which how much extra support you’ll need to give it. Some plants will happily wind their way up a trellis with minimum help, but others will need to be tied in regularly.
There’s climbing by twining…
For example, some plants climb by twining their stems, leaves or tendrils round their support.
Twining plants need some structure such as a trellis, wires or another plant or tree to climb round.
Wisteria, clematis, star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides) and honeysuckle are twiners.
Plants that curl their leaves or tendrils around the support need thin wires, while plants that wrap their whole stems around poles or trellis need a sturdy support
Over a number of years, the twining stems of wisteria, for example, will become thick and gnarled. They literally become part of the trellis. So if you need to take the wisteria down, the trellis will have to come with it.
However, don’t forget that trellis doesn’t usually last more than 20 years. By the time a wisteria has become part of it, then it’ll be quite old anyway.
Or climbing plants with suckers or aerial roots
Some climbers have adhesive pads or aerial roots and will climb a wall or fence without supports. So you won’t need to add wires or put up a trellis.
Virginia creeper and Boston ivy (Parthenocissus henryana) have tiny aerial roots which cling to brickwork. Many people worry that these will damage their brickwork but the Royal Horticultural Society says that they don’t. We have Boston ivy up the back of our wall, and keep a close eye on it. There’s no sign that it has damaged brickwork in the ten years it’s been there.
However, having any climbers on a wall gets in the way of maintenance. That’s why some builders and decorators will urge you to get rid of any climbing plant, even to the extent of telling you it is damaging your house when it probably isn’t. Always check and re-check this advice with an authority such as the RHS.
Some climbers, such as wisteria, can be almost cut to the ground and then allowed to grow up again, so perhaps that could be the compromise.
If you have old brickwork or need to re-paint your wall or fence regularly, then take maintenance into account when choosing your climbing plant.
Do climbing plants with suckers or aerial roots damage your brickwork?
Ivy clings to brickwork by using a combination of tiny roots and glue, which is why it is so difficult to remove.
Ivy is a wonderful plant for wildlife but if your wall is damaged in any way, ivy roots will grow into the cracks and crevices and may force them apart further.
The Royal Horticultural Society has done extensive research on this and says that ivy doesn’t damage sound walls, but that it will work its way into established cracks and gaps to make any damage that is already there worse.
Personally I think all my walls are quite old and potentially vulnerable, although we check them carefully on a regular basis. If we find ivy on our walls, we take it down. We do grow ivy up a trellis, though, because it is such a valuable plant for wildlife.
If you want ivy on a wall, you could also try growing it up a mesh protector. The RHS is trialling using ivy, grown on a mesh protector as living insulation for buildings.
Or is full support needed…?
Then there are wall shrubs which are not strictly speaking climbers, but which can be persuaded to go up a wall if you tie them in. These include ceanothus, pyracantha and cotoneaster. Climbing plants which twine or which have aerial roots take up very little space on the ground, but wall shrubs take up much more space, so if space is limited in your garden then that is a consideration.
Climbing roses will also need tying in. And many climbers, such as clematis, will grow into a better shape if you run wires along your fence or wall and tie the plant’s growth to them.
Pyracantha can also be grown as a shrub or tied in along a wall. We grow it along a wall because we think it’s prickly nature is a good deterrent to intruders, but it does keep trying to become a shrub and not a climber. If you keep pyracantha very neatly clipped back it won’t give you flowers or berries.
How big is your climbing plant going to get?
Any climber will take several years to grow to its full size. But time flies, and it’s easy to find yourself with a monster on your hands.
While ‘ultimate height and width’ guides aren’t always absolutely accurate because a plant may grow more or less than average in your garden, they’re a very good indicator.
I also had the same experience with a Banksia rose which got so big that the trellis it was on came down in a wind.
Is your climbing plant slow growing or fast growing?
A slow growing climber, such as hydrangea petiolaris, will take 5-10 years to cover your wall or fence, but it will need less maintenance after that.
A fast-growing climber can cover the wall or fence in as little as two years, but will often need twice yearly clipping after that, depending on what plant it is.
And finally, what flowers does your climber have?
I’ve deliberately left this to the end, because in many ways, it’s the least important aspect of choosing a climbing plant. Once you’ve got all the other factors right, it is simply a question of picking which flowers you like best and knowing when they flower.
You could choose the flower to fit with your front door, your gate or other aspects of your colour scheme.
This (below) is my brother’s wisteria and I love its colour against the block colour of their walls.
Or choose your climbing plant for its foliage
The flowers on your climbing plant may only last a few weeks, although some roses have a beautiful second flush if you dead head them. But bear in mind that it is not easy to dead head a climber when it has grown over 10 ft off the ground!
So you could consider choosing a climber for its foliage. We have two foliage-based climbers on either side of our back door. Both have beautiful leaves. One is the Boston ivy (Parthenocissus henryana). The other is the Hardy Variegated Kiwi.
Choose a mix of climbers with different flowering times?
No! Don’t! Or rather, yes, you can – this oft-repeated advice is very good in the right circumstances.
But make sure you know when and how often each plant needs pruning and how big it will grow. Different flowering times often mean different pruning times. I have ended up with a tangled mess and no flowers because it wasn’t possible to prune at the correct times without also damaging other entwined climbers.
But if you choose a climbing rose which needs pruning in the winter with, say, a clematis that needs cutting right down to 12″ above the ground, also in winter, that would work well.
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