Using Vines in the Garden - Brooklyn Botanic Garden
Plants & Gardens Blog

Using Vines in the Garden

Hyacinth bean
Children enjoy rustic teepees set in the garden and covered with vines such as hyacinth bean (Lablab purpureus). [Photo: Robert Hyland]

After years away from the Deep South, the garden writer Henry Mitchell wrote, "I have given up thinking of coral vines, fat gardenia bushes, and much else, but I have not given up the notion that a garden should have a lot of leaves in it, preferably hanging from the air . . . ." Not content with foliage alone, Mitchell set roses twining about his entryway and into the canopy of his trees. He allowed grapes and clematis to scramble over his simple summer house and coaxed a borderline-hardy creeping fig to grow up the sides of his raised pool.

It's often said that vines are the best friends of a passionate gardener with a small urban lot like Mitchell's. And it's true: There's no better way to splash color and texture around a postage-stamp property than by collecting plants that grow skyward rather than sideways. But this doesn't begin to give vines their due, for there are no more versatile creatures in plantdom.

Take a setting different from Mitchell's, one of today's treeless suburban mini-estates. For fast relief, owners can create garden rooms with inexpensive trellises and festoon them with climbers. Vines clambering up the house itself will quickly create the illusion that the structure is part of its setting, rather than an intruder. And if you're an apartment dweller with nary a scrap of land, you can still grow vines, either in containers outdoors—wrap them along your balcony railing—or indoors in a sunny window.

Using Vines on Structures

Excuses for buying vines are many. We all have drab structures that could use some pizzazz—a chain link fence, a tree stump, the broad side of a barn. Camouflage is a use that's invariably suggested for vines. If you have a truly hideous structure, though, keep in mind that in temperate North America a flowering vine is rarely a year-round solution, since few are reliably evergreen. More accurate words than camouflage for what vines will accomplish on structures include softening (against something cold, such as a concrete wall), enhancing (against something serviceable but plain, such as a split-rail fence), or distracting (on something that could use repair but isn't ready to fall down, such as the storage shed in my yard).

Vines can also serve as co-conspirators for screening when coupled with a supporting structure. An especially useful place for them is the area garden designers call the utility, or service, area (the rest of us call it the trash-can area). Near a seating area, a vine-trellis duo will help you block too-brisk breezes.

Vine Villains

Just as one gardener's weed is another gardener's flower, a vine can be perfectly well behaved in one region and horribly invasive somewhere else. Given the right conditions, these vines can take over. Before you plant one of them, check with botanical gardens or local nature preserve managers.

  • Brazilian jasmine (Jasminum dichotomum)
  • Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis)
  • English ivy (Hedera helix)
  • German ivy (Delairea odorata)
  • Gold Coast jasmine (Jasminum azoricum)
  • Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica)
  • Kudzu (Pueraria lobata)
  • Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus)
  • Porcelain berry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata)
  • Mile-a-minute vine (Polygonum perfoliatum)
  • Moonseed (Menispermum canadense)
  • Periwinkle (Vinca major)
  • Wood rose (Merremia tuberosa)

If your support already exists, it will dictate to some extent the vines you choose. Those lucky enough to have stone or brick walls or fences can grow brawny vines like climbing hydrangea, which doesn't even need help in climbing. The woody trunk and stems of wisterias will become similarly gnarly and eye-catching with age, although they need strict discipline.

At the other end of the support spectrum is a leaning wooden fence like our neighbors'. Fortunately, there are plenty of featherweight vines, especially among annual species. Cypress vine is one of my favorites. Lightweight climbers can be grown on netting and strings as well as unsturdy fences.

Vines Overhead

Arbors and pergolas—despite neglectful owners who sometimes allow them to appear naked in public—were invented to be clothed in vines. On a large property they can provide a womblike enclosure. In a small garden, they make a viewer feel there's more going on than meets the eye, both overhead and beyond the leafy walls.

In an area where you'll often sit to relax or dine, it's an added bonus if flowers hang overhead or send their fragrance swirling through your shady bower. But remember that all that nectar will attract bees. If you think that will spoil your party, keep your "ceiling" high overhead.

Arches are another piece of garden furniture often misused, plopped in the middle of a lawn like a door leading from nowhere to nowhere. Placed to mark the transition between two garden areas, or on a path, however, a vine-draped arch can practically make cymbals crash.

The Sky's the Limit

Autumn Beauties

A few flowering vines also have brilliantly hued leaves in autumn or colorful fruits or seed pods, providing a second season of color. Among the best are these:

  • American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens), fruits
  • Boston ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata), foliage
  • Bottle gourd (Lagenaria siceraria), fruits
  • Grapes (Vitis species), foliage & fruits
  • Hyacinth bean (Lablab purpureus), fruits
  • Honeysuckles (Lonicera species), fruits
  • Roses (Rosa species), fruits
  • Scarlet runner bean (Phaseolus coccineus), fruits
  • Silver vine (Actinidia polygama), fruits
  • Snake gourd (Trichosanthes cucumerina), fruits
  • Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), foliage

You don't need elaborate structures to grow vines, though. A simple post in the midst of a perennial border will give you a place to train a clematis for a strong, vertical line. If you really want to express yourself, you can become as fanciful as you like, training your vines into ladders, scallops, or curlicues against a fence or wall. Or train a vine along a rope, wire, or chain swag, giving your garden a theatrical atmosphere. Just as vines may be used for camouflage, they can also be trained to highlight an architectural feature, like a pointing finger. Use vines to accentuate the edge of a deck or steps, or wrap one around the pedestal of a garden statue or birdbath.

Straight branches an inch or so in diameter, or bamboo, which our area has in unfortunate abundance, provide free material for building rustic teepees where vines can clamber in the midst of a vegetable plot or cottage garden. Children love hideaways and won't be able to resist a teepee smothered in scarlet runner beans, hyacinth beans, morning glories, or all three.

Vine Versatility

Vines are justifiably honored for the wonderful way they mingle with other plants, climbing either on them or with them. You can send climbing hydrangeas or roses shooting up a tree, or weave them through each other. Roses and clematis are a classic combination. You can use a bright-flowering vine like climbing nasturtium to light up an evergreen or give a spring-blooming shrub a summer color boost. Alternatively, choose a vine and supporting shrub or tree that bloom at the same time.

If you garden to attract wildlife, some vines are a must because of their nectar or berries. For example, passion flowers are a larval food for various butterfly species. Or define the edge of your "bird garden" with a trellis of trumpet vine or native honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens); both are magnets for hummingbirds, and the latter can eventually create a tangle of woody stems where birds can hide from predators or build a nest.

Fragrant Climbers

  • Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens)
  • Chilean jasmine (Mandevilla laxa)
  • Clematis (Clematis armandii, C. montana, C. recta)
  • Climbing roses (Rosa species and cultivars)
  • Confederate jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides)
  • Cup and saucer vine (Cobaea scandens)
  • Dutchman's pipe (Aristolochia macrophylla)
  • Five-leaf akebia (Akebia quinata)
  • Frost grape (Vitis riparia)
  • Honeysuckles (Lonicera species)
  • Jasmines (Jasminum species)
  • Madagascar jasmine (Stephanotis floribunda)
  • Moonflower (Ipomoea alba)
  • Silver vines (Actinidia species)
  • Sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus)
  • Wisterias (Wisteria species)

When fragrance is the goal, consider your daily routine. If you don't have time to stop and smell the roses, it may be enough to plant them around your front door, where you can catch a whiff as you dash to work. But what about stationing them off the back patio instead, where you occasionally unwind with a novel or cold beverage? When planting for fragrance, keep in mind prevailing breezes and situate your aromatic vines upwind.

You also can discover entire new worlds of scent with tender vines that are often cultivated indoors, such as hoyas and jasmines, trained up posts or mini-trellises, or around windows. Indoors or out, don't be afraid to try a vine in a container—within reason. Not surprisingly, container-growing works better with species that grow to 8' than with those that grow to 30'. Still, moderately vigorous vines that are on the class="border"rline for pot living can be kept happy with regular and severe pruning. Horticultural tough love.

A vine that is allowed to grow downward can look like a floral waterfall. Elevate it in a container high overhead.

A number of vines and viny creepers, such as periwinkle (Vinca major), are often recommended as groundcovers. Remember that the term groundcover is used loosely. If you've planted a vine as a groundcover, the term means, "if you plant it, you won't be able to see the ground" rather than, "you can walk on it like turf." The Ipswich, Massachusetts, specialty nursery Completely Clematis recommends Clematis viticella 'Madame Julia Correvon' as a groundcover, and no doubt other clematis could also be woven between plants in a perennial class="border"r. Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) is a North American native vine sometimes used as a groundcover that also provides fall color before defoliating. A few of the traditional groundcover vines, like English ivy (Hedera helix), can easily become bullies. Talk to neighbors before you plant if you're unsure about which vines are invasive in your area. (See "Vine Villains").

A Word or Two of Caution

Edible Climbers & Ramblers

  • Bottle gourd (Lagenaria siceraria)
  • Cucumber (Cucumis sativus)
  • Grapes (Vitis species)
  • Hop (Humulus lupulus)
  • Hyacinth bean (Lablab purpureus)
  • Kiwi (Actinidia deliciosa)
  • Melon (Cucumis melo)
  • Passion flowers (Passiflora species)
  • Pea (Pisum sativum)
  • Pole bean (Phaseolus vulgaris)
  • Pumpkins (Cucurbita species)
  • Scarlet runner bean (Phaseolus coccineus)

When I asked a somewhat cynical friend for the first thing that popped into his head on hearing the word vine, his response was true to form: "Overgrown." The fact is that the amenable, quick-growing nature of vines can sometimes spell trouble, from requiring a bit more maintenance than you might like, to ruining your relationship with the neighbors, to gobbling up acres of countryside and causing serious ecological damage.

Think about the eventual height and spread of your vine before you plant. How much time do you want to spend on a ladder to keep your vine from blocking a window? If you have a two-story house, high-flying vines such as Dutchman's pipe will rightly tempt you. But if you have a ranch-style house, choose species that stay under 10', or plan to spend time training your vines toward the horizontal.

The old warnings about ivy destroying brickwork are unfounded if your mortar is in good shape. But a frisky young wisteria can wreak havoc with drainpipes and gutters, and any vigorous vine is an ill-chosen companion for wooden shingles. An enthusiastic climbing rose like 'New Dawn' will put a flimsy trellis to an acid test if you miss a season of pruning.

These are relatively minor annoyances. Some vines, in the wrong home, are environmental nightmares. Japanese honeysuckle can pull good-sized saplings to the ground; English ivy can weigh down branches of mature trees. Either plant will solidly blanket a forest floor, wiping out native wildflowers.

In short, as in any gardening, do your homework and choose a vine that's not only appropriate for your growing conditions and your garden but also for your energy level. After all, the goal is to create an inviting and relaxing retreat, not to spend your weekends patrolling your eaves with loppers, or your perimeter with a blow torch and a vat of herbicide.

Karen Davis Cutler, who has edited five previous BBG handbooks—Essential Tools, Salad Gardens, Tantalizing Tomatoes, Flowering Vines, and Starting from Seed—gardens on 15 acres in northern Vermont. A frequent contributor to national garden magazines, her latest book is The New England Gardener's Book of Lists (2000).

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Image, top of page: Antonio M. Rosario