Vines do some jobs that no other plants can. They climb trees, walls or fences, and clamber over banks and berms. They soften edges and connect houses to surrounding grounds. They block the neighbors or their garage, swimming pool or garbage cans. In small yards they add vertical interest and define spaces. And, in the wrong place they can be aggressive, troublesome invaders.
Vines are any plants that can climb as they spread, but they need an arbor, ladder, obelisk, pergola, trellis, wall or fence.
When you plant a vine, start with the kind of structure the species requires.
Right vine, right support
Size and strength are the first considerations. Many a tree has been smothered by, and many a trellis has collapsed under, Virginia creeper, wild grape, trumpet vine or wisteria.
For large vines, build a pergola or another strong structure using 2-by-4s. The beautiful, fragrant Sweet Autumn Clematis (Clematis paniculata) is vigorous; give it a whole fence or arbor. Hydrangea vine and its copy-cat Schizophragma hydrangeoides appear mild-mannered in early years, but develop sturdy, heavy stems and will need a solid fence or wall. Read between the lines on plant tags, and get advice. If the tag says “Height: to 30 feet,” believe it.
Next, find out how the vine climbs: does it cling or attach?
Thignotropic vines can grasp and climb on their own. The ones with grasping tendrils are Boston ivy, Virginia creeper, porcelain vine, clematis, ornamental grape and the annuals sweet pea, morning glory and passionflower vine. They can grasp other plants, chain link fence, string, nets or lattice.
Other vines have rootlets or parts called “holdfasts” that emerge from the stem and attach to rough surfaces – picture climbing hydrangeas, English ivy, wintercreeper and trumpet vines. They can attach to brick, bark, stone, and most kinds of fencing.
Other vines don’t have built-in grasping ability, but instead wind themselves around a support – for example Akebia, Ampelopsis, Dutchman’s pipe, Chinese and Japanese wisteria, clematis, trumpet honeysuckle, silver lace and trumpet vines.
Many annual vines also do this: Black-eyed Susan vine, moonflower, Spanish flag and scarlet runner bean. These vines only grow in one direction – either clockwise or counterclockwise. Just try to wind a morning glory around a string the wrong way; you’ll see it unwound on the ground in the morning.
A few vines don’t attach themselves to anything, unless you tie them. These will just clamber along, upward or outward, wherever you put them: climbing roses, and the annuals bougainvillea, nasturtium and sweet potato vine. Fortunately, when it’s time to tie up the New Dawn rose, today you’ll find convenient Velcro-type ties that are much easier than the twine, rags and panty hose we used to use.
What a vine needs
Perennial vines, like every plant, need the soil and site conditions that suit their species. Plant them in compost-amended soil any time, although with vines do it sooner rather than later; some vines (wisteria, trumpet vines) can take years to flower. Recently planted vines need care, especially deep watering, during the first years in the ground.
For optimum performance, the primary site consideration is light – and this is the problem for lots of vine shoppers: You want a plant that climbs a fence or tree that typically is shading the plant, but the plant requires “full to part sun.” What’s with that?
Only a few vines really grow well in shady locations. All vines are “phototropic” (growing toward light), so if they can reach the sunlight before rotting or getting discouraged, some will thrive in less than ideal sites. Clematis are known for needing shaded roots and sunlight on top growth. But if the plant’s entire life will be lived in shade, only climbing hydrangea and Virginia Creeper are likely to please. For partial shade – at least some sunlight or dappled sun every day – Schizophragma, Dutchman’s pipe, Akebia and some ivies will do.
Pruning vines is a topic worth its own book, and your pruning choices will greatly affect how some plants perform – whether or when they bloom or fruit, the shape and size they attain, and how much you’ll enjoy them. No need to learn pruning when you plant your vine, but plan to learn within the year. It’s something ever owner can manage.
Vines to avoid: Two vines are considered seriously invasive plants of New York State: Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) and Porcelain berry (Ampelosis brevipedunculata). They displace desirable native plants and run rampantly where they are introduced into the natural landscape. Avoid choosing them and opt instead for American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens). While not an officially named invasive plant, Silver Lace Vine (Polygonum aubertii) is aggressive, weedy and rarely the best choice.
Another invasive thug is Persicaria perfoliata, previously called Polygonum perfoliatum with the indicative common name mile-a-minute vine.
So far it has been found mostly on Long Island and in the lower Hudson Valley in New York State, but it is common in many parts of Pennsylvania. If you spot an aggressive vine with thorny stems and triangular, alternate leaves, contact the DEC or Cornell Cooperative Extension. For more information on non-native invasive plants, see www.cce.cornell.edu.
The final warning concerns the choice of vines in general. The wrong choice or the wrong placement of a vine carries more weight than an error with a perennial or even a small shrub. Some vines, once they get going, are very hard to remove – silver lace vine, trumpet vine or hops, for instance. Other vines take so long to show you their best (wisteria, climbing hydrangea) that it’s a shame to find out only then that they don’t suit the situation.
A vine in the right place is a powerful asset. On any garden walk or garden tour, some of the most striking plants you see are vines – climbing, blocking the uglies, flowering, dividing areas and leading the eye upward. Choose well and enjoy them.
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.