Positioning Climbing Plants


Site and Aspect

Although many climbers prefer a sunny position with their roots in shade, others may require a cooler spot, whilst others still are more tolerant, and may be grown in sun or shade. There are a wide range of hardy climbers that will grow well without any protection at all, although some tender climbers may require the protection of a south-facing wall in cool climates.

Shady, north-facing walls and those exposed to cold winds will need hardy, vigorous climbers, such as honeysuckles and ivies. If you are planting in a heavily shaded site, you should use green-leaved ivies, as those with yellow or variegated leaves are prone to frost damage and require more light.

A sheltered wall can provide a good microclimate for growing tender or exotic-flowering climbers. The common passion flower (Passiflora caerulea) and the Chilean Bell Flower Vine (Lapageria rosea) can both thrive in such a position; the heat reflected by the wall helps to ripen the wood so that the climbers are better able to withstand cold winter temperatures. The wall itself also provides protection against several degrees of frost.

Using as Ground Cover

Some climbers, especially those with a trailing, scandent (loosely climbing), or scrambling habit or those with aerial roots, may be grown without support to produce blankets of ground cover. They are particularly effective when allowed to trail over a wall or spread out over a sloping bank.

Climbers that attach themselves by means of adhesive tendrils and root climbers are extremely efficient at suppressing weeds when grown as ground cover. For this reason, you should relocate other plants so that the climber does not swamp them.

Twining climbers may also be used as ground cover, as long as the shoots are spread evenly across the ground - wire hooks may be used to keep the shoots in place if necessary.

Growing Through Other Plants

Many climbers grow naturally through other plants in the wild, which can be copied to great effect in the garden. However, you should always make sure that the climbers are not too vigorous for the hosts, and that flower, foliage and fruit colour combinations are considered carefully. If planned well, the climber may either complement or contrast with its host when the latter is putting on its best display, or may be used to extend the season of interest. It can also be a useful method of growing climbing plants such as Flame Flower (Tropaeolum speciosum), whose stems and fiery red flowers are best supported by another plant.

Clematis viticella hybrids and any large-flowered clematis that are cut back each year are particularly suited to growing through shrubs, whilst vigorous species such as Ampelopsis brevipedunculata var. maximowiczii or Japanese hydrangea vine (Schizophragma hydrangeoides) are excellent for growing through trees.

Using Walls, Fences and Buildings

Climbers can be used to make an immediate visual impact when trained against boundaries and buildings, complementing or camouflaging their support. Buildings can be enhanced by the softening effect of a climber, whilst garden walls and fences become decorative features when covered with plants bearing flowers and foliage.

The more vigorous climbing plants may be used to camouflage an unattractive building, wall, or fence surprisingly quickly. Use plants such as Russian vine (Fallopia aubertii syn. Polygonum aubertii), which produces dense cover combined with panicles of tiny flowers in late summer, or Clematis montana, which has a mass of creamy-white flowers in late spring. Fallopia aubertii and F. baldschuanica are known as mile-a-minute vine; they are extremely rampant and must therefore be positioned with great care, as they will soon overwhelm their neighbours. They will need regular and severe pruning to keep them under control.

Climbers can also be used to accentuate or minimise architectural details; narrow panels of foliage that extend upwards can make a building seem taller than it is, whilst wider panels of plants allowed to grow as high as the first floor will make a tall, narrow building appear broader. Windows and doorways may be enhanced with vigorous climbing plants with a profusion of flowers and fragrance, such as the strongly fragrant deep pink and yellow flowers of American Woodbine (Lonicera x americana).

Using Pergolas and Pillars

Pergolas and pillars allow climbers to be seen from all sides and add a strong stylistic element to the garden design. Depending on the materials used, they can be informal and rustic or formal and elegant. Whatever their design, they must be strong enough to carry the substantial weight of foliage and stems and should also be hard-wearing as the plants will need their support for many years.

Pergolas and Arbours

Pergolas or arbours decked with climbers provide a cool, shady sitting area and bring a sense of privacy and seclusion to the garden. The best plants to choose are those that have their finest display at the time of day or during the particular season when the structure is most often used.

For example, if the area is to be used on summer evenings, you might like to include common jasmine (Jasminum officinale), Honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum 'Graham Thomas') or the climbing rose 'Mme Alfred Carriere', as they all have wonderfully fragrant flowers in pale colours that show up well in the fading light. Use large-leaved climbers to provide summer shade, such as the ornamental vines Crimson Glory Vine (Vitis coignetiae) - which also gives spectacular autumn colour or Tenturier Grape (V. vinifera 'Purpurea'), whose claret-coloured young leaves turn dusky purple as they mature. Pergolas that flank walkways can look very effective with Chinese Wisteria (Wisteria sinensis), which provides a beautiful summer canopy and takes on beautiful sculptural qualities in winter.

Pillars and Obelisks

Pillars and obelisks are often used to add a strong vertical element to a border, or to mark an focal point or axis, perhaps at the corner of a border or at a point where the garden level changes. A series of pillars along a path or at the back of a border may also be linked by chain or rope swags, with climbers trained along them. An evergreen climber may be grown up a stout post with mesh panels wrapped around it; however, a deciduous climber will need a purpose built obelisk or column which will be attractive when it is visible in winter.