The Stopwatch Gardener

A gardening blog from Sheila M. Averbuch

Climb every surface: gardening is on the up


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First, thanks to everybody who helped with donations for Rare Plants for Rare Disease Research in May; we raised almost STG1000 for research into neuroacanthocytosis, one of Britain’s rarest rare diseases, whose sufferers include the daughter of my friends Glenn and Ginger.

The fundraiser gave me a taste of opening my garden to the public for charity, and I’d like to do it again. I’ve realized that a climbing-plants showcase is the most useful attraction this garden could offer. Our old cottage was extended before we bought it, with much of the old lawn carved out to make space for the house. This means the garden wraps around the house in a U-shape: I’m surrounded by a 4 foot high retaining wall that holds back the upper lawn, as well as the usual fences and walls along our boundaries with the neighbors. In 2003 I had what felt like acres of bare vertical space; now most of these are lush and green, and I’m venturing into the tricky business of growing fruit trees flat against walls — trained as fans, espalliers and diamond-pattered Belgian fences.

Here’s what climbs in our garden (this list is what I’m growing, not exhaustive), plus a note on the three big mistakes you should try to avoid when covering bare walls and fences.

What roses climb? What other climbing plants are worth growing?

Climbing roses: Rosa Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Rosa Falstaff, Rosa Gloire de Dijon, Rosa Zephyrine Drouhin, Rosa James Galway, Rosa Margaret Merrill, Rosa Jude the Obscure, Rosa Lykkefund, Rosa Etoile de Holland. Margaret and Jude, by the way, don’t really climb, but they’re against a short three-foot fence and I’m cutting away growth that points out toward me from the fence while spreading the growth I want left and right along the fence. Zephyrine Drouhin is brilliant because it’s 100% thornless: ideal for an arch people need to walk through.

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Winter climbers: jasminum nudiflorum, hydrangea petiolaris (pictured), various kinds of ivy (aka hedera), winter flowering clematis cirrhosa Jingle Bells, lonicera japonica Halliana (an evergreen honeysuckle whose summer flowers have a powerful, glorious scent). The hydrangea is the best plant in my garden but can take 6 years to grow 5 feet. Its leaves drop to show red peeling bark in winter; most of the others keep their leaves. The jasmine is unscented and urgently needs support on taut wires strung through metal vine eyes, as the RHS mentions here.

Climbers that stick to walls: hydrangea petiolaris, parthenocissus quinquefolia (aka Virginia creeper), hedera.

Evergreen climbers: hedera, winter flowering clematis cirrhosa Jingle Bells, lonicera japonica Halliana.

Scented climbers: Wisteria floribunda, Lonicera periclymenum, Lonicera japonica Halliana, philadelphus (mock orange), lathyrus odoratus (sweet pea), summer jasmine, climbing roses. Only the sweet pea has to be grown from seed each year.

Climbers for shady walls: Jasminum nudiflorum, hydrangea petiolaris, Parthenocissus quinquefolia, Clematis Polish Spirit, Clematis Rouge Cardinal, hedera. I also grow Rosa Gloire de Dijon against the shady wall but I think it’s struggling and would prefer more light. Both the Clematis grow slowly but are are happy as long as the soil at their feet is rich and very deep – don’t skimp on that – and they can climb towards the light.

Riotously colorful climbers: ipomoea purpurea (morning glory) and lathyrus odoratus (grow both from seed yearly), Clematis rouge Cardinal, Rosa Zephyrine Drouhin, Clematis Mme. Julia Correvon, Clematis Polish spirit, Clematis Mrs. Chomondeley.

Easy to grow climbers: hedera, hydrangea petiolaris, lathyrus latifolius (perennial pea, unscented), Clematis Montana.

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Edible climbers: plum Marjorie’s Seedling, pear Williams bon Chretien, pear Concorde, apple Greensleeves, peach Avalon Pride, sugar snap peas. given that some climbers can take 5 to 7 years to look their best, I’m surprised at how quickly (3 years – pictured) I can begin to cover a vertical surface with a fruit tree. They have strong roots which throw up lovely long branches quickly to “green up” a vertical surface. I grow my peach outside in Scotland against our warm living room window and it bears fruit. The diamond-trained pears next to it look lovely with their bare stems in winter, and two trees take up ground space measuring just 5 feet wide by 18 inches deep. The RHS explains how to train fruit trees here.

Slow growing climbers: I wouldn’t grow these if they weren’t worth the wait. Hydrangea petiolaris (6 feet in 5 years), summer flowering jasmine (4 feet in three years), Clematis Polish spirit (12 feet in 7 years), wall-trained fruit trees (6 feet in 3 years).

Fast-growing climbers: Lathyrus odoratus (sweet pea) and morning glory (an annual), Lathyrus latifolius (perennial pea), clematis montana (pictured top). The hard truth is that great climbers take time. Try decorating the surface in the meantime with ornaments like a mirror that looks like a window, or a buddleia (not a climber but a shrub that will grow fast as a focal point). All you need is something for the eye to the rest on, you don’t need complete coverage in 12 months.

Don’t make these climbing plant mistakes:

Poor support. If branches are pulling on weak string that’s been tied to badly-erected nails or screws, hard up against the wall, it’s sad to see and bad for the plant! Use vine eyes and wire and follow the RHS instructions for putting them up. They hold the plant away from the wall to allow air circulation (and a cozy home for snails, which are easily harvested).

Haste and desperation. You don’t need mile-a-minute Russian vine or leylandii in your garden; you just don’t. See fast-growing climbers, above. Poorly prepared soil around the roots is another cardinal sin: give your climbers deep, rich, wide wonderful soil to put their roots into, because the roots below drive the greenery above that you’re waiting for. Do wait – it is always worth it.

Vertical roses. If you let roses grow straight up, you’ll get one or two straggly roses at the top, and who wants that? Bend their long branches to a 45° angle and tie them to horizontal support wires. All the dormant buds along those long canes, with a bit of luck, will turn into flowers.

What climbs in your garden? What’s been worth the wait, and what’s been a mistake?


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