Using Vines in the Garden

In the interest of full disclosure, before I go on to extol the virtues of vines, I’ll admit right now that I’ve had some trouble growing them in my own garden. At our last house, I tried growing a trumpet vine (Campsis radicans) on an arbor in my front yard. Our neighbor had a beautiful one with bright orange flowers entwined around the fence in her backyard. It bloomed all season and had a thick, gnarled stem that anchored it securely to the ground by her garage.

My trumpet vine, however, was puny and didn’t grow much at all over the four years I carefully wound it around my arbor as it grew. I fertilized it. I talked to it. I pruned out the dead stuff after each winter. And, still, it never took off and, one spring, it just didn’t come back at all.

I have no idea what I did wrong. Everything you read says trumpet vines are easy to grow and, honestly, if I had much sun at my current house I’d try one again. But with all the mature oaks in my yard, I’m a shade girl now.

My mishaps aside, vines are usually a great choice if you’re looking for something that will be easy to care for while adding lasting color to your garden. There are just a few things to keep in mind when choosing vines. Of course, you’ll need to think about the usual stuff like how much sun and water each type of vine needs.

But then you also have to consider how the vine climbs. That way you’ll know whether the spot you’re considering will work for the type of vine you like. Wisteria, clematis and honeysuckle, for example, climb by twining themselves around their supports, making them easy to grow on fences, arbors, trellises and wire fences. If you’ve got yourself a fragile twiner, like the pretty cup-and-saucer vine (Cobaea scandens), you may have to help it along a bit by tying up some parts with string.

Non-twining vines climb using either tendrils (similar to the ones you see on cucumbers) that wrap around supports or sticky aerial roots or suckers that help the vines cling to surfaces as they move upward. Grapes and bittersweet, for instance, have tendrils, whereas Boston ivy uses its adhesive pads to grip brick or stucco walls.

If you want color and fast growth, try planting annual vines since perennials will take awhile to get settled in and start producing flowers. It’s too late this year, but annual vines do really well when you sow the seeds directly into the garden a week or so past our frost-free date. Of course, you can also buy seedlings or larger established vines, too. Be sure to have supports in place from the start or your vines may end up twining back on themselves and getting tangled. Most annual vines prefer full sun and regular watering. Use a balanced fertilizer (5-10-5) regularly, beginning at bloom time.

Some of my favorite fast-growing annual vines are: moonflower (Ipomea alba), which has fragrant white flowers that open in the evening; cardinal vine (Ipomoea x multifida) has small red flowers that last and last; black-eyed Susan vine (Thunbergia alata) flowers have a dark center and can be white, orange, cream or yellow; and hyacinth bean (Lablab purpureus), which has fragrant purple flowers followed by beanlike seed pods.

As I said earlier, perennial vines offer less instant gratification than annuals. But it really is something to see a vine come back year after year growing stronger, thicker and more spectacular as time passes. The biggest thing you have to do to tend perennial vines is prune them since most experience at least some dieback in the winter.

Most vines don’t like shade. But there are two really nice flowering perennial vines that can tolerate partial shade. Dutchman’s pipe produces elegant pipe-shaped flowers. And climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea petiolaris) is another beauty. Just be aware that climbing hydrangea takes several years to get established and start to bloom. I planted one at my old house, and when we moved four years later I’d yet to see a flower.

If you’re fortunate enough to have lots of sun, there are several reliable perennial vines to choose from. Clematis is always amazing. I particular like ‘Sweet Autumn’ clematis, which has white flowers and blooms in the fall. Dropmore honeysuckle is a vigorous vine that needs little care. Fragrant orange-red flowers appear in June and last until frost. Englemann ivy grows quickly and turns a beautiful deep red in the fall.

And even though wisteria can get a bad rap because it is a zone 5 plant and we are in zone 4, my experience (so far) has been that it can survive our harsh winters. Choose from either Chinese or Japanese wisteria. Both produce draping pink, lavender or white flowers, depending on the type you choose. One last thing, if you plant wisteria in an exposed area, you might want to protect the vine by encircling it with a bit of wire in the fall and filling the cage with leaves.


Meleah Maynard is a Master Gardener and writer in Linden Hills. Contact her at [email protected]