Choosing the Right Vines for Your Garden

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Ask yourself what you want from a vine. Do you have a good spot, or can you create one? Some vines are big, rambling plants; others can fill and remain in their allotted spaces. Some vines offer temporary coverage, and others are long-lasting. Figure out whether you want flowers or fruit and whether you want the vine for part of the growing season or all.

The following sections cover the kinds of vines available and how you can match a vine to your wants and needs and the environment you can offer. (Note: You may want to choose the support before choosing the vine. If so, see the later section called "Planting and Supporting Vines.")

Considering your basic options

Like other plants, vines fall into annual and perennial categories. Read on for info on which kind of vine may be a good fit.

Annuals and tender perennials

If you want quick gratification, annuals and tender perennials are for you. The vines grow quickly. If they're genuine annuals, they're capable of growing from seed to plant to flowering-and-fruiting plant over the course of one growing season. If they're tender perennials, they can accomplish much the same thing but benefit from a head start indoors (because they can't go outside until all danger of frost is past).

Neither annuals nor tender perennials tend to survive a typical, cold North American winter with temperatures that go down to freezing or below; thus, gardeners have to replace these vines each year. The tender perennials survive in Zones 9 through 11. Favorite tender perennials include black-eyed Susan vine, cup-and-saucer vine, bougainvillea, jasmine, and passionflower; favorite annual vines include moonflower, morning glory, climbing nasturtium, and annual sweet pea.

Hardy perennials

For a longer-term, dependable investment in your garden, perennial vines are a practical choice. Much like the perennials in your flowerbeds, perennial vines typically spend their first season getting established. An old gardener's saying describes the growth pattern of most perennial vines well: "The first year they sleep, the second year they creep, and the third year they leap!"

In ensuing seasons, these vines return reliably and put on a good show year after glorious year. Please note that over time, their growth may get woody and some pruning may be necessary. Some favorite perennial vines include Boston ivy, English ivy, clematis, climbing hydrangea, mandevilla, creeping fig, crossvine, akebia, honeysuckle, hardy kiwi, silver lace vine, trumpet creeper, and wintercreeper.

Perennial vines can differ in their foliage:

1 Deciduous: The definition of a deciduous vine is one that sheds its foliage at the end of the growing season (just like a deciduous tree). And just like a deciduous tree, the vine may treat you to a colorful fall foliage display first. Winter is a dormant period, and then the vine revives the following spring. Favorites include clematis (the fluffy fall seed heads are an attraction), silver fleece vine, trumpet vine, hardy kiwi, and climbing hydrangea (when the leaves fall off, you can admire the handsome shedding red bark).

1 Evergreen: Evergreen vines keep their foliage over the winter months (individual leaves do get replaced over time, but you don't run into wholesale or dramatic shedding time). In colder areas, the leaves may look rather freeze-dried, but they hang on. In milder climates, winter's show is mainly foliage, not flowers or fruit. No matter where you live, if you don't want a barren-looking winter in your yard, evergreen vines are worthwhile. Favorites include various kinds of ivy, creeping fig (tender perennial), crossvine, and some honeysuckles.

Beyond these vine basics are still other details to consider before picking out the vines for your garden. I cover those next.

Love me tender? Deciding whether you need cold-hardy vines

Before choosing your vines, consider whether your yard and climate can support hardy or tender vines. You can avoid disappointment by picking out a perennial vine that can survive winter in your climate (see Chapter 3 for hardiness zone info). You can certainly grow a vine that's even tougher (if you live in USDA Zone 6, for instance, you can have a vine rated to Zone 4) for extra insurance. But if you live in Zone 6 and choose a vine that's rated hardy only to Zone 8, it probably won't survive.

Hardy really means cold-hardy, and it indicates a plant that can survive weather that goes down to freezing — 32°F or below. Its foliage may fall off, but its roots remain safely viable under the cold soil and snow and ice. Just as with other perennial plants, hardy vines benefit from a little extra protection over the winter months, namely several inches of mulch over the root area.

As for tender vines, unless your climate is quite mild (USDA Zone 9 or 10 or even 11 — I'm talking parts of the deep South, the Gulf Coast, the dry West, and Florida), the vines are unlikely to pull through. Your best bet is to consider a tender vine an annual. Yank it out in the fall, after cold weather withers its growth (or let winter kill it if you're feeling lazy), and buy a new one or try something else next year.

Can you cheat? Of course! Accomplished gardeners consider it a badge of honor to succeed in growing something that's considered not-hardy for their area. If you're really fond of a tender vine, you can cut it back, dig up as much of the root ball as possible, pot it, and keep it inside during the cold months. Put it in a nonfreezing place and water sparingly so its growth slows down, yet not so little that the plant dries out and perishes.

^iARGrt. If a vine is marginally hardy, meaning only a zone away from yours, it may survive a mild winter in your garden. Or you can increase its odds of survival by growing it in your warmest garden spot (or microclimate — for more info on this concept and how to exploit it, see Chapter 3) and mulching it well when winter approaches. Be prepared to lose the top growth (everything above ground); the aim is to keep the roots alive so they can regenerate next spring.

Sizing up your vines

Keep your head when vine-shopping. Although the flowers or foliage of a certain vine may win your heart, you need to find out about its growth habit and pace before you commit yourself. Some very pretty vines are — to use the wry term of an experienced landscaper — house-eaters. Wisteria branches can separate gutters and support beams from a house. Hops grows very fast, and if it runs out of space, it may send tendrils out to grasp at passersby.

To avoid scenarios of an out-of-control vine, spend a few minutes assessing the spot you want to place a vine. How high is it? For upward growth, you can be fairly indulgent, though you probably don't want something that'll overgrow the house. How broad is it? is the more pressing question. Keep these general dimensions in mind when you go vine-shopping.

So how do you find out whether your vine will politely stay by your arbor or attempt a hostile takeover of the Southeastern U.S.? Mature vine size is usually expressed as a range — for instance, "8 to 10 feet tall and up to 4 feet wide" — because, of course, dimensions vary according to the plant's health and the growing conditions and care you provide. Check the nursery label, catalog description, or a reference book, but consider this estimate conservative.

Make sure you allow elbow room. If a vine's appointed spot is too narrow, you'll be trimming and shaping constantly, plus poor air circulation can lead to fungal diseases that mar the appearance. Count on planting most vines at least a foot away from their supports, for starters. A spot that's too confining is, frankly, a darn shame; vines are at their best when allowed to be their exuberant selves.

Examining site considerations for vines

You can find a vine for almost every part of the garden. The idea is to make a match so the plant thrives. Examine your gardening site carefully and watch out for the following when deciding on the vines you want.

Amount of sunlight

How much sun reaches a vine can have a big effect on the plant's quality of life. Check out the following sun conditions:

  • Sun: Lots of vines like full sun, growing lustily and producing plenty of foliage, flowers, and fruit or seed heads. But the vigorous growth requires energy to fuel it, and plentiful sun alone is not enough. Make sure your sun-loving vine has good, fertile soil and ample water. Favorite sun-loving vines include ornamental grape, hops, passionflower, black-eyed Susan vine, climbing nasturtium, bougainvillea, morning glory, and trumpet vine.
  • Partial shade: Plenty of vines prosper in part-day sun, filtered sun, and eastern- or western-facing exposures. Indeed, some cooling shade keeps the plant looking lush, and its flowers and fruit are less prone to fading or falling off prematurely. Favorite partial-shade vines include jasmine, ivy, and climbing hydrangea.
  • Shade: Yes, some vines do just fine in shady spots, some even tolerating life on the north side of your house or under the shelter of tall trees. Not surprisingly, their main attraction tends to be their leaves. Use these plants to create a cool, soothing oasis from the blazing heat of summer. Favorite shade vines include ivy, akebia, and wintercreeper.

The choosy clematis: Requesting sun and shade

The clematis vine is a special case. This popular flowering vine has unique growing requirements that, if you ignore them, deliver disappointing results. Here's what the plants want, believe it or not: full sun on top and cool, shaded roots. How can you supply this? Situate the plant beside your porch or deck, where the stems can be out in the open but the roots are afforded some protection. Or at least mulch the root area well after planting, and position a few shade-casting shrubs or perennials in the vicinity. If you make your clematis vine happy, it'll do you proud.

Soil quality

The majority of vines prefer fertile soil that's neither too soggy nor too dry. Obviously, prepared ground is important so that the roots can establish themselves and expand without running into obstructions, so it's always wise to prepare the spot ahead of time: Dig down about a foot and mix in some compost, humus, or rotted manure.

Some vines, such as hardy kiwi, do better when the soil is slightly acidic; others, such as the clematis, like it sweeter (more alkaline), so add some lime to the planting area if necessary. (Test your soil first; flip to Chapter 4 for info on soil tests.) But most vines are happy with average soil — which is what most people have, anyway.

Weather exposure

The majority of vines appreciate a little shelter, which can come from their support, a wall or fence, or even just the nearby plants of your garden. If you grow a vine out in the open, winds can dry it out and may tear it off its support. (In other words, vines are team players, not solo performers. But isn't that why you want to invite some in your garden?)

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  • Beniamino
    How large is the root ball of akebia?
    8 years ago
  • iida
    What type of vines for shade?
    8 years ago

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