Climbing plants are an excellent way to increase the planting in a small garden, as they take up so little ground-space. They are also great for softening the look of a house or shed, for covering unattractive walls and buildings, or for covering a pergola, arch or arbour. Climbers can seem a bit daunting to newer gardeners, but if you make the right choice for you and your garden, they are pure joy.
There are several types of climber – self-clinging climbers like ivy, climbing hydrangea or Virginia creeper; climbers with tendrils or twining leaves or stems, like sweet pea, clematis or honeysuckle; and scramblers like climbing or rambling roses. The first group climb without any assistance from you, but some sort of support is needed for the others. This could be strong trellis, horizontal wires firmly attached to a wall, or a tree or shrub; you then tie in your climber to this support.
The first thing to consider is the size of the area you want to cover. Some climbers are quite small, like many climbing roses or smaller clematis, and are perfect for covering a pergola or arch; these would also be suitable, on a support, for a small wall, or twined round an obelisk in a border. Others, like wisteria, Virginia creeper, a big Clematis montana, Russian vine (the ‘mile-a-minute’ vine) and most rambler roses are enormous, and will rapidly engulf a small space, but would be great for covering a large structure – wisteria trained up a tall house, a wall or a strong, brick-built pergola; a rambler rose through a large, sturdy tree; or a big Clematis montana, Virginia creeper or Boston ivy over an ugly structure (these three are all deciduous, however, and the clematis in particular, though lovely when in leaf and glorious in May, can look very messy in winter). Remember that some climbers can get into your gutters and under your slates – jasmine, ivy and Virginia creeper, notoriously – and so think about whether you’re prepared to climb tall ladders every year to keep them cut back when they’ve reached the roof.
Next, consider the aspect of the wall or structure you want to cover. Some climbers, such as climbing roses and jasmine, need full sun; others, such as ivy or climbing hydrangea, will grow happily on a north wall; honeysuckle prefers partial shade; clematis like their feet in the shade and their heads in the sun, so plant them behind a shrub to keep their roots cool.
Next think about your soil. Although very small climbers can be grown in a big pot, top-dressed annually, and kept fed and watered, most will be happier with their roots in good, fertile, moist but well-drained soil. The soil is often very dry near walls, and you may need to add organic matter and water in very dry or windy weather. Most climbers are easy-going, but some need acid soil, like the perennial nasturtium, Tropolaeum speciosum, and clematis are happiest in moist, slightly alkaline soil. Consider how cold your winters are; even grown on a warm wall, some, like star jasmine, may not survive a very cold winter.
Finally, consider the amount of work you want to put in. The easiest, of course, are the self-clinging climbers, like Hydrangea petiolaris, the climbing hydrangea; often slow to get started, it will soon cover a big north wall with fresh green leaves which turn butter-yellow in autumn, after a lovely display of creamy-white lace-cap flowers, and it even has attractive peeling bark in winter – a really good-value plant for year-round interest. (For smaller, mild gardens, try the similar Hydrangea seemannii). Training and pruning a climbing rose on a wall is really not that difficult a job, if rather thorny, and ‘Group 3’ clematis are really easy – you encourage them along, through a shrub or another climber, or over an arch or pergola, and simply prune the whole thing back to two healthy buds 18”/45cm above the ground in late winter. Spring-flowering ‘Group 1’ clematis only need pruning every few years or so. Keeping a vigorous honeysuckle under manners is another matter – these are best grown through a hedge or large tree, or trained over a pergola or arbour, and they do need annual pruning; for smaller structures, try the trumpet honeysuckle, Lonicera sempervirens. Beautiful wisteria grow very large and need pruning twice a year.
Once all this house-keeping is out of the way, you can think about what you really want from your climber: evergreen, like jasmine or a beautiful variegated ivy, like cream, grey and green Gloire de Marengo, golden-hearted Paddy’s Pride or small, pretty Ivalace? Do you want flowers (climbing roses, clematis) or handsome foliage (grape ivy, variegated kiwi
vine)? Autumn colour (Virginia creeper, Boston ivy)? Scent (jasmine, star jasmine, roses, honeysuckles)? Year-long interest or one spectacular show at a time when your garden needs it? This is the moment to look at the Future Forests Climbers and Climbing Roses sections to narrow down your choice – there really is a climber for every gardener and every garden situation.
Think, too, about using climbers to maximise flower-power. Rambler roses, usually once-flowering, are lovely grown through sturdy fruit-trees; you get the fruit blossom, then the rose-flowers, and finally the fruit and hips. Not all ramblers are enormous; richly scented, copper-pink Albertine, crimson Excelsa and white Francis E Lester, at 15’/4.5m, would not be too heavy for a smaller tree.
Climbing roses are better grown fanned out or espaliered on a wall, and look absolutely stunning with a clematis of complementary or contrasting colour grown through them; a lot of clematis will perform when your climbing rose is taking a breather, too. To make pruning your climbing rose easier (and it really isn’t that difficult) choose a ‘Group 3’ clematis, which is cut right down (see above) before you start on the rose. Group 1 (early) clematis can also be grown through shrubs or trees, and only need pruning every few years, if at all.
Climbers with good autumn colour, like crimson glory vine (Vitis coignetiae) or Parthenocissus (Virginia creepers) can look stunning grown through evergreen trees, but these are big climbers, so the tree needs to be really strong and sturdy.
Think, too about scented clematis which perform in winter, and are lovely trained round a sunny door or window, like C. cirrhosa Jingle Bells, which flowers from mid-December, or evergreen C. armandii, which flowers from early spring.
There are also wall shrubs, which can be clipped or trained close to a wall. Prickly, burglar-repelling pyracanthas with their handsome evergreen foliage and brilliant, long-lasting berries give year-round interest, and Cotoneaster horizontalis, the herring-bone cotoneaster, with its tiny leaves, little bee-friendly flowers and profusion of red berries will grow up a wall almost unaided. Ceanothus (California lilac) is another good choice, and benefits from being trained against a warm wall. Winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum) carries its warm yellow flowers on the bare branches, and is best grown tied into a trellis or at the top of a bank or wall from which it can spill down.
When you’ve made your choice, look up how to care for, prune and train it. Online resources are very good; the RHS website is particularly helpful.
Even if you’re not great at DIY, any handyman can rig galvanised wires against a wall for you. Wires should be 18”/45cm apart, perhaps 12”/30cm for a very small climber. The wires should be fixed with vine-eyes driven into the wall, and should stand out at least 2”/5cm clear of the wall; this allows you to tie them in and protects the plant against mildew by allowing air-flow behind it. The wires can then be made taut by turning the vine-eyes in the wall with a pliers. A modern style is to rig wires diagonally across the wall. Alternatively, put up a trellis, but remember that wooden trellis will eventually rot (although your plant may well survive if cut right back).
Before planting your climber, add plenty of compost or manure to the soil, to hold water and provide nutrition – your climber will need it! – and dig a hole a little larger than the root-ball or bare roots, at least 18”/45cm from the wall. Soak the root-ball or roots in a bucket of water for an hour, then plant your climber at an angle of 45º, pointing towards the wall; you can encourage your climber along by tying the stem to a bamboo leading to the lowest wire. Back fill, then water in well, and continue to water until the plant is established, growing away well.