Annual vines can transform your garden in a single season. Here's how.

Annual vines can transform your garden in a single season.  Here's how.

In Matt Matos' garden and greenhouse, analysis and artistry are as closely intertwined as the annual vines that represent just one of his many botanical interests.

On the one hand, Mr. Matos has the mentality of an experimental gardener — or, at least, the mentality of a disciplined curator, always looking to weed out vines that are not up to par and display only the best. He's not just into sex; He dives in head first.

Not content to try a sweet pea or two, he once ordered dozens of Lathyrus species and cultivars from an English seed catalog so he could plant them side by side, forced to make his own assessment – ​​and perhaps discover an overlooked standout.

But Mr. Matos was also a graphic artist and toy designer at Hasbro for many years, so he brings an artist's sensibility to his gardening, constantly envisioning garden scenes.


He conducts his experiments in a two-acre garden surrounding the 1906 house in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he grew up, and where he and his partner, Joe Phillip, lived for about 25 years. It was once Mr. Matos's grandfather's house, and his father was born there; Both previous generations also farmed there.

These days, there is always something collected for study, including a variety of luxurious begonias (“Can anyone really have too many?”) and at least an equal number of lilies. (“How many are enough? I don’t really know yet,” Mr. Matos mused, admitting that the lilies would smell “almost too strong” indoors if he wasn’t wise about making his own bouquet).

In a recent growing season, he experimented with about a dozen flowering tobacco (Nicotiana) varieties. Yes, the catalog descriptions point out differences, he allowed, but “I'd love to see them all together.”

Seeing – and taking notes – is believing. This is how the garden and the gardener grow.

Every winter, Mr. Matos scans catalogs for the subject of his next exploration, searching for candidates to satisfy his long-standing passion for vines — most of them tender perennials from Central and South America, grown in temperate gardens as annuals. Along with colors, they add architecture, quickly popping up living walls or punctuating the space with floral exclamation marks.

One seems more curious and cheerful than the other. We may all recognize the classic sky-blue morning glory, but what about its distinctive cousins ​​in the genus Ipomoea, all of which are hummingbird favorites?

The showy Spanish flag (I. lobata), decorated with what looks like ombré strands of small bunting, ranks among his top five annual vines. The bright red cardinal climber (I. x multifida) and the almost identical cypress vine (I. quamoclit), which have finely textured foliage, are also charming. Then he found the pink- and white-flowered versions of the cypress vine, which he simply had to try.

Mr. Matos currently has his eye on his new selection of Ipomoea luteola, called Sunspots, in the chrome-rich Select Seeds catalogue, which has crimson trumpets with small yellow throats. How will it compare? Next summer will tell us.

While Malabar spinach (Basella rubra) may be listed among the vegetables, Mr. Matos's appetite for experimentation inspired him to grow it in a large container fitted with a vertical tomato tower. “That was one of my heroic moments this year,” he said. “I planted it just to see what it would do.”

The pediment was soon covered in hot pink vines bearing large, shiny green leaves and bead-like white-pink flowers.

Next year? “I want to do a row of them in the aisle,” he said.

Mr. Matos realized that vines are not so different from us: they do best when given the right support.

In a twist on “the right plant in the right place,” he said, they are most successful when their morphology is taken into account when determining the appropriate climbing structure. One style does not fit all.

The first consideration: Do the threads of a particular vine, like the morning glory, wrap around its base its stem, or do they attach to the tendrils, like the sweet pea? Most annual vines do one or the other.

“Think of beans versus peas,” he said, conjuring up a familiar image. Twiners are somewhat more adaptable.

More than one gardening friend has lamented to him that the sweet peas planted next to a wooden trellis board never rose. Vines with tendrils like these work best when there are soft-textured items to grip, such as netting or brush with twigs.

Even of all the sweet peas — the only vine that Mr. Matos, a self-described “sweet pea obsessed,” included in his 2020 book, “Mastering the Art of Floriculture: A Gardener’s Guide to Growing Flowers,” “from today’s favorites to off-the-beaten-path varieties.” Regular” — some are better for certain supports, he says. It depends on whether your goal is a garden display or cut flowers.

When incorporating sweet peas into a bed design, Mr. Matos prefers to use antique varieties such as Painted Lady, Flora Norton or America, which have slightly smaller, ruffled flowers.

He suggested letting them scramble over “a kind of geodesic dome,” made up of twiggy branches “bent into a half-bubble,” inspired by a jasmine plant he had seen growing that way in England.

Even simpler: fashion tripods out of brush, then give the young plants a little help with a piece or two of string in the first weeks, to enable them to ascend.

As for cut flowers, he prefers the large-flowered Spencer varieties, which are trained on bamboo to promote tall stems. To support them, he sticks parallel rows of sticks eight or ten feet long into the ground, about eight inches apart within each row, and then ties the rows together with a bamboo beam near the top.

Although any of these sweet peas can be planted directly as edible peas in early spring, Mr. Matos starts them in the greenhouse — you can also try a cool indoor room under lights — about six weeks before his target date for planting the peas outdoors. In late April. Sow seeds in small, very deep pots or plug tray cells to encourage large roots. Squeezing the second or third set of leaves that form prevents weak and weak growth.

With Spencer cut flowers, little strings are needed over and over again to secure their way to the top of the bamboo poles. It is also necessary to remove the tendrils frequently so as not to distort the flowers or stems.

Yield: Several weeks of fragrant bouquets, late June or July.

Another consideration when choosing an annual vine is its eventual height. Some grow quite rampant, a lesson Mr. Matos learned the year he planted Cobaea campanulata, a mysterious relative of the charming cup-and-saucer vine (Cobaea scandens), in window boxes on one side of the house.

“It covered the windows, as if we had shadows on them,” he said. “Even the balcony screen door was full.” Cross that off the list.

He grows the relatively more manageable C. scandens, but in the ground next to the porch, because it is even capable of growing up to 20 feet from seed in one season.

Black-eyed Susan vine (Thunbergia alata) proves to be a better choice for those window boxes. They also begin blooming early, for an extended display. To guide the vines, use twine — or, better yet, rubber-coated electrical wire — string it between eye hooks placed around windows.

Thunbergia comes in bright sunset colors with contrasting eyes and one white with a black center. It's great in pots too, as are many climbing nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus), another early flowering option.

With potted vines, Mr. Matos is not stingy with support. Instead of the typical tripod of three canes per container, he inserts a bamboo cane every four inches around the circumference of the container, and ties them together at the top.

The finished containers are his “portable colorful towers,” he said. A row of them, on either side of the road, might form a “phalanx of tents covered with vines.”

Most annual vines require little more than a short start in three-inch cells or pots. Copaya, or any morning glory or relative of nasturtium, is planted in May in the greenhouse or under lights. The vines “will grow like pumpkins in a few days, and in a couple of weeks they'll probably be outside,” he said.

Two slower-growing vines begin germinating in late February in a warm location, including his top pick of all, the purple bell vine (Rhodochiton atrosanguineus). On the surface of a three-inch pot, sprinkle the fine seeds, dividing and rearranging each seedling after it has about four leaves. Trailing snapdragon (Asarina scandens, now Maurandya) gets the same treatment.

There's a complex vine connection that Mr. Matos finds irresistible: Love in a Puff (Cardiospermum halicacabum). He describes it as a “mass of crazy hair” that eventually adorns itself with what looks like Christmas decorations—large horns of yellow (i.e., puffs).

He advised to tame this unruly child and turn it into a work of art, by comparing it to a formal element.

“If you grow it just to climb on the porch or the arbor, I think you'll be disappointed; it will look like a weed,” he said. “If you put it in a Jay Wolf pot, it will look like a gestural sculpture.”


Margaret Roach is the creator of the website and podcast Path to the parkAnd a book of the same name.

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