Choose a climbing plant that is good-looking and not too aggressive

Choose a climbing plant that is good-looking and not too aggressive

Climbing and vine plants add vertical form to gardens, providing foliage and sometimes flowers that start at ground level and end either at the final height of the vine or where your support system ends.

My wife Nancy’s favorite climber is the morning glory, or ipomoea, which produces an abundance of trumpet-shaped flowers in many colors—including true blue—from midsummer until frost. As the name suggests, the flowers look their best at dawn and lose their luster as the day goes on.

Morning glories are an annual plant, and some online instructions recommend planting the seeds directly outside. In Maine, with our short growing season, it’s best to start seedlings indoors and move them outside after Memorial Day. It will flower more quickly, and if you ask me, that’s what gardening is all about.

My favorite climber is the golden hop vine, Humulus lupulus ‘Aureus’, and not just because I was writing a column about beer. Unlike commercial hop vines that reach 60 feet tall, golden hop grows only 9 to 15 feet tall. But the golden leaves turn bright lime green in the fall, when it also produces small, cone-shaped but fragrant flowers. (I’m not sure if those hop flowers are good in beer.) We grow some cascading hops that look good running along the fence, but they’re plain green and less eye-catching.

Hops like full sun, but can tolerate some shade, and grow well throughout all but the northern parts of Maine. Nancy is thinking about adding a blue clematis plant to the same trellis as our golden hop because the blue and gold would go well together. I think it will be amazing.

The jasmine plant is one of the most beautiful vines, with large flowers found on vines that can reach a height of 10 feet or more. Jasmine is difficult to grow because it must be pruned, and there are three different types of jasmine with three different sets of pruning rules. Simply put, if you prune your jasmine early in the season, do so right after it blooms — although if you forget, winter storms will do a lot of the work for you. If it blooms from June to October, prune it in March. Flowers can be white, blue, violet, burgundy and shades of red.

Cindy Tibbetts of Hummingbird Farm in Turner advised me a few years ago that the solution was to choose a site that gets at least four hours of sun a day, dig a bushel-sized hole when planting, mix 10 pounds of compost and some flower fertilizer with the soil you dug out of the hole, put Mix the mixture back into the hole, fill it with water, then plant the jasmine plant in the potting clay in the hole an inch or two deeper than it was in the pot, then water it again. This jasmine should last for generations.

We also grow Dutchman’s Pipe, Aristolochia, with its large, heart-shaped leaves, largely because it has been around for generations and needs no care other than being swatted back every five years or so. The flowers are small and hidden, so it’s just a green background. We got it because Nancy’s grandmother had it growing on the side of her covered porch.

Wisteria is a classic flowering vine, growing as tall as the support it gets. We planted some wisteria a decade ago because we knew someone who couldn’t get her wisteria to bloom and we love a good challenge, plus it seemed like a good idea to grow a wisteria tree on what we call our garden gate – basically two trellises connected at the top with an arch.

Our wisteria has bloomed and is doing well, but it wants to take over the entire garden. We mercilessly cut them back after they bloom, which seems to bring extra blooms next spring.

Climbing hydrangeas grow up to 40 feet tall — if you give them a tree, the side of the house, or something else to support them. This is slower to develop than many other climbers, but once established, it grows quickly and produces prolific clusters of flat white flowers in mid-summer that last for a few months.

I can’t recommend the hardy kiwi, although it is very popular among sustainable growers and produces edible fruit. The Massachusetts Audubon Society has asked people not to plant them, saying the kiwifruit is invasive. However, the hardy kiwi is not on Maine’s list of invasive plants. It takes at least two different plants to get fruit. The vine isn’t exciting, and I’m not sure what it would do with bunches of kiwifruit. Maybe give them away with your zucchini.

Likewise, Boston ivy and England ivy are very aggressive and can be difficult to control once they become established. My advice? Never, ever plant them. But if you have to, go ahead — just be prepared for a compact vine that will suffocate even ordinary lilacs.

Creative support

Now that you know your choices for climbing vines, the next question is what to plant on them. The answer to that is… almost anything.

The simplest and least expensive plan is to use chicken wire. The Dutchman’s pipe climbs the chicken wire that we attached to our garden shed. About every five years we cut the plant back to the ground, and instead of removing the vines from the old chicken wire we put in new plants. This saves a lot of time. Yes, I put it all in our compost bins. The wire eventually rusts.

Our golden hop grows on a 5-foot triangular frame I built using copper pipe left over after rebuilding our bathroom. However, copper is expensive, so if you’re starting over, you can build supports using inexpensive metal conduit tubing—the same product you used to support your sugar snap peas.

A few weeks ago I saw some red cedar trellises with Maine Made labels at Allen, Sterling & Lothrop as well as O’Donal’s, and they were attractive and sturdy. Jim England of Woodshaper of Maine in Dedham, which I found through the Maine Made website, also offers custom-designed trellises and gazebos, including curved-branch creations.

We’ve tried plastic trellises in the past, but sunlight makes them brittle, and after a few years they fall apart.

If you purchase a hardwood trellis and paint, stain or seal it, I expect it will stay in good condition for 20 years, although it may need maintenance.

If you purchase a heavy duty vinyl trellis, there is no maintenance, but it is plastic. You can do better than that.

Mostly, I advise you to use your imagination and provide support yourself. It would be an excellent project in the winter when you can’t spend time in the garden.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer who lives and gardens in Cape Elizabeth. He can be reached at 767-2297 or

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