Plant some climbers for wall-to-wall happiness

Plant some climbers for wall-to-wall happiness

The more I dug at ground level in the garden over Easter, the more mixed the survival rates I found. After last winter, my beloved Daphne Odora, with the golden edge of its leaves, turned black and died. So is the harder penstemon, the crimson red Firebird, which is usually a banker’s safe. However, the winter-flowering evergreen garea was burned, but is still alive. So do all my neat poker games, hot or not. The greatest survivors are the plants on the walls of the house.

I will focus on them for two reasons. One: Every owner of a separate house has walls facing four directions, so the advice therein has a wide audience. The other reason is that I’m not particularly good at my own walls, for reasons this column may help untangle and warn you against repetition.

Against the south or west wall at Oxford, evergreen tracheids have survived the deadly winter. They are excellent choices for urban gardens and outdoor homes that are not exposed to severe winter frosts. Tracheostomies do not require ligation and constant training.

At Oxford, we never prune our plants, even after 30 years, except to reduce their height in late summer after flowering and prevent them from clinging to the stained glass windows of the college chapel wall behind them. They are firmly attached to a wide-tangled wire mesh that is nailed to the wall with soft-headed nails. They don’t need more support. If your plant now has dead growth, cut it back this weekend.

Eastern clematis Bill McKenzie © GAP Photos/Caroline Mardon
Passion Flower Constance Elliott
Passion Flower Constance Elliott © GAP Photos/Nova Photo Graphics

There are two main cucumbers in the family, both fragrant and evergreen: the Asian cucumber, Trachelospermum asiaticum, which is scented with almonds, and Trachelospermum jasminoides, which is scented with anise. Others may attribute each of them to the smell of bubblegum.

One difference is that the Asian species grows less tall, at most about 15 feet. It is the best choice for a sheltered post or pergola, as it will flower more freely when cut lightly. Jasminoides is more hardy and has an excellent creamy variety and is widely available.

Many trachea plants are offered by Burncoose Nurseries in Cornwall, who are willing to send plants by post: on you can check out 10 options. Remember, these good climbers are for sunny walls, not northern walls.

Despite a lot of debris after winter, we haven’t lost our passion flowers either.

The most common type is the pale blue Passiflora caerulea, which is also likely to withstand harsh winters. Plants in other gardens may have lost some leaves and allowed others to turn brown, but it is unlikely that they have died completely. Leave them and wait and watch at ground level.

Passion flowers are not aphrodisiacs. They owe their name to the central threads of their flowers, which were thought to resemble nails when crucified. Appropriately, they have a way of rising back from the dead, sending up new shoots alongside their main trunk at ground level. Don’t despair: by mid-May these shoots may be visible, allowing you to reduce the dead bush above.

Burncoose Nurseries supplies passion plants, including a particular favourite, the Caerulia Constance Elliott, named after a great plant man who first gave me a plant of it in my youth. I agree with Burncoose that this off-white is as robust as regular caerulea, although informal blogs on the internet suggest it is not. Passifloras flowers are beautiful from June onwards, but the plants are not tidy and do not cling on their own.

How about that bigger favorite, wisteria? They are very beautiful, of course, if their shoots survive the late spring frosts, but they are not wise choices for narrow walls of moderate height. Wisteria is very hardy and its maintenance soon becomes a chore, twice a year, with its long smooth stems needing pruning after flowering and again in early January. For a smaller space, stalk Wisteria frutescens Amethyst Falls, a beautiful blue-purple flower that is more discreet, usually stopping at no more than 10 feet. Other wisteria plants are beginners’ first choice for very confined sites.

On a sunny, even south-facing wall, I’m loyal to the gorgeous yellow-flowered jasmine, Oriental Belle Mackenzie. Like the trachea, it only needs a sheet of wire mesh fixed to the wall and then it will stay tied: in the growing season there is no need for maintenance, which suits us all.

Asian jasmine in full bloom
Trachelospermum asiaticum, almond scent © GAP Photos/Howard Rice

However, dead top growth should be cut annually to within 3 feet of the ground and transplanted away, by now, a month after the first date to do so. It then grows back neatly and blooms profusely with small pendulous yellow flowers, followed by soft silver-gray seed heads, which my visitors astutely compare to the Beatles’ followers, who are now in late middle age. The seed heads actually resemble the classic Beatles haircut.

Bill McKenzie was a great plant man, trained in Scotland where he first worked on a farm and milked cows. He fled to the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, and became one of the chief publicists there with great skill and then curator of the Chelsea Physical Garden in London. He was humble and exceptionally talented. The clematis was a seedling noticed at Waterperry Horticulture School near Oxford in the 1960s and named in his honour. I can guarantee it will grow quickly and well on south facing dry walls.

Now you can probably guess why I’m not strong at wall farming. I have little free time, and now little desire to climb ladders and pin the wavy stems of climbing roses. I love clinging plants that I can leave alone.

I’m tempted by the roses, of course, but then they rebel against informal management. Fortunately, some David Austin English roses are best grown as climbers, not shrubs, even the yellow-flowered Graham Thomas, which was found to be rather leggy and prone to black spot when grown as a stand-alone shrub after its release in 1983. Wall Options at davidaustinroses. Haji is excellent, pale yellow in color and has dense petals.

Facing east, my big hit is Hydrangea Seeannii. It is evergreen, unlike the excellent Petularis, and is highly flowering and now reaches 20 feet in height and width. I haven’t done anything to it in 36 years, ever since I planted it in a narrow, dry bed, fearing it would die in cold weather. It has survived every winter since then clinging to the wall with its aerial roots. This is exactly what I needed and every July I marvel at the hassle free masses of white flowers. Be patient, it will be a winner for you too.

Facing north, my idle answer is any variety of variegated ivy. It sticks to itself and can be shaped into round window patterns, and Gloire de Marengo is an excellent choice. They are content with drought and tolerate frosts: 2022-2023 did not bother them. Join the lazy climber managers and choose ivy, a rewarding and hassle-free plant, even for gardeners like me who focus on flower beds elsewhere.

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Some advice is best kept within these four walls / From Ambrose Loughlin, Dublin, Ireland

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