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Choosing Vines for your Garden

Dianne and Gary Westlake

We have a Boston Ivy vine scaling up bricks of our house with its little suckers. It reached so high on the wall that we were afraid that it would climb in the window and drag out our little dog (who sadly is gone now). Near the end, he was sleeping very soundly and we are not sure he could have escaped in time.

There are many vines that do a great job for gardeners, especially when space is limited. When you have packed every plant you can into a small lot, there is always the vertical dimension and there are a lot of great vines, both perennial and annual, to choose from. Vines provide shade and visual appeal. They can camouflage an unsightly part of your garden, hiding composters or other work area. Birds nest in them and eat their fruit.

Different vines have different ways of attaching themselves to their support. Probably the most familiar type is the one with tendrils that are little coiled structures that twine around objects when they encounter them. A good example of this is the grapevine. Other vines, like the Virginia Creeper, have little suckers or holdfasts that attach to structures. Some, like Clematis and Morning Glory, just twist around things while others have to be helped when they first get started like roses and Climbing Hydrangea.

One of the most spectacular vines we have seen is Wisteria. It looks grand, growing on castles and public gardens in England. In spite of our research that told us it might not be the best choice for our climate, we planted a couple. After struggling through winters, we realized that once we got them established, they would be very sturdy and difficult to maintain but the flower buds would probably only survive one in ten winters in our climate. If you live in the Peterborough area, we recommend visiting Wisteria rather than growing it. However, if you choose to try, be aware they need a very sturdy structure.

Silver Lace Vine (zone 6) should also be a little touchy here but we have grown it for several years and we have also heard of it growing in the Apsley area. Protect the roots in the winter with a thick layer of mulch especially the first few years.

We are often asked which vines do well in shady conditions. Although some say it takes a while to get going, Climbing Hydrangea has a classy look and does well in the shade. The other day we saw a garden that had Climbing Hydrangea growing up the trunk of a pine tree and it must have gone up 25 feet or more. There are also many varieties of Clematis (Nellie Moser or Lemon Chiffon, for example) that can take a little shade.

Clematis is one of the vines with the greatest variety of flowers and flowering times. Often you can brighten up a shrub that only flower for a short period, by growing Clematis on it. One of our favourite combinations is an early white called Guernsey Cream that we have growing through a yew. Growing two or more different ones together on the same arbour also works well. Wherever you plant clematis, plant them a deep and remember they like their roots cool, so a location behind a low growing shrub or perennial is a good strategy.


Be aware that, in ideal conditions, some vines can be ‘vigorous’ growers. This term should set up caution flags meaning ‘aggressive and will take over your garden’. Some varieties of honeysuckle, trumpet vine and bittersweet are common examples. At our cottage, a bittersweet popped up near the television tower. Fortunately we caught it just before it reached the top and stopped the rotor. This raises the point that TV towers make great arbours. Peter Keeping, a clematis grower in Bowmanville, has several. Do your research. Read the tags and ask people who actually grow the vine.

Porcelain vine, in some locations can grow five to ten feet in a year but in colder climes, this does not seem to be as much of a problem. The variegated variety tends to be a slower grower and the berries are intriguing.

We have an arbour with Hardy Kiwi on it and except for the summer that some bored young, crows spent their time pecking at it, it has performed well. Its vigourous growth has covered the arbour and gives us shade underneath, but if you actually want the fruit, you have to plant a male and female plant. There is also a variegated variety of Kiwi that looks great – almost like it is flowering all the time.

An interesting vine is Hops which dies to the ground each winter. It is so vigourous that it climbs to great heights in a single season. We planted a dark leafed variety with a light coloured leaf variety and they look wonderful growing together, and who knows, we might use the fruit to make beer one year.

Of course there is Dutchman’s Pipe with its large leaves and dark flowers that give the plant its name. These are traditional on old verandas.

Climbing Roses do not actually climb but rather lean on objects with their long stems and use their recurved thorns to hold fast. Tying them to an arbour takes only a few minutes and once they are directed they should ramble up the structure.

Don’t forget the tropicals, mandivilla or passion flower for your pots. Out of doors in a large pot, passion flower goes nuts! They add vertical interest and can be over-wintered in the house.

So when you are running out of room – look up!