Up, Up and Away

The Versatility of Vines

There’s often a dilemma facing gardeners who work in small tight spaces. In urban areas, like Chicago, you may have a back yard that’s only 25 by 40 feet. There may be a very narrow planting bed between the sidewalk or fence or along the house or garage wall. How can you make your garden stand out?  Grow up! Use structures—trellises, arbors, pergolas, tuteurs, or obelisks—that all add height. The icing on the cake—a flowering vine on the support.

When you can’t plant a shrub in a two-foot-wide border, a vine scrambling up a trellis brings color to eye level. An obelisk placed in a slender bed creates a focal point and an interesting support for smaller annual vines like cypress vine with its tubular red, pink or white flowers. If you have a large sprawling garden, a vine-covered arbor or a pergola over a patio adds color and texture. Vines can climb up a deck railing or tumble from a railing’s planter boxes. And, how about planting a vine at the base of a lamp post or a mail box?

Annual vines like moonflower and painted lady runner bean are useful if you want to quickly cover a structure or fence. Because they’re annuals, they flower, set seed and die at the end of the growing season, allowing you to try another annual vine the following year. Or, you can save the seeds and start again next spring.

Perennial vines like climbing hydrangea and clematis grow larger each year. Grow two vines together and they will twine gracefully skyward, providing flowers and interest through the summer.

Besides their decorative nature, some vines can provide screening for undesirable views. Others offer food to pollinators and nectar-seeking creatures like butterflies and hummingbirds. Some serve as host plants for egg-laying butterflies. For example, pipevine is the only host plant for the pipevine swallowtail butterfly. Hops vines are host plants for the question mark, comma and red admiral butterflies. The caterpillars rarely do enough chewing for the “damage” to be noticeable.

Some vines, like sweet autumn clematis (Clematis terniflora) and ‘Fragrant Star’ clematis release sweetly scented blooms that smell like a mixture of almonds and vanilla. Flowering jasmine, which can be grown in a pot and brought indoors come fall, is highly fragrant as are sweet peas.

Climbing Hydrangea

Climbing Hydrangea

Twining and Clasping

Vines grow by twining—curling their stems around a trellis wire or wood slat, by tendrils (modified stems or leaves), or by rootlets along the stem that attach themselves to the support. Some, like those of climbing hydrangea have adhesive discs, called holdfasts, on the roots that stick to the support. You can avoid damage to brick and wood siding by keeping rootlet-type vines off the walls.

Obelisks and tuteurs are handy for growing small vines like black-eyed Susan vine and cardinal climber, both annuals. Obelisks are typically four-sided, tall and rounded at the top. Tuteurs are usually three-sided and wider at the base than at the top. Either type can be used in the ground or in a container.

Make a teepee by placing 5 or 6 bamboo stakes about 8 inches into the soil and tying them at the top with twine. This inexpensive support usually lasts for about three growing seasons. It’s a good choice for annual vines like sweet peas, hyacinth beans or tiny decorative pumpkins and gourds. Some vines like clematis can be used as a ground cover, meandering around perennials or shrubs, over boulders, or creeping up a small ornamental tree.



Soil and Fertilization

Like most other garden plants, annual and perennial vines like medium-moist, well-drained loamy soil. If your planting spot is mostly clay, amend it first with compost so the roots can easily travel through the soil to absorb nutrients and water. Keep flowering vines going by feeding them a few times a month throughout the summer with a water-soluble fertilizer.

Some perennial vines, like clematis, like their roots growing in the shade while the twining tops reach for the sun. Any sun-loving vine planted in partial shade will grow but produce fewer flowers. There are plenty of choices. Let’s get growing.

Black-eyed Susan Vine (Thunbergia alata)

Black-eyed Susan

Annual Vines       
for Sunny Sites

  • Moonflower Vine (Ipomoea alba)
  • Hyacinth Bean (Dolichos lablab)
  • Cardinal Climber (Ipomoea x multifida)
  • Cypress Vine (Ipomoea quamoclit)
  • Baby Boo or Wee-Be-Little Pumpkins
  • Black-eyed Susan Vine (Thunbergia alata)
  • Twining Snapdragon (Asarina scandens)
  • Sweet Peas (Lathyrus odoratus)
  • Cup and Saucer Vine (Cobaea scandens)
  • Mandevilla Vine (Mandevilla)


Perennial Vines       
for Sunny Sites

  • Clematis (Clematis spp.)
  • Honeysuckle (Lonicera)
  • Trumpet Vine (Campsis radicans)
  • Golden Hops Vine (Humulus lupulus ‘Aurea’)
  • Dutchman’s Pipe or Pipevine (Aristolochia)
  • Native Wisteria (Wisteria frutescens)
  • Hardy Kiwi Vine (Actinidia kolomikta)
Virginia Creeper

Virginia Creeper

Perennial Vines       
for Shade

  • Climbing Hydrangea (Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris)
  • Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)
  • Dutchman’s Pipe or Pipevine (Aristolochia)
  • Japanese Hydrangea Vine (Schizophragma hydrangeoides)

  Nina Koziol is a garden writer and horticulturist who lives and gardens in Palos Park, Illinois.