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Vines are a romantic addition to any garden - until they go rogue

Finding the right one is a tricky thing

By The Washington Post | July 15, 2019 | Category

Adrian Higgins, The Washington Post


Vines inhabit a delicate niche in the garden. You can place them on arbors and trees, along fences and attached to walls, and if they are grown and trained with artistry, they add immense character and romance to the landscape.

The secret is to make them look wild, in a fetching way, without letting them get feral. This is difficult because hardy, woody vines are bullies by nature. They figured out that if they can lean on a tree, the tree will do the hard work of building the superstructure both plants need. The vine, thus, is free to sprawl, scramble and tread all over its host on its way to the top, when it can turn to flowering in the sun.

Years ago - this is my belief - gardeners had greater pruning literacy and knew the trimming regime for the successful cultivation of vigorous vines - in other words, how to keep them in a perfect state of balance. Walk away from a boisterous wisteria or honeysuckle and soon, i.e., in a matter of weeks, studied romanticism turns into gothic horror.

The other reality is that many vines once used routinely in the garden would go on to escape and become enormous problems in untended natural areas. One of the worst is oriental bittersweet, which is a fiend in the woods and meadows. I've seen it climb 60 feet and, worse, strangle its victim. The native species American bittersweet is also a thug.

Exotic wisterias and honeysuckles have also gone rogue, and their garden use is frowned upon.

In my neck of the woods, the most rampant vine is the porcelain-berry, a pretty thing with grapelike leaves, rosy stems, and fetching sky blue and purple berries in late summer. I remember when it was a favored ornamental plant, but it now appears like a flash mob. The key is to pull it out early, and certainly before it fruits.

My arbor, fashioned from poles of red cedar, is an armature for vines; I have set many upon it, but I have yet to find the perfect choice. The invasiveness problem clouds the issue.

I can think of many climbing plants to use, but none that is ideal. I like climbing hydrangea a lot, but it takes years to become effective. I wish I had planted it over the current choice, a native labrusca grape that turned out to be a bust.

Kiwi vines are too dense and muscular - you need two to get fruit. It's not going to happen. Hops suffer from heat, downy mildew and Japanese beetles, to name a few issues. Putting aside its invasive qualities, wisteria requires many years and constant pruning for its 10 days of splendor in April.

Trumpet vine is a native plant (Campsis radicans), but it is too big for my arbor, too, and it puts out runners that are unruly and irksome. Even in flower, the vine looks weedy. There is a Chinese species, C. grandiflora, valued for having a bigger, better flower display. Phil Normandy, plant collections manager at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, Maryland, favors a variety named Morning Calm. If you take care not to slice or damage the roots, he says, it won't run like radicans.

"If you have a tall garden fence or a telephone pole," he said, "Let it rip."

I recently settled on what I hope will be a replacement for the grape, a Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens). In the South, this is a vigorous vine, growing to 20 feet, but covered in small, glossy and attractive leaves that may not remain evergreen in cooler climes. Its selling point is its early-season flowers, yellow and fragrant. Lemon Drop is a more contained variety.

Carolina jessamine is something of a risky choice in cooler zones, but climate change makes it a surer bet. "I have a plant growing to the top of a tree whereas 15 years ago it would never have survived," Normandy said. "If you have it in the right spot, it's hard to beat because it's fragrant and early and you have these wonderful yellow flowers."

I've thrown about everything I can at this arbor, including vigorous annual vines. These have included lima beans, asparagus beans and hyacinth beans. (I see a common thread here.) The problem is that the coverage isn't reliably full enough, though I persist.

This year, while the jessamine gets established, I have planted 20 or so annual moonvines on two sides of the arbor. These are the heftier relative of the morning glory with large, architectural white trumpets that seem to take all season to show up. After a night of attracting nocturnal pollinators, they wither and drop.

Each moonvine is growing on its own string tethered to the top of the arbor, and I'm hoping that by late summer it will form a curtain. But wait, as they say, there's more.

Come August, I will sow scarlet runner beans to join them for an autumn display. I found a peach-flowering variety at the Philadelphia Flower Show named Sunset, which I haven't tried before.

I anticipate the peachy blossoms set against the azure skies of September, when the nights will be growing agreeably cooler and things, like the gardener, will be looking up.

Images: Unsplash

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