Colorful climbers add new dimension to landscapes

Some of the most intriguing plants for the home landscape are those that exuberantly grow beyond their bounds, reaching outward and upward toward sun and sky, bringing a sense of wildness to an otherwise tame and tidy garden. Plants of an unwieldy nature come in many forms-from the tenderest of annuals to long-lived woody shrubs. Whether they are as delicate as morning glory or as thorny as rose climbers, the vines you plant will eventually grow up to present you with containment and support challenges. Finding the best solution adds great character to the landscape.

Structures for the garden Throughout history, gardeners have erected ornamental structures-from rustically simple to elegantly ornate-to support and showcase their climbers. Initially, the term "arbor" described a bench shaded by trees. Sometimes trees were trained over a wooden or iron trelliswork and mingled with sweet-scented plants such as clematis, honeysuckle and sweet pea. The word "pergola," by contrast, originally meant a covered walkway formed by plants growing over a trellis. In time, the terms became used interchangeably to describe any structure consisting of upright posts supporting horizontal beams, over which plant grow. For example, Thomas Jefferson, in his 1,000-foot-long vegetable garden at Monticello, constructed an enormous 12-foot-high arbor for his scarlet runner beans to add both beauty and shade to his expansive, southeast-facing garden. His design was originally intended as a grape arbor, commonly used in early colonial American gardens. Today, we often think of arbors in vegetable gardens and vineyards, and pergolas for more ornamental plantings. Because of the weight they must bear, you should set the supporting posts of arbors in concrete footings.

Climbing vines need a surface on which to climb that is narrower than normally found on the supporting posts of pergolas. Plants with tender tendrils, such as sweet peas, morning glories, balsam apples and even some ornamental climbing beans do best on wooden lattice work, chicken wire or plastic-mesh materials. You can even wrap chicken wire or other mesh around freestanding pillars to encourage the vines to climb.

Tripods are another simpler and perhaps less-permanent way to integrate climbers into your herbaceous border. Narrow poles work well with various legumes. However, use at least 6-inch-diameter poles for large, heavy vines. It also is a good idea to sink the ends of the tripod in gravel for stability.

Vines for the garden * Sweet peas. For springtime flowers, nothing can beat the fragrant ornamental sweet pea, Lathyrus odoratus. Many hybrids are available today, including the Spencer and Royal Family strains, which make a lovely display. You must start sweet peas early for best results. For colder climates, it's best to start them indoors in January. Like most legumes, sweet pea roots fix nitrogen and like to grow close together. The roots will thrive by thickly sowing the seed about 0.5 to 1.0 inch apart. Sweet peas also need rich, slightly alkaline, well-prepared garden soil amended with compost and well-rotted manure. The vine's tendrils need to quickly attach to the fine mesh or chicken wire support you use. Keep the plants well-watered and -fertilized through the spring, and they will bloom abundantly until the heat of mid-summer arrives.

* Cypress vine. One of the most beautiful of the tender climbers for summer is the cypress vine, Ipomoea quamoclit. This member of the morning-glory family from the New World tropics was first cultivated in 1629. It inspired Joseph Breck to exclaim in his 1851 Book of Flowers, "There is no annual climbing plant that exceeds the Cypress Vine, in elegance of foliage, gracefulness of habit or loveliness of flowers." This flower loves heat. Do not expect the seed to even begin to germinate until the soil is quite warm-this will be about late May or early June in Virginia. However, it doesn't take long for this charming vine to take hold. In a single season, the cypress vine can grow into a delicate, 25-foot tangle of finely cut leaves-spangled with small, scarlet, star-shaped blossoms. It will blanket a trellis by mid-summer. Like other morning glories, once the seed is established in the garden, it will continue to return year after year. Yet it is a plant that you easily can keep under control, and with mini mal attention, it will not overtake your garden.

* Hyacinth bean. In recent years, the popularity of the hyacinth bean, Dolichos lablab, has increased dramatically. Like wildfire, word of this easy-to-grow, purple-leafed vine has spread across the country. It is a late-season bloomer, but its rich-purple clusters of blossoms are well worth the wait. This lush vine is one of the most dramatic and eye-catching elements in the Monticello vegetable garden. From late summer through the first hard freeze, the vine's thick, rope-like stems twine around the garden's black-locust-bean arbor, along with its cousin, the scarlet runner beans. From a distance, the blossoms resemble clusters of luscious grapes hanging in abundance. You can plant hyacinth-bean seeds directly in the soil after the last frost. Before planting, soak the seeds in warm water to speed up germination. Although an annual in most parts of the United States, you can easily collect the seed for replanting in spring.

* Caracalla bean. One of the most spectacular vines for the garden arbor is yet another ornamental legume: the show-stopping snail flower or caracalla bean, Vigna caracalla. Despite its common name, Thomas Jefferson justly called it, "The most beautiful bean in the world." Philip Miller's 1768 edition of The Gardener's Dictionary described it as follows: "...a kidney-bean with a twining stalk....grows naturally in the Brazils, from whence the seeds were brought to Europe." Miller further observed, "It is very common in Portugal, where the inhabitants plant it to cover arbours and seats in gardens, for which it is greatly esteemed...for its beautiful sweet smelling flowers."

During the 1890s, New York nurseryman and writer Peter Henderson noted that the bluish-lilac flowers were "valued by florists for their delicious fragrance and for their resemblance to Orchids." By the early 20th century, however, Liberty Hyde Bailey's Cyclopaedia observed, "It is an old-fashioned glasshouse plant in cold climates, but is now rarely seen." Like the hyacinth bean, the snail flower is making a comeback in American gardens. To maintain this vine, you must dig out the roots each year and store them in a cool, slightly moist, sterile medium, much as you would store dahlia roots. You can then replant them in pots the following spring and force them into growth. This way, you can be assured of having a long-enough season to allow them to come into bloom by late summer. You also can leave the roots in a good-sized pot and sink the pot in the ground. Before the first hard freeze, cut back the vine and remove the pot for storage.

* Crossvine, Carolina jessamine and trumpet creeper. An often-overlooked perennial native vine is the crossvine, Bignonia capreolata. It climbs by means of tendrils and bears compound, evergreen leaves and a profusion of orange-red, trumpet-shaped flowers in late spring. Two other native climbers worth considering for residential landscapes are the Carolina jessamine, Gelsemium sempervirens, and the trumpet creeper, Campsis radicans. The jessamine, like the crossvine, is evergreen, and its vivid yellow blossoms in early spring make a striking contrast against its shiny dark-green foliage. Growing to 20 feet, it forms a thick mass of wiry, reddish, branching stems. Likewise, trumpet creeper is vigorous, reaching a potential length of 50 feet. 'Madame Galen' is a late-19th-century hybrid (Campsis x tagliabuana) and, like the crossvine, its tubular-shaped, cantaloupe-orange flowers are truly dazzling. Trumpet creeper blooms throughout the summer. Tolerating neglect and poor growing conditions, all three species are hardy to Zone 6.

* Climbing roses are among the best candidates for permanent, decorative arbors and pergolas. The fiery-red blossoms of the ever-blooming climbing 'Old Blush' China or the classic reddish-pink trusses of 'American Pillar' are two of the hundreds of rose cultivars suitable for garden structures. The American prairie-rose hybrids (Rosa setigera) such as 'Baltimore Belle' are such vigorous shrubs that the structure to support them can't be too solid. Once established, 'Baltimore Belle' produces a fountain of fragrant, double, pink blossoms during late spring. 'F,licit, et Perp,tue', a semi-evergreen, spring-blooming European hybrid with clusters of double, creamy-white, fragrant blossoms, works well both on a pergola or across a solid trellis. Its handsome, glossy, dark-green foliage nicely offsets the cupped blossoms, and its relatively thornless stems make it an easy rose to train.

Whatever flowering vines you choose, they will provide you with a colorful accent and add a new dimension to your grounds.

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