The Garden Life: Vines can bring interesting twist to garden




More than any other group of plants, the family of vines displays a vast array of distinct personalities. Vines come in a wide variety of forms, including bush, climbing and trailing. Their flowers come in infinite shapes, sizes and colors. Like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, vines often appear larger than life, as they rise above the plants around them. When they reach the peak of their individual form, they have been known to take one’s breath away.

The Chinese wisteria is strong, rangy and beautiful in a powerful, handsome way. Clematis can be dainty or flamboyant, almost always floriferous. The Parthenocissus family, which includes Boston Ivy and Virginia Creeper, clamber up the walls of houses and barns in their own unique manner. Roses, while not really vines, can be trained in wide, upright arches to boost flower production and show their blossoms to perfection.

Climbing plants add a vertical element to the garden, drawing the eye up from the level of perennials and shrubbery, into the realm of trees and sky. Golden Hops will lead the eye up a post, to a birdhouse in a glow of golden foliage. Clematis, planted near a flowering tree, will wend its way through the branches and peek its flowers out into the sunlight, adding another season of bloom.

One of my personal favorites is the tongue twisting Ampelopsis brevipedunculata “Elegans.” Better known as the Porcelain Berry vine, it’s a must-have plant when you see it growing well in a Pacific Northwest garden. Its deeply cut leaves are mottled dark green, light green and cream with subtle hints of pink in spring and fall. On top of that, in late summer an explosion of petite flowers will mature into shiny, enameled berries of deep purple, blue and turquoise.

Although we often think of vines as similar to each other, they are as varied as any other group of plants. Each type of vine will demand specific growing conditions, so make it a point to read the label or ask your nursery for exact planting instructions. The plant tags that come with vines will give you water and light requirements as well as the plant’s ultimate size. Just one more reason to save those plant tags.

Serious soil

All vines like well-drained soil, a well-composted foothold for their roots and substantial water through their first season. Add generous amounts of compost or ground bark. For ultimate flowering and best leaf production, a vine needs to be spread out over a large surface with the maximum amount of flowering wood exposed to air and sunlight. This makes them perfect as an espalier on a wall.

Clematis are not demanding but do best with their feet in shade and their heads in the sun. Think of woodland plants that need a cool area for their roots. Place a large flat rock for shade or a shallow rooted ground cover over the root area. Provide a support for twining branches. The lavender pink “Comtesse de Bouchard” is perfect for an 8- to 10-foot lamp post.

Prune with care

For many, the idea of pruning a vine is intimidating. Give it a try, it’s worth the effort. Vines are forgiving and will quickly repair any mistakes. Keep in mind that most vines in our climate are deciduous, although some of these will hold onto leaves in a mild winter. Know what you are cutting before you prune. The dormant winter wood on vines looks dead. If you do cut it off, you may be removing the buds of next year’s flowers.

If you are looking for a vine with year-round presence, try the evergreen Clematis “Snowdrift” (Clematis armandii). Masses of scented white blossoms in spring and the languishing drape of the long, dark green leaves in summer give this vine a unique interest. End the flowering vine season with Sweet Autumn clematis (C. paniculata) or the fluffy seed heads of golden Clematis tangutica.

Like the best character actors, Silvervein Creeper (Parthenocissus henryana) doesn’t need flowers to draw your attention. This is an attractive, not too rampant, not too large vine even though it’s in the Parthenocissus family. It can be trained to grow on a chain link fence or the side of a building. Mine runs along the fascia of the house without intruding into shingles or gutters.

Silvervein Creeper foliage is quite hardy but delicately detailed. Leaves open purple, turning a dark bronzy green with pronounced silver veining. If you’ve been thinking of planting a vine, take my advice and try this one. You can thank me in October when the blazing red leaf color steals the garden show.

Robb Rosser is a WSU-certified master gardener. Reach him at