Timidity in the Garden

What’s left of a climber rose clings to a trellis for the dear life it no longer has. Photo by Kit Flynn.


By Kit Flynn

I don’t have a shy bone in my body—until it comes to vines. Vines somehow bring out the anxiety that lies lurking in my soul as I fear that I will inadvertently plant a kudzu-like vine that wants to bury my house. We all have certain neuroses—and the thought of vines apparently brings out mine.

However, the dreaded fact is this: I’m in need of a vine. In truth, I find that a forthcoming vine comes out of necessity, all because a climbing rose had the temerity to die, leaving me with a huge trellis to fill. My builder erected the trellis, so it’s beautifully built and will last longer than the garden. However, now it’s a pathetic empty trellis, demanding that lush foliage cover it.

Why not replace it with a different climbing rose, you might ask. Generally, the rule for successful rose planting is this one: Do not plant a rose where another one has died as there usually is a good reason why that particular rose bit the dust.

Now, searching for a specific plant to fill a niche is a bit like searching for the perfect dress—you know it’s out there, but how to find it? To search for the ideal plant, you have to follow one basic rule: Do your research before going to a nursery. Otherwise, you can easily become victim of the dreaded impulse purchase.

I first turned to Allan Armitage’s Armitage’s Vines and Climbers: A Gardener’s Guide to the Best Vertical Plants because over the years I have learned to trust his recommendations. He’s a retired professor of horticulture at the University of Georgia who knows about Southern gardening. Second, he’s not scared to call a particular vine a thug—and what I want is an exuberant vine that respects my perimeters.

One problem with vines—and I hasten to say there are lots of things wrong with vines—is that you can read a particular description, decide that’s the vine for you, and then discover no one offers it—and who wants a vine one can’t find? Therefore, I limited my search to those vines offered by Brushwood Nursery (here) as they only sell what they produce, and what they produce is of the highest quality.

Bignonia capreolata captured my attention. However, while the vines can climb to 50 feet in height, the flowering occurs only at the very top. Selfishly, I had envisioned the whole mass aflame in flowers but, as they say, a girl can’t have everything. Armitage recommends cutting back the vine by two-thirds on a yearly basis, something I could do. Brushwood had two varieties that contained no orange, a color I avoid, so I entered my email address to be notified when these cultivars become available.

I next looked at the Jasminum genus but, alas, it had several things going against it. Most of the varieties grow to the 10-foot range, a range that would barely make an imprint on my trellis, which stands about 20 or 25 feet high. And, discouragingly, they are marginally hardy here, so why go to all this trouble with a plant that cannot handle a simple frost? The same applies to Trachelospermum genus, a.k.a. star jasmine.

Lonicera sempervirens, honeysuckle, I quickly bypassed. I already have this native honeysuckle and feel strongly that one is enough in the garden. Likewise, Parthenocissus, a.k.a., Virginia creeper, simply creeps me out—I don’t care if it’s a native. However, Passiflora caerulea was a real possibility as it’s hardy in zone 7 and can grow to 40 feet in height. The color, a dark blue, works in my garden and this plant, if it is to flower, needs sun and the trellis is situated in brilliant sun.

All I had left to do was to read about our native wisteria. Within five years, Armitage assured me, W. frutescens will cover half your house, so I had to turn the page. The trellis is quite close to the house and it was obvious that, for my own peace of mind, I required a vine that was respectful of property rights.

Brushwood’s main emphasis is on the Clematis genus. Now I love clematises, have lots of them trailing over the fence but clematis, lacking a mechanism to grasp, doesn’t grow well on a trellis that is straight up and down—and I refuse to dangle 10 feet above ground in an attempt to tie a clematis branch to the trellis. Despite the fact that the native C. virginiana grows with abandon, it will not climb the vertical trellis.

My choices appear to lie between a non-orange blooming Bignonia and a Passiflora caerulea. The reason I have gone through this exercise is because I want to make a positive choice for my trellis problem so I don’t have to think about it on a yearly basis. I’m also trying to make an intelligent choice rather than grabbing the first vine I see come spring. Impulse buying can be very rewarding—or totally disastrous. Regardless, I will tell you next summer how my choice worked out.

After being an active member of the Durham County Extension Master Gardeners for 13 years, Kit Flynn now holds emeritus status. For five years she was the gardening correspondent for “Senior Correspondent” and shared “The Absentee Gardener” column with fellow Master Gardener Lise Jenkins. She has given numerous presentations on various gardening topics to Triangle organizations and can be reached at howyourgardengrows@icloud.com.

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