Any garden, large or small, can accommodate climbers: this month Elly West is all about that other dimension
An established wisteria, its long racemes of pale purple, scented flowers dripping from a house wall, is one of my favourite sights when I’m out and about at this time of year. I moved into my current house in early April four years ago, just as the deep-purple magnolia in the front garden was coming into bloom. This was then closely followed by a wisteria over the front door and along the walls, and I couldn’t believe my luck. Every year it has gone from strength to strength, and it remains one of my all-time favourite climbing plants.
When we think about our garden spaces, we all too often focus on the single dimension, but there are, of course, the planting opportunities provided by the vertical planes to consider as well. All gardens have boundaries, whether they be fences, walls or hedges, and when I visit clients’ gardens I invariably find they are underused.
Every garden can find room for climbers and it’s surprising how many can fit into a small space. Boundaries and house walls are the obvious places for climbers in a domestic garden, but it’s also relatively easy to create height with wigwams and obelisks, or more permanent structures such as pergolas, arches or free-standing trellis. These are great in gardens where more height is needed and will all provide more surface areas that you can then cloak with colour.
Climbers themselves are richly varied and can be found to suit just about any situation. There are evergreen and deciduous varieties, those that love shade, sun-loving tropical and exotic delights, with flowers and leaves in every shape, colour and size, plus everything in between. Some are grown as annuals, such as morning glory, black-eyed Susan and sweet peas, and can be used to very quickly camouflage an eyesore, create seclusion, and add vertical colour. More permanent climbers, such as wisteria, or evergreen clematis armandii (another of my favourites, with sweet-smelling white flowers in very early spring and large, strappy, glossy leaves) will need a strong framework over which they can scramble and twine. Wire attached to vine eyes, or a strong trellis panel are both good options.
When you’re planting a climber, dig a large hole and incorporate some organic matter. If you’re planting against a fence or wall, position the plant at least 30cm away and train it back against its support so the roots get plenty of water. Clematis generally like to be able to scramble into the sun with their roots in shade. Tie in new stems with soft string as they grow, making a figure-of-eight loop to prevent rubbing. Many climbers also grow well in large pots with a simple wigwam of canes for support. Sweet peas and other annuals can easily be grown this way, and moved into prominence as they come into flower.
Not far from Bristol lies Tynings Climbers in Tickenham (tyningsclimbers.co.uk) where literally tens of thousands of climbers are grown on a 10-acre site. Set back from the road, to the passer-by there are no immediate clues to the hard work and dedication of Jane Lindsay and Toni O’Connor, who run the long-established business. But follow the long driveway uphill to the house, and fields open out with land extending to the woodland beyond, and far to the left and right, with incredible views across to the Mendip Hills. Alongside goats, chickens and dogs, there are four polytunnels and five greenhouses packed with climbers, both hardy varieties and more tender exotics.Passion flowers have distinctive flowers and while they’ll survive our winters, benefit from our sheltered spot such as a south-facing wall
Just about everything is propagated on site from cuttings, and they hold no less than four National Collections, of jasmine, passion flower, thunbergia and mandevilla. The nursery was set up around 15 years ago, but Jane’s love of growing is in her blood. She grew up on the site, where her parents grew vegetables, cut flowers and soft fruit for their greengrocery in nearby Clevedon. However, her passion for climbers stems back to a work experience placement with John Vanderplank in Kingston Seymour, who also holds a National Collection of passiflora (passion flower), and at whose nursery she ended up working for 17 years.
And passion flowers remain a firm favourite; Jane estimates they have around 300 different kinds. “They’re just so variable and interesting, with different shapes, sizes and colours,” she explains.
Wandering the site and peering into the glasshouses at the end of March, after a month of cold and snow, Jane’s main concern is that the weather has halted spring growth. “Everything is four weeks behind,” she says. With show season looming, it’s hard to envisage the award-winning stands filled with colour that the duo will invariably create. But these are the challenges growers face and I am on-board in thinking it will all come right when it needs to. “Everyone will be in the same boat. We have to work with nature,” she says.
Despite Jane’s laid-back attitude, this is a serious business, and Tynings has won a multitude of RHS medals at the many shows they attend each year. “We usually get a gold,” Jane states in a matter-of-fact tone. It’s not all about the medals and the glory though; Jane’s favourite thing about the business is “taking cuttings and growing plants”. To me, the plants certainly look healthy but the greenhouses are stuffed full and with no obvious sense of order. However, Jane says she knows every single plant, and somehow I believe her.
Top five climbing plants
• Clematis ‘Nelly Moser’: This large-flowered, candy-striped variety is a show stopper and, unlike many clematis, tolerant of shade, which actually makes for a more intense colour. Flowers appear early summer, often followed by a second late-summer flush.
• Passiflora caerulea: Passion flowers have distinctive blooms that look almost like they’re made of plastic – in a good way! Semi-evergreen and slightly tender, they will survive our winters but benefit from a sheltered spot such as a south-facing wall.
• Wisteria sinensis: These vigorous climbers are long lived, so choosing the right site is important. They also need a strong framework for the woody twining stems. Regular pruning will produce the best flowers and keep plants under control. Cut back the long, whippy shoots of the current year’s growth to shorter spurs in late summer and again in January or February.
• Trachelospermum jasminoides: This twining climber has glossy evergreen leaves and fragrant starry flowers in summer. The leaves often turn an attractive deep-red in winter.
• Ipomoea ‘Heavenly Blue’: Also known as ‘morning glory’, this beautiful annual climber is actually a cultivated form of the dreaded bindweed. Like it’s less-favoured cousin, it will quickly cover an obelisk or arch in just a season, and produces spectacular, true-blue trumpet flowers.