Moving Up!

Credit: John Glover

Climbing vines can add an exciting dimension or layer to any garden, even the tiniest. Gardeners with small spaces just have to keep in mind that they’ll be committing to drastic pruning every other season or so after the vines reach maturity.

Clematis are some of the easiest vines to find space for, and if you are an adventurous gardener they can be creatively grown among trees and shrubs to add colour and interest at different times of the year.

One of the first clematis that springs to mind is a delightful winter bloomer that starts to show blossoms in December and continues right on through early spring. It is Clematis cirrhosa, native to southern Europe and, despite its delicate appearance, hardy to zone 7 and up. This clematis appears to thrive on neglect, with ours at the UBC Botanical Garden growing right at the edge of a gravel path in well-drained but dreadful soil where it never gets fed or watered. The typical three-lobed leaves have a bronze tinge to them, which really helps to show off the magical blossoms. The blossoms are cup-shaped, up to 6 cm (21⁄2 in.) in length and creamish-green with tiny red flecks on the inside. They are borne singly or sometimes in clusters. A cultivar called ‘Freckles’ has pink flowers heavily speckled with red on the inside.

According to many books, Clematis cirrhosa requires a sheltered sunny spot in well-drained soil. Ours at UBC is growing outside the doorway to the workshop where the Friends of the Garden create all their dried-flower arrangements. It is planted at the edge of a gravel pathway in a south-facing position. The root area is shaded during the height of summer by deciduous trees and shrubs growing on the other side of the path. If you have room for one alongside your south-facing doorway, just make sure the roots are sheltered from intense summer sun.

This clematis must be seen to be believed. Visitors who happen upon it are rewarded with unexpected blooms when most of the garden is still dormant.

Clematis montana is another excellent climber that brings joy and colour to the garden during May and early June. This one is native from western China through to the Himalayas and is hardy to zone 6 and up. I am sure many of you are aware it is a very vigorous climber. At UBC, where we have them growing naturally, as they would in their native forests where height restriction is no problem, they climb clear to the top of hemlocks, Douglas firs and grand firs. For about four weeks in May and June, it looks as if someone has thrown giant pink shawls up into the trees.

The blossoms are generally white to pink, though there is an extremely vigorous white form that blooms a bit later, Clematis montana ‘Alba’. Each individual flower is about 5 cm (2 in.) across, borne singly or in short cymes. The foliage is generally a light green, but some of the pink-flowered forms have bronze-tinged foliage.

Although I suggested these are rampant climbers, they can still be used effectively in a smaller garden. I am always reminded of this when I look at pictures taken in the beautiful garden of a late friend and passionate gardener, Barbara Durrant. In her garden she grew a pink Clematis montana over a pink dogwood (Cornus florida). On one side of the dogwood was buttercup winterhazel (Corylopsis pauciflora) and on the other side Viburnum plicatum ‘Summer Snowflake’ – in other words, a mixed shrub border. It was underplanted with spring-flowering bulbs, so that during early spring when the clematis was dormant one could look through the vines and branches to a sea of Chionodoxa luciliae (glory-of-the-snow) and other spring bulbs that harmonized with the pale-yellow blooms of the winterhazel. As the season progressed into late May, the clematis was a mantle of pink next to the white flowers of ‘Summer Snowflake’. The whole effect was quite stunning and changed dramatically during the growing season in a very small space. I am sure Barbara was careful to prune the clematis every year.

A clematis particularly suited to a patio area or container is ‘Multi Blue’, the stunning vine featured on our cover this issue. It is compact enough to work well in a small space, yet the gorgeous dark-blue to purple double and semi-double blooms are large and luxuriant (15 cm/6 in.) with thistle-like centres of yellow-green, appearing through summer on both old and new growth. As a bonus, Clematis ‘Multi Blue’ is very hardy – to zone 4.

A good climber for shady areas is Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris, which is native to a wide range of countries, from Sakhalin Island in Russia to Japan, Taiwan and Korea. It is also hardy to zone 4 and up, making it suitable for all our readers. Because it clings by pressing aerial rootlets into nearby surfaces, it isn’t suitable for growing on a house wall. It is, however, ideal for fences and old forest stumps in deep shade. The deciduous foliage is ovate with heart-shaped bases. It blooms in summer, producing domed flower clusters up to 25 cm (10 in.) across. Masses of tiny white fertile flowers surrounded by sterile larger white blossoms give it the appearance of traditional lacecaps.

It is quite stunning in full bloom, particularly on bright moonlit summer nights. The height is usually determined by the support it is climbing on, and sometimes when it reaches the top it becomes quite bushy. But it is easy to thin out by pruning when the leaves have dropped. It seems to thrive in well-drained acidic soils. Tolerant of shade, it thrives on a north-facing wall, but also grows well in full sun as long as the soil is not too dry. It is slow-growing in its first few years, but eventually becomes a large vine of up to 6 m (20 ft.) across if not pruned. As its bark ages, it peels and provides winter interest when its branches are bare.

Climbing roses are, of course, an absolute must for a smaller home garden. My friend Pam Frost has one of my favourites from childhood, Rosa ‘Albertine’, to zone 5 and up. It has a vigorous climbing habit and beautiful, coppery-pink blooms. A cottage in the village where I grew up had a big old apple tree with ‘Albertine’ growing up through its crown. It formed a giant blossoming umbrella every June. In Pam’s garden it is climbing up through the branches of golden variegated privet (Ligustrum ovalifolium ‘Aureum’). The rose blooms are stunning against the golden foliage. Both would be encouraged by a top dressing of well-rotted manure or compost each spring.

I love selections of wild rambling roses – probably because our Asian Garden at UBC has an abundance of them. The one that causes the most stir when in bloom is Rosa filipes ‘Kiftsgate’, a rampant climber native to China and hardy to zone 6 and up. It has glossy, light-green leaves and large clusters of single, fragrant, cup-shaped, creamy-white flowers 2.5 cm (1 in.) across. Ours at UBC was planted in 1974 and has grown right to the top of a grand fir. There is a lovely story about this rose. ‘Kiftsgate’ was first introduced and selected out in the private garden of Kiftsgate Court in the UK. Apparently some visitors were walking around the garden and on seeing ‘Kiftsgate’, one remarked to the other that it would be a nice climber to grow on the garage. The owner of the garden, on the other side of the bed, overheard the comment and immediately said, “If you plant it there you’ll never get the car out!”

So, like most other climbers I have mentioned, pruning is a must. Well-drained soil is also key.

One last great vine that blooms beautifully over an arbour in late summer is Campsis x tagliabuana ‘Madame Galen’. A member of the Bignoniaceae family, which is mostly tropical in its distribution, it is hardy to zone 5 and up. The parents of this particular cross are the Chinese species C. grandiflora and the North American species C. radicans. The large clusters of orange-red trumpet-shaped blossoms are spectacular. They are borne in clusters of 6 to 12 orange-red flowers in late summer. The striking combination of large panicles of vivid, coloured large blooms can impart the feeling of a Mexican courtyard to any garden. It thrives in well-drained soil and loves a sunny spot. While the younger shoots have aerial roots, they are not strong enough to hold up the vine as it matures, so a sturdy support system such as an arbour or trellis is recommended.

Whatever vine you choose, once you start looking up in your garden, you’ll never look back!

The following plants are hardy to the zone number indicated:
Campsis x tagliabuana ‘Madame Galen’ – zone 5
Clematis cirrhosa – zone 7
Clematis montana – zone 6
Clematis montana ‘Alba’ – zone 6
Clematis ‘Multi Blue’ – zone 4
Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris – zone 4
Rosa ‘Albertine’ – zone 5
Rosa filipes ‘Kiftsgate’ – zone 6

David Tarrant of the UBC Botanical Garden is a well-known gardening expert, author, and host of Spring, currently on HGTV.