Vines Have Unique Personalities

English ivy clings with aerial roots.

Boston ivy and creeping fig are good aggressive vines for freeway overpasses and sound-walls. They are resilient to harsh exposures and pollution, and help to muffle the sound of traffic. Boston ivy provides remarkable foliar color in autumn before defoliating in winter. Creeping fig provides thick evergreen foliage that overwhelms any graffiti that it can reach.

However, their aggressive behavior that is such an advantage on freeways is precisely why they are not so practical for home gardens. Boston ivy gets around so efficiently because it grabs onto surfaces with ‘holdfast disks’ (modified tendrils) that damage paint, stucco, wood and just about anything that is not built like a freeway. Creeping fig is at least as destructive with clinging aerial roots, as well as constrictive stems that can crush smaller plants, fences and anything else that it might grab hold of.

Most vines are aggressive in nature. They exploit trees for support, and then compete with them for space. Some are complaisant enough to mingle relatively peacefully with the trees that support them. Less honorable vines have no problem overwhelming the canopies of their supportive trees. Creeping fig and other related figs are known as ‘strangler figs’ because their constrictive roots and stems crush and kill the same trees that help them get above the forest canopy.

Such behavior needs to be considered when selecting vines for home gardens. Bulky and potentially constrictive wisteria vines that would tear lattice apart can be quite appealing on sturdy arbors or trellises. Lattice could instead be adorned with docile Carolina jessamine, lilac vine, mandevilla or even regularly pruned passion vine. Star jasmine and the various trumpet vines work nicely to obscure chain link fences. With regular selective pruning, pink jasmine, honeysuckle and potato vine work well on rail fences.

Climbing roses and bougainvillea do not climb on their own, but can be trained almost like vines. Some varieties stay small enough for low fences and trellises. Larger types are proportionate to larger fences and arbors.

Vines Do Not Replace Hedges

90619thumbUrban homes are innately close to other urban homes. Newer homes are even closer to each other than older homes are, and are more imposing. Establishing or maintaining privacy can be a challenge, especially for high windows in narrow spaces. Even though home builders prefer to place windows strategically, some windows invariably face into neighboring windows or gardens.

Trellised vines are a popular but rarely effective remedy to this dilemma. The narrow spaces between houses and below the eaves can be dark enough to inhibit growth. Consequently, vines are typically sparse or bunched on top of their trellises. Their most vigorous growth is often awkwardly long shoots trying to find a way out of the shade. Vines are not exactly easy to work with anyway.

There are of course exceptions. With regular maintenance, some finely textured vines that are reasonably tolerant of shade can be effective for downstairs windows. (Upstairs windows are out of reach.) If shorn very regularly, English ivy on lattice works almost like a hedge. (Ivy does not fill in on more open trellises.) Trellised star jasmine is even better, but needs more depth (front to back).

Yet, with few exceptions, big evergreen shrubs or small evergreen trees that tolerate shade are more practical. They support their own weight, so only need to be pruned for confinement and clearance from the houses that they provide privacy for. Some shrubs and trees should be pruned to stay at the desired height, so that superfluous upper growth does not shade out lower growth.

The various podocarpus are some of the better small trees for narrow spaces between houses because they are are somewhat tolerant to shade, and are so easily pruned into shape. Some of the taller and more upright pittosporums work nicely in sunnier spots. Arborvitae tolerates more shade, and naturally stays narrower. Since some of these better options might grow slowly, they can be planted with faster growing shrubbery that can be pruned back, and eventually removed as the preferred plants mature.90619

Grapes And Vines Of Wrath

70531thumbAnyone can plant a grapevine. With a bit of work, almost anyone can make a grapevine grow. Most who put forth the effort can figure out how to prune and cultivate a grapevine. Yet, grapevines so often get very out of control. They easily escape confinement, overwhelm nearby plants, climb into trees and overburden their trellises or arbors. It is easy to forget how aggressive they can be.

The primary problem with aggressive vines is that they require pruning for confinement. The most aggressive vines need the most aggressive pruning. Grapevines can actually be quite docile if pruned properly. Chinese wisteria and red trumpet vine need even more aggressive pruning, and will never be completely tamed. It is important to know the personality of each vine in the garden.

The secondary problem with aggressive vines is they are expected to conform to unrealistic confinement. Small trellises that are lower than about eight feet, including common gate arbors, spires and obelisks, are really only big enough to accommodate docile small vines like clematis (hybrid), American wisteria, well pruned mandevilla and vining annuals like morning glory and pole bean.

Chinese wisteria, large types of bougainvillea and other big and heavy vines need big and stout trellises or arbors. Lattice will not do. Chinese wisteria becomes entangled with lattice, and then crushes it as the vines expand. Bougainvillea does the same to a lesser extent, but then pulls the lattice apart as the intertwined vines sag from the increasing weight of foliage and growing vines.

Clinging vines like creeping fig and Boston ivy present another problem. They are not interested in trellises or arbors. They do not grab onto support by twining stems or tendrils. They instead cling directly to surfaces with specialized aerial roots that damage paint, stucco or even bare wood fences. Clinging vines should therefore only be allowed to climb surfaces that they will not ruin, such as concrete walls. They are better vines for freeway soundwalls than for home gardens.