Garden design with vertical appeal

Nasturtiums and other flowering vines not only look pretty, they also attract pollinators. (Photo Credit: Foxypar4 via Flickr)

Flowering vines like nasturtiums look pretty and also attract pollinators. (Photo Credit: Foxypar4 via Flickr)

Vines are versatile, fast growing plants suitable for a number of uses in landscaping. Too often, however, home gardeners overlook them.

As the tallest elements in a garden, these amazing plants not only provide a necessary vertical accent, but can climb other structures thanks to their clinging tendrils, twining stems or aerial rootlets. In fact, some can grow anywhere from 10 to 40 feet in one season, depending on the plant.

Vines cannot climb on their own and need support such as trellises, obelisks, tree trunks (if there isn’t a heavy canopy) or even strings fixed to the sides of buildings. The type of support is determined by the way the plant climbs. Always remember to install the support structure for climbers before you plant to avoid damaging delicate roots and stems.

Note that climbing roses are not vines in the traditional sense. Rather, they produce long, slack canes that can be fixed to trellises, arbours and pergolas to produce a stunning display of blooms in summer.

Depending on the desired use, gardeners can choose from annual, perennial and evergreen vining plants. Some uses for vines in garden design are to:

  • Create a softening effect on large expanses of walls or fences (known as ‘hardscape’);
  • Decorate existing structures (statuary, arches, small buildings);
  • Create a garden focal point;
  • Enclose or frame an entry;
  • Provide cooling shade from overhead sun on pergolas, south and west walls;
  • Create a quick climbing display in newly planted gardens;
  • Act as a natural screen for unsightly views, such as trash and compost areas.

Vines are also used as trailers in hanging planters and sometimes as groundcovers. They are extremely valuable in restricted places such as balconies and small patios, where gardeners need to incorporate vertical space.

Annual vines are rapid growers and require good soil and steady moisture in order to perform at their peak. They provide instant colour and that ‘wow’ factor to a summer garden. Some of the best are:

Morning glory (Ipomoea tricolor)
Easy and fast to grow, this old-fashioned plant comes in a variety of colours and can grow as much as 10 feet in one season. Heavenly Blue (sky blue), Pearly Gates (white) and Grandpa Otts (violet with red star) are favourites with most gardeners.

Moonflower (Ipomoea alba)
This member of the morning glory family produces large white fragrant flowers that open in the afternoon and stay open all night. Grows to 10 feet.

Black-eyed Susan (Thunbergia alata)
The most popular variety has orange trumpet-shaped blooms with a black-purple eye in mid-to-late summer, but there are also yellow and white varieties. Grows best in warm weather and can grow eight feet in a season.

Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus)
Easily grown from seed. Brightly coloured funnel-shaped flowers with disc-shaped leaves. Both flowers and leaves are edible and seeds can be pickled to be used as substitute for capers. Grows to eight feet. ‘Alaska’ has variegated leaves and is often used as a trailer in hanging baskets.

Canary creeper (Tropaeolum peregrinum)
This member of the nasturtium family has canary yellow-fringed flowers. The foliage is deeply lobed and light green. Grows eight to 10 feet.


Woody vines – deciduous and evergreen – require sturdy permanent structures on which to climb. Some favourites to consider are:

Clematis (Clematis orientalis)
Probably the most popular of all woody vines, growing from 10 to 25 feet. Disc-shaped flowers up to six inches across provide a dramatic display and, depending on the group of hybrids, bloom on old or new wood. ‘Jackmanii’ (deep violet) blooms on new wood in mid-summer as does ‘Nelly Moser’ and should be pruned in early spring. ‘The President’ and ‘Bees Jubilee’ bloom in spring on old wood and should be pruned after flowering. C. virginiana (Woodbine or Virgin’s Bower) produces clusters of creamy flowers in late summer to early fall. Clematis likes to have its roots in the shade and its head in the sun for best performance.

Goldflame Honeysuckle (Loincera heckrottii)
This deciduous vine has elliptical leaves and is covered with spikes of red and yellow tubular flowers in early summer, and then blooms sporadically throughout the season. It is hardy to zone 5. Sun to part-shade.

Trumpet Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens)
This is a rampant grower producing clusters of two-inch scarlet flowers in late spring to late summer, which attract hummingbirds. Deciduous and hardy to zone 5. Sun to part-shade.

Climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea anomala var. petiolaris)
One of the few vines that will grow in shade. It climbs by aerial rootlets to a height of 50 feet. It is very slow to start and takes a few seasons before it produces large clusters of lace-cap (white flowers) in early to mid summer. Deciduous and hardy to zone 5.

Boston Ivy (Parthenosissus tricuspidata)
This is a clinging climber, growing up-to 50 feet, typically used to cover walls and other structures. The shiny, three-lobed leaves turn scarlet red in autumn. It produces blue-back berries in late summer, attracting birds to the garden. Deciduous and hardy to zone 4. This is the vine that covers the walls of the famous ‘Ivy League’ universities.

Wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei)
Wintercreeper climbs by rootlets to 30 feet. The small, oval leaves are evergreen and some cultivars have variegated foliage. It produces small white flowers in spring and ornamental red berries in late summer to autumn. ‘Silver Queen’ has irregular ivory edges and ‘Sarcoxie’ has glossy green leaves with bright orange berries. Hardy to zone 5.

English Ivy (Hedera helix)
This is an evergreen vine that climbs as much as 80 feet. Glossy dark green lobed leaves and many cultivars are variegated with gold, light green or creamy white edges. It has many uses in the garden from covering walls and statuary, climbing trunks of trees and is often used as an evergreen ground cover. Hardy to zone 5.

Aside from the obvious benefits of colour and drama, using flowering vines in your gardening/landscaping naturally attracts pollinators, too. And that’s a good thing for you, your plants and the ecosystem.

Marsha Middleton is a landscape designer, garden consultant and horticulturist who lives in LaHave, Nova Scotia.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Gardening says:

    This article on vines has been very helpful. Nice to know you live here in NS. I’ bought a clematis for the first time. The only place I have for it to grow is a maple tree that has no limbs for about 30 feet . Do you think it could grow there. What about a climbing hydrangea as another option or maybe both together

    • Rustik Magazine says:

      Hi – sorry for the delay in getting back to you. We’re checking with the horticulture experts and will let you know!

    • Rustik Magazine says:

      So the experts suggest hydrangea and clematis might not do too well together as one tends to like shade (hydrangea) and the other prefers sun. Your clematis should do well on the maple, as long as you give it lots of water and the soil is well-drained. Plant the roots on the shady side of the tree. Top dress with compost after planting because Clematis likes a nice rich soil. And keep us posted on how it’s going – send pictures!

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