Climbing and vining plants add a vertical shape to gardens, providing foliage and sometimes flowers that begin at ground level and end at either the vine’s ultimate height or where your support system ends.

My wife Nancy’s favorite climber is the morning glory, or Ipomoea, which produces lots of trumpet-shaped blossoms in many colors – including a true blue – from the middle of summer until the frost hits. As the name implies, the flowers look best at dawn and lose their luster as the day goes on.

Morning glory is an annual, and some online instructions advise planting the seeds directly outside. In Maine, with our short growing season, it is better to start seedlings inside and move them outside after Memorial Day. You will get blossoms more quickly, and if you ask me, that is what gardening is all about.

My own favorite climber is the golden hop vine, Humulus lupulus “Aureus,” and not just because I used to write a beer column. Unlike commercial hop vines that grow as tall as 60 feet tall, the golden hop grows only 9 to 15 feet. But the golden leaves turn a brilliant lime green in fall, when it also produces small but fragrant cone-shaped flowers. (I’m not sure if these hop flowers would be good in beer.) We do grow some Cascade hops that look good running along a fence, but they are ordinary green and less striking.

The hop plant likes full sun, but can stand some shade, and would grow well in all but the most northern parts of Maine. Nancy is thinking of adding a blue clematis to the same trellis as our golden hop because the blue and gold would go well together. I think it would be stunning.

Clematis is one of the most beautiful vines, with big flowers on vining plants that can climb 10 feet high or more. Clematises are tricky to grow because they have to be pruned, and there are three different types of clematis with three different sets of pruning rules. Simplified, if you prune a clematis early in the season, do it right after it blooms – although if you forget, winter storms will do much of the work for you. If it blooms from June to October, prune it in March. The blooms can be white, blue-violet, burgundy and shades of red.


Cindy Tibbetts of Hummingbird Farm in Turner advised me a few years ago that the key is to pick a location with at least four hours of sun a day, dig a bushel-sized hole when planting, mix 10 pounds of compost and some flower fertilizer with the soil you took out of the hole, put the mixture back in the hole, fill with water, plant the clematis in the soupy mud in the hole an inch or two deeper than it was in the pot, and water again. That clematis should last for generations.

We also grow Dutchman’s pipe, aristolochia, with its large heart-shaped leaves, largely because it has been around for generations and requires no care except for whacking it back every five years or so. The flowers are small and hidden, so it is just a background green. We have it because Nancy’s grandmother had one growing on the side of her screened porch.

Wisteria is the classic flowering vine, growing as tall as you have support. We planted some a decade ago because we knew someone who couldn’t get her wisteria to blossom and we like a good challenge, plus it seemed like a good idea to have a wisteria growing on what we call our garden gateway – basically two trellises that are connected at the top with an arch.

Our wisteria has blossomed and done quite well, but it does want to take over the entire garden. We cut it back ruthlessly after it blooms, which seems to bring additional blooms the next spring.

Climbing hydrangea will grow up to 40 feet tall – if you give it a tree, side of a house or something else to support it. This is slower to develop than many of the other climbers, but once it is established, it grows quickly and produces prolific flat white flower clusters in midsummer that persist for a couple of months.

I can’t recommend hardy kiwis, although they are popular with permaculturists, and they do produce edible fruits. The Massachusetts Audubon Society has asked people not to plant them, saying the kiwis are invasive. The hardy kiwi is not, however, on Maine’s list of invasive plants. It takes at least two, different-sex plants to get fruits. The vine isn’t exciting, and I’m not sure what you’d do with bushels of kiwi fruit. Maybe give them away with your zucchinis.


Similarly, Boston and English ivies are highly aggressive and can be hard to control once they get established. My advice? Don’t ever plant them. Never. But if you’ve got to, go ahead – just be prepared for a grasping vine that will even strangle ordinary lilacs.


Now that you know your choices for climbing vines, the next question is what to grow them on. The answer to that is … almost anything.

The simplest, least expensive plan is to use chicken wire. Our Dutchman’s pipe climbs chicken wire that we attached to our garden shed. About every five years we cut the plant to the ground, and rather than remove the vines from the old chicken wire we put up new. That saves a lot of time. Yes, I put it all in our compost bins. The wire rusts away eventually.

Our golden hop grows on a 5-foot tall triangular structure that I built with leftover copper tubing after we had our bathroom redone. Copper is expensive, though, so if starting fresh you could build supports with inexpensive metal conduit pipe – the same product I used to support our sugar snap peas.

A couple of weeks ago I saw some red cedar trellises with the Maine Made tags at Allen, Sterling & Lothrop as well as O’Donal’s, and they were attractive and sturdy. Jim England of the Woodshaper Shop of Maine in Dedham, whom I found through the Maine Made website, also offers custom-built trellises and arbors, including bent twig creations.


We have tried plastic trellises in the past, but the sunlight makes them brittle, and after a few years they fall apart.

If you buy a solid wood trellis and paint, stain or seal it, I would expect it’d stay in good shape for 20 years, though it may need maintenance.

If you buy a heavy vinyl trellis, there will be no maintenance but, well, it’s plastic. You can do better than that.

Mostly, I recommend you use your imagination and make a support yourself. It would be an excellent winter-time project for when you can’t spend time in the garden.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer living and gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at: [email protected]

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: