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Growbag Blog

Our favourite climbers for each season


We want to talk about climbers today.  They are SUCH an important part of the outdoor scene, don’t you think? Especially in small gardens and balconies, where you’d be mad not to make use of the vertical space. But which to choose?  

We 3growbags have each come up with a suggestion for the three main flowering seasons.

SPRING. My spring choice is Clematis alpina.  This species is much daintier than the rampant C. montana that wildly festoons many a wall in May, or C. armandii.The colours are often subtle and unusual – they add a touch of class amongst the wham-bam of most spring plantings. Think Helen Mirren paying a visit to Love Island.

These alpine clematis are very hardy, don’t need much pruning other than a tidy-up after flowering, and have the very sweet habit of producing fluffy seedheads after the flowering time is over.

Clematis alpina ‘Constance’ – perfect for a touch of class in the spring

SUMMER. Apologies for choosing yet another clematis for summer, but I am absolutely besotted with Clematis viticella. They flower with manic abandon in July and August.  They need completely different treatment to the alpinas, but it’s still a very straightforward procedure: just cut every single stem down to a foot off the ground in late February or March.  I don’t twiddle about with cutting back to emerging shoots – there doesn’t seem to be any need for that.  A nice dose of fertiliser and off they go again.

Clematis viticella ‘Etoile Violette’ – a glorious long-flowering cracker for high summer

A couple of things about planting and growing clematis of any kind.  They do like a touch of rich living so put some good compost in the planting hole, and plant the clematis about two inches deeper than it was in the pot.  Keep clematis well-watered, and be terribly careful when you’re tying them into their support – the stems can be heartbreakingly brittle.  Use some eco-friendly protection against slugs and snails if your area is prone – they like nothing better than a juicy clematis shoot as a midnight snack.  I have found Sluggone wool mats work well in my garden. 

AUTUMN. It’s got to be a dark-leaved vine.  Vitis vinifera Purpurea’ has foliage that emerges green and slowly each leaf becomes suffused with purple as the summer wears on.  By autumn, some leaves are almost black, but get the sunlight coming through and wow! You are surrounded by rubies and garnets in an enchanted glade. For that reason, this climber is much better on a pergola or arbour than a wall, I think.  It’s vigorous, so prune it hard in winter.  

The shining rubies and garnets of a purple-leaved vine in autumn sunshine

SPRING. What a surprise, two out of three of Elaine’s favourite climbers are yes, you’ve guessed it, clematis …. ! Lovely as the early varieties of clematis are, my favourite early spring climber has a bit more heft than these rather capricious beauties. The chocolate vine Akebia quinata looks quite delicate, and you will find it variously described as slightly tender and needing full sun and a sheltered site. But ignore all this advice.

Akebia quinata or chocolate vine
The plucky chocolate vine, Akebia quinata

As I was picking through what remains of my so-called garden after the ravages of the bitter winter we’ve had here in the Sussex Weald, I could almost have hugged this trusty stalwart – not only had it survived on a cold north wall, it had actually started to flower at the end of February. It has a lovely spicy scent to boot so I picked a few sprigs to enjoy indoors. And I’m not its only fan, last year it successfully hosted two pigeons’ nests and a pair of blackbirds. So ignore all the naysayers and give it a go.

Pigeon nesting in Akebia
Everyone loves Akebia quinata, including the local wildlife.

SUMMER. Come July, my favourite summer climber arrives with a great fanfare. I know that my Aristolochia grandiflora needs fairly rarified growing conditions but once you get these right (warm shade, I know, a bit of an oxymoron), it is a real talking point as you can see from our feature pic. The buds look like a human organ and then flare open to a rich speckled purple. It won’t take any frost at all, so you’ll need a shady spot at the back of a cool conservatory.

Aristolochia grandiflora
Aristolochia grandiflora is extraordinary in bud and just as dramatic in full flower (our feature picture this week)

AUTUMN. In autumn, the climber I most look forward to seeing in flower is another rather exotic looking creature, but one that can thrive outside in damp shade in milder areas. In my frost-pocket of a garden it’s cosseted against the back wall of a just frost-free glasshouse.

Lapageria rosea
Lapageria rosea – perfection

Lapageria rosea is almost impossibly beautiful in flower. It looks a little scruffy out of season, but all is forgiven once the perfect bells start to form in late autumn and carry on until about Christmas.

Lapageria rosea var. albiflora
Lapageria rosea var. albiflora, the white form is just as beautiful

Like both my earlier examples, lapagerias are happy in shade, and appreciate a good organic mulch to keep their roots cool and damp.

picture of Caroline

This is tricky. In the Scottish Highlands we don’t have a superfluidity of balconies or warm, damp shade. Most of us have one exposed and one sheltered gable (often north-facing) and proper windswept gardens.

To be fair, Elaine’s Clematis alpina is much ballsier than it looks and will buckle up and thrive up here, but Laura’s suggestions? Forget it.

So my three would be:

SPRING. Given we don’t really have spring here, just winter max, I’m playing safe with my evergreen Hedera helixSulphurheart’. It may be an ivy but it gleams like a racehorse and is, to my eye, classier than H. ’Goldheart’. I bought two last year rather wondering if something this lovely could survive here. YES IT CAN! Mine are shrugging off the minus-double digits and icy winds with consummate professionalism. They’ll look good wherever you plant them ALL YEAR ROUND!

SUMMER. Remember I don’t have much experience of climbers apart from tough old sloggers like Hydrangea petiolaris (currently springing into life on my north-facing wall), but if it’s something prettier you’re after – try ClematisNiobe’. She’s gone on strike a couple of times (who hasn’t these days?) because she’s very exposed and apparently I didn’t plant her at sufficient depth or water her enough (Elaine’s view) but lo and behold, she’s made it through another Highland winter!  You’ll love her velvety purple flowers in summer.

Oooft – isn’t that a colour! Classy, bold, confident. Clematis ‘Niobe’ is all the things your school hymn wanted you to be…

AUTUMN. Well, my sisters haven’t touched on this but there are plenty of climbers you can grow from seed right now – Lathyrus odorata (sweet peas to you and me and which peter out come midsummer in the soft south but can still be flowering in November here) , Cobaea scandens (cup and saucer plant); Rhodochiton (unmentionable nickname); Thunbergia (black-eyed Susan), these all have very different but fabulous flowers in late summer /autumn. I have to grow the last three in my greenhouse as they are a bit fragile for here.

The white form of the cup and saucer plant – such a pretty thing. You can grow this Cobaea scandens f. albiflora from seed right now and enjoy these flowers later in the year

But, I’ve saved the best to last. Wherever you live, south or north, get some of these babies going at the foot of a wall or at the base of pea sticks. In my book, there’s only one thing better than a nasturtium, and that’s a climbing one!

Have you got some favourite climbers which have become must-haves for your garden? We’d love to hear from you.

We met a wonderful spider expert recently – we had no idea how important they are in our ecosystem! Find our interview with her here, together with tips on how to protect these much-maligned creatures.

Elaine took a little walk round her garden last weekend and was delighted to see some signs of spring arriving. Here’s the link to the video.

Louise feels her Plant of the Month is a much prettier thing than its brassier cousin. See if you agree by clicking on the box below.

More NB If you’re not already a subscriber and you’d like a bit more gardening chitchat from the3growbags, just click on this button and enter your email address – we’ll send you a confirmation email and a new post every Saturday morning.

By the3growbags

We're three sisters who love gardening, plants and even the science of horticulture but we're not all experts. We'd love everyone even remotely interested in their gardens to be part of our blogsite.

8 replies on “Our favourite climbers for each season”

I love a Clematis (I have several) however, ‘avalanche’ didn’t make it through the winter this time. I’ve dug it up and hard pruned it but I think it’s a goner. No doubt Bill Mackenzie will happily take over the space.

Hi Suzanne, Elaine here. I’m sorry to hear about your Clematis ‘Avalanche’. If you live in a part of the country that had some extremely cold spells this winter, it might well be that it has died. It’s one of the cartmanii clematis – evergreen and spring-flowering with gorgeous white blooms, isn’t it – my son has one of these beauties in his garden. This species of clematis doesn’t seem to be as robust as other spring-flowerers, and there are certainly some varieties of cartmanii that would actually need greenhouse protection in the winter. Don’t give up hope just yet though – I think you have done the right thing; pot the roots up and keep watered in a sheltered place – you may yet see some shoots emerging from the base. C. ‘Bill Mackenzie’ will have NO TROUBLE filling the space left if the ‘Avalanche’ doesn’t pull through – he’s a doughty and vigorous customer! Good luck.

Hi ladies, thanks for your suggestions for climbers for all seasons but could you tell me the name of the purple beauty with white squiggle marks that you used at the head of your article ? That really was a stunner.

Hi Virginia, this is the weird Aristolochia grandiflora that Laura talks about in the article. Extraordinary isn’t it! Glad you enjoyed the blog. All the best from the3Growbags.

Lovely climbers ladies, though here in the chilly Midlands I think Laura’s more choice selections would be sacrificial lambs! However, thank you very much for the annual climber suggestions as I’m looking for things to grow with my granddaughter this summer – how exciting would some of those be? Louise’s forsythia choice has reminded me that I want to hunt down the white flowering one, Abeliophyllum distichum, which looks wonderful. Now where can I fit it in ….

Hi Sue – yes you’re right, if it likes you then it really likes you!! Thanks for pointing this out to anyone thinking of planting one. We solved its exuberance my making sure the wire trellis (aka pig netting, remember I’m marrried to a farmer) stopped well short of the eaves of the house so it couldn’t worm its way under the roof tiles. We give ours a good clipping back to a central framework each year after it’s flowered which seems to keep it to its allotted space. Definitely not tender! Best wishes Laura

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