Toronto Star column – published July 5, 2014
When the Friendly Giant suggested at the beginning of each show that you “look up, waaaay up”, I am sure he was not thinking about flowering vines. I cannot recall that Bob Homme was much of a gardener but I am sure that the two of us could agree on one thing: we spend way too much time looking down. My birding friends will tell you the same thing. All of the action is above the horizon, folks.
If looking for birds is not reason enough to look up, then consider this: our new homes [and condos] are being built on progressively smaller lots and in the case of the tear down, where an old bungalow is removed in favour of a 3-story super-home, the size of the lot is further sacrificed. None of this changes the need to plant green and flowering plants where we live; whether it is on acreage or on the balcony of a 25-story condo tower, our desire for plants should not be diminished.
Consider the benefits of a travelling vine that makes its way up your wall or twines itself through a fence. Like a shade tree, it sequesters deadly carbon; it also transpires oxygen and moisture. It has the same cooling effect as a tree, without the inconvenience of a trunk. The flowers attract pollinators including hummingbirds and bees [in some cases] and the fragrance of some flowering vines is enough to inspire romance of a remarkable kind. Let’s not even go there.
So, what about the patio where the sun bakes down in the afternoon while you slave over the BBQ? West- and south-facing walls are exposed to the cold of winter and the heat of summer. East and north walls take their fair share of wind. Vines can change a boring wall into an illumination of colour and greenery.
The purpose of this column is to draw your attention to the opportunities that are right in front you. There are a lot of vines that will turn you on [or turn your dwelling on].
Let’s begin with the flowering vines that are so exciting that we can’t really afford to ignore them any longer.
Honeysuckle Vine. This is a twining type. It wends its way around an arbour, a fence and even a wire support that is suspended on a brick wall. When it flowers it attracts hummingbirds and people turn their attention to it for its amazing fragrance. Watch out for this one. When it is in flower and you are sitting under it in the calm of the evening air I will not take responsibility for what might happen next. Choose from Dropmore Scarlet [lipstick red], Mandarin [orange] and Goldflame [bright pink]. Performs best in full sun.
Hydrangea Vine. This is a clinger. Like the character in M.A.S.H. by the same name [‘Clinger’ not hydrangea], this climbing plant has character to beat the band. I have several planted around my home where I want the late spring flush of creamy white umbel-shaped flowers in addition to the deep, glossy green foliage that is the trademark of this great climbing vine. I am a bit partial to it as there was a specimen that grew outside my childhood bedroom window on the second floor of our Scarborough home. I always thought of it as a friend. Had there ever been a fire in the house, I had a plan to just climb down the hydrangea vine. Simple, easy, safe and it attracted lots of pollinators even before I knew what they were. Suitable for full sun or partial shade.
Clematis. The ‘Queen of Flowers’ is a winner to be sure. But I have always found the moniker to be a little much. It is a show stopper if you want late spring/early summer flowers followed by interesting seed heads. There are more clematis varieties available than I can list here; indeed, I could easily write a column or two about clematis without mentioning any of its vertical competition. Alas, the best advice that I can give you today is to go to your favourite garden retailer and check out the selection. Do it while there is still time as the selection dwindles significantly by mid summer. It is a twining vine that generally grows to 3 or 5 meters depending on the variety and the support that you give it. Clematis likes a dash of lime in the soil each year about now. A handful or two will do the trick as they enjoy a slightly alkaline soil.
Roses. No, it is not too late to plant roses. If you put one in the ground now, you will get a nice show of flowers this September. The better show will be next June. Roses are heavy feeders so be sure to fertilize them now and again in a month and then stop. No point in forcing soft growth on them late in the season when they really need to be hardening off for our typically cold winters.
My favourite varieties are the David Austin climbers and the tried and true ‘Blaze Improved’. When it comes to climbing roses it is best to vouch for the winter hardy varieties first. All roses require a minimum of 6 hours of sunlight.
Kiwi. Chances are you are amazed that I am even mentioning the exotic kiwi vine for our zone 5 and 6 gardens. Well, not so fast. The hardy kiwi that I am talking about is winter hardy to zone 2 – well north of Edmonton. It produces an abundance of super sweet fruit about the size of your thumb nail. But there is a caveat: you need to plant a male and a female plant within reasonable proximity for cross pollination to occur. When you shop for kiwi plants the label will tell you if it is a male or a female. Chances are there will be more females available for sale as they do produce more heavily and [another caveat] only one male is required to service up to 50 females. This is handy to know if you are planning on planting up a kiwi farm, which is not something that I am recommending as you will have a hard time competing with the tropical type of kiwis that they sell at fruit markets.
I love hardy kiwi just the same. It is tolerant of partial shade, never suffers from disease or insect problems and it grows quite aggressively. The two that I have on my front porch require aggressive pruning twice yearly just to keep them from swallowing the house, but, in my opinion, they are worth it. If, someday, they do take over our fine abode I can think of nothing richer than living with kiwi growing through the windows.
Remember to look up.