July / 2006
At Home in the Garden

Vigorous vines
by:  

Growing on my old block garage is one of the most lush and beautiful vines that I know of, Boston ivy—Parthenocissus tricuspidata. It completely covers my garage now and serves as a wonderful backdrop for my garden. One of my favorite things about this vine is that a family of mockingbirds has taken up residence in my garden, and they feed on the fruits that remain after the leaves have fallen in the winter.

It’s hard to imagine the winter garden in the middle of summer, but it is important to acknowledge all the seasons when thinking about our overall landscape designs. Certainly July, August, January, and February are the toughest months for our gardens, and they represent the extremes that our gardens must endure on a yearly basis.

Boston ivy
Boston ivy is deciduous and not at all like the evergreen English ivy that most of us are familiar with. The leaves of Boston ivy are simple, with three lobes that are quite large and can grow 5 or more inches across. The leaves are a beautiful glossy green in summer and a stunning red to burgundy for fall.

This is not a vine for the timid. It is vigorous to a point of almost being considered aggressive. It can climb as high as you will let it, and I have to work to keep it off the roof and out of the windows of my garage. It climbs by adhering to the surface with tiny suction-like cups. Watch out if you let it climb where it is not wanted. It is quite easy to remove the vine portion, but the tiny suction cups left behind on your wall are a little more difficult to get off.

Blooming in early summer, the tiny blossoms are barely noticeable. The large, almost tropical-like leaves disguise the flowers and the tiny green fruits as they begin to form. Once the leaves have fallen for winter, mature bluish-black fruits become visible, at least until the mockingbirds eat them. The fruits are quite abundant, so it takes most of the winter for all of them to be eaten.

Virginia creeper
A commonly found native vine, Virginia creeper, or five-leaved ivy—Parthenocissus quinquefolia—is very similar to Boston ivy in habit and appearance. It is often confused with poison ivy, which only has three leaflets, but they both have bright red fall color and can climb quite high, even to the tops of mature trees.

Virginia creeper can be a little harder to find than Boston ivy in the nursery industry, but it certainly makes a beautiful display in the garden. Unfortunately, it is generally considered less desirable than Boston ivy and I have to admit it does look slightly weedy to me.

When seedlings of Virginia creeper pop up in my garden, they do look very similar to poison ivy until the five full leaflets have formed. If you are severely allergic to poison ivy, this vine may not be the best choice because it is hard to distinguish between the two weed seedlings in any garden.

Crossvine
Another popular vine also has a home in my garden, crossvine—Bignonia capreolata. It looks at first to be a miniature version of trumpet vine but is indeed quite different. First, it blooms in the spring while trumpet vine blooms in the middle of the summer. Crossvine is a vigorous vine but the roots are not invasive, while trumpet vine is both an aggressive vine and has an invasive root system. We sell both at our garden store because they both have a place in the garden, but the crossvine is a much better choice for my small urban landscape.

The small tubular flowers of crossvine appear in huge numbers in late April to early May in my garden. This is a vine that will grow in both shade and sun, although it prefers to have its root system growing in part shade where it is cool. In its native habitat, crossvine will grow to the tops of trees and all the blooms will be above in the sun.

So many of the gardens I visit have the perfect spot for a tough, hardy vine, but for some reason all I ever see is the popular yet finicky flowering vine clematis. If you have a long stretch of fence, an old shed, or garage, you would be thrilled at how one of the above three vines would transform the space in a few short years. Narrow pathways, tight fencing angles, and small garden spaces are the perfect arena for growing vines. The best thing is they don’t take up precious ground space, only space above.

Even after the worst summer or the roughest winter, my garden always seems to recover and look even more beautiful each year. I keep changing little things here and there, but in the summer I appreciate the lushness and beauty of my vine collection even when there are no flowers.

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