Vines are an excellent addition to any garden—they grow quickly, are inexpensive, and can add a lot of color. Use our guide to help you choose the best ones for your garden
Mike Reed calls them “high octane plants” because they grow so fast.
Marcie Christensen says they are a favorite of hers because they “expand and reach and adapt to whatever is around them.”
“They smell so delightful,” says Susan Carson Lambert, who also likes their no-fuss nature.
Rick Durham finds them useful on slopes to avoid erosion and in places where you don’t want to mow.
And Mary Carol Cooper likes the fact that there are many native varieties that help wildlife.
All five gardeners are talking about vines—an inexpensive and fast way to add color, height, lushness, fragrance, and ambiance to your garden this spring.
“You plant a seed and within two months, like Jack and the Beanstalk, you have shade or pretty flowers or something covered that you want to hide,” says Reed, Extension agent for agriculture and natural resources in Powell County. “Vines do that.”
Vines are a part of both Lambert’s and Christensen’s gardens. Both women live on farms in Anderson County. Both are also good friends and long-time gardeners.
“I want to use all different forms of plants in my garden,” says Lambert, who has been gardening for 40 years and has a 212-foot-long, 10-feet-deep, double-sided perennial border on her 145-acre farm. “Every form of plant has a purpose.”
Lambert uses vines for vertical interest on her high double porch. Sweetautumn clematis winds up the vertical porch rails of her home. She also plants moon flowers, which she trains up and across the second story of the porch on her geodesic dome porch. Another gardening practice she uses is to inter-plant late-flowering vines with early and mid-season flowering shrubs. When the shrubs have quit blooming, the vines provide bloom and color.
“While you plant the moonflower vines in June, the vine doesn’t actually flower until about September,” she says, “and when they bloom, they only blossom at night, then close up in the morning. You wait with bated breath for them to bloom all season, and then you have to wait until night for the blooms.
But you are rewarded with a delicate scent that is sweet but not overwhelming like a gardenia. And the flowers are luminous white and huge—about five inches across.”
Lambert has a summer ritual with moonflowers.
“I wait for them to bloom, and then get on a step ladder and inhale the aroma of the flowers,” she says. “Their scent is closely held, so you have to get up next to the blossom to get it.”
Lambert also co-plants with morning glories, which bloom a lot faster. Timing, Lambert notes, is important in gardening.
One mile down the road, Christensen favors honeysuckle, silver lace vines, morning glories, wisteria, and grape vines in her garden.
“Grape vine is my favorite year around,” Christensen says. “I like the vine itself even in winter. It has more appeal in the winter than the summer because you can see the structure of the vine. I’m a furniture maker by trade, so grape vine has an appeal that is more obvious to me.”
Last fall, Christensen cut grape vines, wove them together into a 25-foot swag, and used it to go up one post and form a swag over the doorway to her home, then back down the other post. She then wove small white lights throughout the vines.
“It makes a very welcoming and attractive display,” she says.
Christensen says the vine is flexible when it has just been cut, allowing her to work with it. She also says that grape vines naturally twist and turn around themselves, making them ideal for such applications.
The grapes produced by the vines don’t interest Christensen. She allows the deer and birds on her 13-acre farm to eat them.
If you want to make use of the grapes, be prepared for some serious pest management, according to Dr. Rick Durham, consumer horticulture specialist with the Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service.
“Grapes require a lot of disease management,” warns Durham. “People may be disappointed if they try to grow grapes. They require spraying throughout most of the season.”
But overall, Durham says, vines can be an excellent addition to a garden.
“Many vines spread naturally and will root along the stem as well as in contact with soil, so they spread easily,” he says. “They are very easy to propagate.”
Durham says it is important to look at your landscape as a whole and think about where vines may be suitable. They are also good in raised containers and can cascade out of the container.
“Consider vines on walls or vertical structures,” he says. “Areas where you want a groundcover are also good. Vines also add privacy and a covering of vines can make a fun ‘fort’ for the kids.”
Cost is another reason to consider vines, according to Reed, who includes information on vines in his annual garden classes in Powell County.
“Most vines are fairly inexpensive,” he says. “You can get a package of seeds for under $3, and you are on your way. They are inexpensive plants with a lot of color. If you are looking for some variety, incorporate some vines. Whether you want flowers, fruit, or foliage, there’s a vine to provide it.”
Clematis. Often called “queen of the climbers,” this is a great vine to start with. A perennial, clematis comes in many varieties with blooms in almost as many colors—red, pink, white, blue, lavender, and bi-color. Some varieties have unusual centers—fluffy centers and star-shaped centers, for instance. With all varieties, you are rewarded with tremendous blossoms the size of your hand after only a year or two.
Sweetautumn clematis (Clematis terniflora). A favorite of many, this fast-growing perennial outdoes itself in late summer and early fall, when it is covered with small white flowers. Use it to soften the look of fences or lattice, but don’t depend on it to give you full coverage from the ground up. It tends instead to create a mound of white at the top of its structure.
Be careful to read and remember the requirements for each clematis. Some need to be cut back. Some should not be cut back. For all varieties, keep the roots cool by making sure they are mulched or covered, while providing sun for the vines. All varieties must be trimmed to be held in bounds.
Passion vine. There are more than 400 species of this perennial, which is native to Brazil, Peru, and Mexico. Although it bears pear-shaped fruit, the fruit is not good for eating.
Many people enjoy this vine because of its religious connotations. It gets its name from its resemblance to the Crown of Christ; the center appears to resemble the three nails and five wounds of Christ. Blooming in August and September, the flowers are very tender and do not last long. Plant in sun to partial shade.
Wisteria. The icon of vines, wisteria, with its long purple-blue or white racemes, puts on a stunning show in mid to late spring. Each spring, you can see the beauty of wisteria at the entrance to the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, where wisteria engulfs the buildings.
The native species, thus most favorable to Kentucky’s climate, is American wisteria (W. frutescens), which blooms a little later than the Japanese (W. floribunda) and Chinese wisterias (W. sinensis), which are beautiful but invasive and hard to control. Stick with the American wisteria.
This perennial likes full sun and needs a lot of room. Plant it in a moist but well-drained soil. It needs room to spread, and the blooms and woody stems are heavy.
The corner post of a porch is not the place for this vine. It can literally pull the porch post off. Train it to grow up a sturdy climbing structure that can handle the resulting weight. Expect it to grow about 25 to 30 feet in a season.
Morning glory. This old-fashioned annual produces abundant blooms and comes in many colors, including white, blues, pinks, purples, and reds. ‘Heavenly Blue’ (Ipomoea tricolor) is a particular favorite of many gardeners. Each flower lasts only one day.
Morning glories are beautiful on an arbor, but they cause major problems for farmers and will cover everything. Use them in pots or on fences and walls where their weediness isn’t going to be a problem. Plant in full sun. It doesn’t get too hot for a morning glory if you water it enough, and morning glories don’t need or even want to be pampered. With little care, it will grow 10 to 15 feet and produce plenty of seedlings for the next season.
Honeysuckle. If you can’t beat it (which you can’t), why not join it? Honeysuckle makes a pretty arbor and wraps around posts nicely. Honeysuckle will grow rapidly in full sun or shade and even in poor soil.
A word of warning about honeysuckle, however: the Japanese variety (Lonicera japonica) is one of the most invasive vines. Look instead for native varieties Lonicera sempervirens, which has orange flowers, or Lonicera dioica, which has yellow flowers.
Goldflame honeysuckle (Lonicera x heckrottii) is probably the best of the climbing honeysuckles. The two-toned flowers appear in spring and flower sporadically on new growth until fall. It attracts hummingbirds that like the nectar, and birds that eat the fruit.
Moonvine (Ipomoea alba). You won’t see any flowers on this night-blooming vine during the day. They only bloom at night, but it’s worth the wait. The plate-size, pure-white blooms are eight to 10 inches in diameter and very fragrant. They bloom in late summer when it is hot. A cousin to the morning glory, its name is derived from the bloom’s shape like the full moon and because they bloom in the evening.
The seed coat is very hard, so soak seeds overnight before planting. Plant in full sun to partial shade. Train up a trellis or fence. It grows 10 to 15 feet each season.
Trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans). Also called trumpet vine or hummingbird vine, this deciduous vine produces orange or yellow flowers throughout the summer, attracting hummingbirds and butterflies. ‘Monbal,’ a relatively new cultivar, has clusters of up to 12 flowers.
It may take a year to become established, but it grows extremely fast afterward and will grow anywhere. Be prepared to do frequent pruning; this vine is quite vigorous and grows wild in fence rows and corn fields. Plant in full sun.
VEGETABLES OR VINES?
Sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas). Today’s varieties are not your grandmother’s old sweet potato. Although it is a true sweet potato, complete with tubers, it has bolder, more colorful (lime green, yellow, and variegated versions) foliage than its vegetable counterpart. They don’t mind the heat and don’t need to be watered every day.
Sweet potato vine is a good addition to any hanging basket or pot because the foliage grows out and drops over the side. One sweet potato vine in a container will quickly fill in around the rim of the pot and spill over the edges. Unlike its cousin the morning glory, which is easily grown from seed, sweet potato vines are propagated by stem cuttings that develop roots in just four or five weeks.
Purple hyacinth bean (Lablab purpurea, formerly Dolichos lablab). A favorite of Thomas Jefferson, these ornamental vines are as popular today. This annual has a purple bloom and seed pod and purple-green foliage. The seeds germinate almost 100 percent of the time and grow quickly, some 10 to 20 feet during the season. Sun lovers, they do best in full sun and need lots of water and fertilizer. Enjoy them while they last. At first frost, they are gone.
Scarlet runner bean (Phaseolus coccineus). The hummingbirds love this flaming red annual. A member of the morning glory family, it produces trumpet-shaped blossoms that are less than an inch across and come in clusters like sweet peas. They will quickly cover fences, trellises, and other garden structures.
Corkscrew vine (Vigna caracalla). Thomas Jefferson called the corkscrew vine “the most beautiful bean in the world.” This heirloom plant is started from seed. It is very fragrant and equally expensive. Expect to pay more than $17 for a plant.
Mandevilla (Mandevilla sp.). More of a tropical plant, this perennial produces loads of silky red, pink, or white two- to three-inch flowers and blooms all summer. Often seen around a mailbox, it also works well climbing a trellis or lamppost. Water frequently and bring inside before the first frost. It will not tolerate Kentucky winter weather. One night of frost and it is gone. This vine can also be used as a houseplant. Just give it lots of bright light (no direct sun) from a south or southwest window.
Dutchman’s pipe (Aristolochia elegans). This plant from the tropics is a showoff. The unusual flowers are large and have a spotted purple color that mimics the pattern of calico fabric. It also has heart-shaped leaves. Use it for summer foliage on a pillar or a fence, to drape a porch, or to grow along a fence in the vegetable garden. Plant in partial sun or shade.
OTHER VINES WORTH CONSIDERING
Bougainvillea (Bougainvillea sp.). Very colorful, this climber grows well on arbors and trellises. It is also a great plant to use in containers and hanging plants around a pool. The tiny flowers come in a variety of colors, including pink, red, salmon-orange, and yellow. Plant in full sun in a slightly acidic soil. It will grow 20 to 40 feet in ideal conditions.
Plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides). If you’re looking for a slower-spreading vine, this is it. The viney-like plant produces blue flowers in early summer and late fall. It is easily grown and tolerates a wide variety of soil types. To optimize growth, provide afternoon shade during the heat of summer.
Black-eyed Susan vine (Thunbergia alata). This annual prefers full sun. Plant in a hanging pot and keep it watered.
Cypress vine (Ipomoea quamoclit). Once considered a weed, the cypress vine is now sold in garden centers. This vine likes full sun and attracts hummingbirds with its red, trumpet-shaped flowers.
Bow tie vine (Dalechampia dioscoreifolia). This vine enjoys full sun and good, moist garden soil. It will produce hot pink to purple blooms until frost.
Crossvine (Bignonia capreolata). This semi-evergreen to evergreen woody vine is at its best in spring, when its bright tubular flowers show off for several weeks. ‘Tangerine Beauty’ is a particularly glorious version.
Crossvine can climb a trellis using its tendrils or cling to smooth walls with its small disks. It needs full sun to develop thick foliage and can eventually grow to 50 feet if given proper support. Its eventual height depends in part on its support—anywhere from 15 to 50 feet is usual.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: MORE ON VINES
For information on vines that look like weeds, two invasive vines not to invite (English ivy and Boston ivy), the native plant sale at Salato Wildlife Center, and how to become certified as a Master Gardener, click here: vines