What Are Climber Plants?

Climbers are plants which have evolved to cling onto walls, fences, trees, trellises or other forms of support using tendrils, twining stems, stem roots or sticky pads.

Some climbers will climb all by themselves, while others, like wall shrubs, will require some gardening work, such as tying in the plants or training them. Wall shrubs resemble climbers superficially, but they must always be tied to supports.

In botany, a vine is any plant which has trailing or climbing stems, lianas or runners. The word vine is most commonly associated with grapes. But it is sometimes used for climbing plants like cucumbers, for example, which have a natural tendency to coil and cling to vertical supports. Some vines are climbers, and some are not. The term climber is usually used in the British Isles to refer to all climbing (or potentially climbing) plants.

Climbers will naturally want to grow upwards, while vines may grow horizontally too, and may need more training or support to encourage them into vertical growth habits.

Popular Climbers & Vines Grown In The UK

Of course there are a great many climbers and vines to choose from. Here are just some of the popular climbers grown in the UK:

How To Care For Climber Plants

climber plants on a garden fence

It is important to understand just how much variety there is when it comes to climbers. Many are perennials, but there are also annual options (or more tender climbers that can be treated as annuals in the UK).

Even among the perennials there is huge variety, and their care requirements will depend on a huge range of factors. For one thing, it will be important to note whether the plants you have chosen will require some support, or can climb and secure themselves unaided.

Another important consideration when it comes to climbers is how vigorous they are in their growth habits, and how large they will ultimately grow. These things will of course be one factor that will dictate when, and how often, they must be pruned and trained. It will also be important in choosing the right climber for a particular wall or fence, or a support structure suitable for its needs.

Another important factor when it comes to the care of climbers is whether they are evergreen or deciduous, as the pruning requirements will differ depending on this factor too. As well as on when the particular plant is in bloom.

Most climbers do not like to dry out entirely. But growing close to the base of a wall or fence, they can often be sheltered from rainfall. So it may be necessary to water your climbers, especially until they become established.

There are climbers suited to almost any situation, which like a range of soil types and conditions. But it is vital to choose the right climbers for the right places. Some prefer a spot in full sun, while others need a partly shaded or shaded location. Make sure you understand the needs and preferences of the particular climbing plants that you are considering growing or trying to grow.

What Conditions Should You Avoid?

A climber can be placed almost anywhere – as long as there is something suitable for it to climb. But you should of course avoid choosing the wrong climber for the wrong place. Make sure you do not grow a climber that likes sunlight in shade, or vice versa. If it needs sheltered conditions, do not attempt to grow it in too exposed a spot. If it likes conditions that are acidic, do not try to grow it in alkaline soil…you get the point.

In addition to thinking about things like sunlight and shade, wind, water, and soil, you should also think about practicalities.

Will the climber cover the space you want to cover sufficiently, or sufficiently quickly? Will it be too vigorous for the location? These are important questions – and you should avoid making a choice of climber before you have really thought things through.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Are The Best Climbers For North Facing Walls?

A north-facing wall is usually a shady spot. This means that when choosing the best climbers for this location, you need to choose shade-tolerant climbers or wall shrubs. Here are some good options to consider:

Some self-clinging climbers for north-facing walls:

  • Euonymous fortunei
  • Hedera colchica
  • Hedera helix
  • Hydrangea anomala
  • Parthenocissus

Some twining climbers for north-facing walls:

  • Akebia quinata
  • Celastrus orbiculatus
  • Lonicera periclymenum
  • Schisandra rubriflora
  • Trachelospermum jasminoides

Wall shrubs to train up a north-facing wall:

  • Chaenomeles
  • Cotoneaster horizontalis
  • Garrya elliptica
  • Pyracantha
  • Shade tolerant roses

What Climbers Grow In Shade?

All of the options mentioned above for a north-facing wall are those climbers that grow in shade. These plants can also all be good choices for east facing walls, or other more shaded spots.

Ivy – Hedera spp. provide a wide range of interesting options for even the most shaded of sites. Different ivy can provide a lot of year-round interest, and there are options to consider with different leaf shapes and sizes, and variegation.

Remember, when choosing plants for shade, that some climbers will cope with particularly shady conditions, while others will cope only with light or dappled shade. You also need to think about whether it is damp or dry shade that you are dealing with. The degree and shade and other specifics of the environmental conditions will determine which plants will be the best choices for the site.

When Should You Prune Vines In The UK?

The best time to prune vines or climbers depends on the specific species and variety with which you are dealing. And also on the stage of growth it is in. Mature climbers often need to be treated differently to those that are just becoming established.

Climbers and wall shrubs generally fall into three different pruning groups – RHS pruning groups 11, 12 and 13. To paraphrase the RHS: plants that flower on the previous season’s growth should be pruned just after they have flowered. Often, this will be in winter, spring or early summer.

Plants that flower on the current season’s growth are often pruned in late winter, or early in the spring. These usually flower in mid-to-late summer or in the autumn. Some also require additional summer pruning after they have flowered.

Vigorous climbers are pruning group 11. Examples of plants that fall into this category are Akebia, Lonicera, Parthenocissus, Trachelospermum and Vitis. No regular pruning is required, but trimming may be necessary to keep them to the available space.

Moderately vigorous climbers are pruning group 12. Examples of climbers within this group are Plumbago,  Solanum crispum, and Sollya hererophylla. Either after flowering or in late winter/ early spring (depending on whether they flower on the previous year’s growth or this season’s growth), side shoots should be shortened to within 3-4 buds of the permanent framework of branches. Overcrowded, dead, damaged or diseased shoots should also be removed at the same time.

Wall trained shrubs fall into pruning group 13. On these shrubs, pruning will usually involve shortening the side shoots to within 2-4 buds of the permanent framework of branches. Any shoots growing towards the wall or fence should also be removed.

These guidelines are for climbers and wall trained shrubs that are at least 2 years old.

How Can You Train Vines To Climb A Wall?

Training climbers or training vines to climb a wall involves thinking about the natural growth habits of the plants in question. Some climbers will climb and cling to a wall or other structure naturally, on their own. While others will need to be trained into position and tied in place. However, all climbers will benefit from initial training and pruning.

Before you put your climbers or vines in the ground, you will have to have any necessary support structures in place. If you are training a climber that does not self-cling up a wall, then you will need to have your support wires or trellis in place first.

Support wires are taut horizontal or vertical wires help in place with eyes. These should typically be spaced around 30cm apart. You can also affix a trellis to a wall – typically, these are made from wood, though other materials, like bamboo, for example, can also be used.

When planting your climbers or vines against a solid structure, it is usually best to leave a 30-45cm gap between the plant and the wall. This avoids the rain shadow of the structure.

Use bamboo canes or similar to train stems in a fan shape up to the supports on the wall, then tie in the stems and canes to the wire or wooden trellis supports. Use garden twine rather than wire to tie in the stems of the climber. Wire may damage the plants.

Over time, for non-self-supporting climbers, tie in the new growth regularly, and extend the canes. Eventually, the climber will form thick, woody stems and should not require additional cane support. Though the plant will still need to be tied in, trained and pruned correctly to keep it on the wall correctly.

Can You Grow Climbers In Pots?

There are many climbers and vines that can be grown just as successfully in pots as they can in the ground – as long as the containers they are grown in come equipped with support structures, or the pots are placed against suitable support.

Some climbers that work well when grown in pots include (but are certainly not limited to):

  • Clematis
  • Climbing roses
  • Passiflora
  • Star jasmine
  • Ivy

There are even climbers that can work well in containers, which can be kept indoors all the time, as houseplants. Just make sure that wherever you keep these, that the containers are large and deep enough to meet the needs of the specific plants. And that you keep up to their watering needs. Remember, plants grown in containers will typically require more watering than plants grown in the ground.

How Can You Get Rid Of Invasive Vines?

Vigorous climbers can easily become invasive and if they are taking over, this can be a difficult problem to solve. Vigorous climbers can sometimes be counted amongst ‘thug plants’ here in the UK – plants that can quickly get out of hand and begin to take over.

Some climbers and vines that can become a problem include passion flower and Russian vine, for example. Ivy may also get out of control. While it can be beneficial on the walls of a home, improving energy efficiency and protecting the structure, it can cause damage to guttering or slates once it reaches the roofline – so should be pulled back before it reaches this level.

Hard pruning can often keep large and vigorous vines and climbers in check. And it will not always be necessary to get rid of them entirely. If you do want to get rid of vigorous vines, remove the material manually (including digging up the root system) and either burn it or place it in a municipal green waste system. In an organic garden, chemical controls/ weedkillers should not be used.

What Is The Fastest Growing Evergreen Climbing Plant?

Some of the fastest-growing evergreen climbing plants include:

  • Clematis Armandii
  • Hedera helix
  • Lonicera henryi
  • Potato vine
  • Star jasmine
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