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Vines Are a Gardener’s Best Friend

They're lovely, wistful, have a small footprint and, best of all, provide shade and privacy


It’s tempting to say “the older I get, the more I love vines,” but the truth is that climbers have had me in their grip ever since I started gardening.

And that was before I even had a garden. As a 19-year-old renter in Berkeley, Calif., I had only large containers in which to plant both food and flowers. That first year, the harvests from the short plants (peppers, basil and zinnias) were modest, but the tall vines produced vast quantities of string beans, cherry tomatoes and sweet peas for bouquets.

Lesson learned. When you’ve got a pint-size footprint, it pays to think vertically. So the next year was vine city: In addition to the beans, I grew golden canary flower, climbing snapdragon, morning glories, tall snap peas and tomatoes trained up teepees.

A few years on, when I moved to rural Maine and had plenty of garden space, I tried switching to the more common, more convenient bush forms of snap peas and beans. Not a choice worth repeating.

Tall snap peas and pole beans take longer than bushes to start producing, and they’re a bit more work at the start—you have to set up the supports—but after they get going, they bear for a much longer time, taste better and are a lot less work to pick. Once you’ve harvested string beans while standing up, you’ll never go back to stoop labor, believe me.

Jack was on to something with his beanstalk. Pole beans are such rampant growers you can use them for instant hedging (well, “instant” in grow-it-yourself terms) and at a bargain price. Scarlet runners are particularly good for this; they not only have enormous vigor, but also beautiful, edible flowers as red as their name.

If you’ve never grown climbers before, don’t be intimidated. Start with a few poles, some trellis netting and a couple of packets of seeds—and two months later you’ll have a solid deep green wall, liberally dotted with blossoms. Scarlet runners don’t do well where summers are hot, but there are plenty of other annual vines with similar screening abilities.

Moonflowers, for example, have beanlike vigor and fragrant white flowers that open in the evening, and they bloom most abundantly where summers are warm. Their cousins the morning glories are heat lovers as well. Or, for a bit of the wow factor, there’s fast-growing tromboncino squash. The fruits taste a bit like zucchini if harvested young, but the fun is in letting them keep on growing; they can be three feet long, and have an R-rated look. (Be sure to provide a strong trellis.)

I’ve never stopped loving annual vines, but once I had a place to plant them, the perennials took over: clematis galore, scarlet-flowered trumpet vine, shade-tolerant climbing hydrangea for a wall that gets only partial sun, and, of course grapes. (In some years, yellow jackets get all the fruit while we're away, but we always have splendid fresh leaves for stuffing.)

On top of their other virtues, vines are great at providing shade. Our west-facing front porch is a green glade all summer because it’s enclosed on three sides by Dutchman’s pipe. That’s the vine with big heart-shaped leaves so often seen in pictures of 19th-century houses. Given the size of the trunks at ground level, I think ours may have been planted in the 19th century. Dutchman’s pipe takes time to get established, but it’s unbeatable for longevity.

With any luck, the same will be true of Amethyst Falls, a noninvasive native wisteria that we planted on a lattice awning to shade the kitchen windows. It’s only about 15 years old, but it looks like it’s planning to stick around.

Garden centers sell only a tiny selection of vining possibilities. To lose your heart (and control of your wallet) …try browsing at Brushwood nursery. Rather go for cheap thrills? Tromboncino seeds are sold by Fedco Seeds and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, among others.

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