One of the most diverse and versatile groups of plants you’ll ever find, climbers really have it all. There’s an incredible range of foliage forms and colours, stunning flowering displays, gorgeous fragrances and, in several species, almost luminous shows of colour in autumn. It’s thanks to this diversity that you’ll find a climber to suit just about any job. They’re fantastic problem solvers in the garden, providing quick cover and bulk in areas where many plants just won’t cut it.
"Climbing plants let you enjoy flowers and foliage on the vertical, so they’re fabulous space-savers," BHG Gardening Editor Roger Rox says. "When you’ve run out of planting space in garden beds, or you only have a compact courtyard or balcony, take a look at the walls, fences and other vertical spaces as potential growing spots. You can even install garden structures, like arches and arbours, especially to support beautiful climbing plants."
Climbers have a variety of techniques for moving upwards and outwards. You need to know which technique your plant uses to climb, as this will determine the structure or support you use.
Twiners: Flexible new stems twist around just about any support structure of a suitable thickness. They’re good for growing up posts and poles, but make sure the support is strong enough for the species – a large twiner like wisteria can crush soft timber and strangle trees.
Tendrils: Small tentacle-like structures extend from near the leaf base. These can look like little coils or springs, or have tiny hooks on the ends. They’re perfect for covering latticework, wire mesh or cable-wire fences.
Scramblers: Backward-facing thorns or spikes on stems grab onto any support – climbing roses and bougainvillea are good examples. Often the simplest way to deal with them is to train them along cables on a wall, espalier-style, or over an arbour or pergola.
Sticky feet: Several climbers adhere to just about any surface using tiny suction cup-like appendages or dense clusters of aerial roots. These climbers should be used with care as they can damage painted, timber and rendered surfaces, and can get into mortar joints.
So, whether you need to beautify an archway, spruce up a fence or shed, screen out a view or add summer shade to a pergola, there’s a climber that’s right for you.
Here’s a selection of the best.
1. Wisteria (Wisteria chinensis)
Instantly recognisable with their gigantic sprays of fragrant spring blooms that appear before the new foliage, wisterias are vigorous, deciduous climbers.
Climbing type: Twining climber
Position: Full sun for best performance. Don’t over-fertilise or plant in rich soil, or their growth can get out of hand.
Highlights: Beautiful, huge pendulous racemes of flowers in spring with colours ranging from bright purple blues to mauves, pinks and pure whites, depending on the species or cultivar. Most offer lovely buttery-yellow foliage in autumn.
Uses: Great for training on large garden or house walls, just as long as there’s adequate cable support. Or use for climbing up and over large structures such as pergolas, especially where summer shade and winter sun is needed
2. Grapevine (Vitis vinifera)
A deciduous climber that can be both attractive and productive, depending on the variety selected. Part of the beauty of this vine is the gnarled form the trunks and shoots take as they age.
Climbing type: Tendril climber.
Position: Vines need full sun for best performance and will tolerate a range of soil types, provided they’re free draining. Strong support is required, as with time they can become woody and heavy. Highlights: Dense, beautifully shaped foliage, with bunches of summer grapes if you’ve chosen a fruiting form. Most colour-up well in autumn.
Uses: Training over pergolas to provide summer shade and winter sun, swagging under sunny eaves on a verandah, or training along wire fences. It can also be espaliered against a wall.
3. Bambino dwarf bougainvillea (Bougainvillea species)
If you love the flamboyant flower display of bougainvilleas, but find their large size and robust growth a bit of a turn-off, you will adore the mini-bougs in the Bambino range.
Climbing type: Although technically a scrambler, the compact form of the Bambinos means many of them behave more like shrubs than climbers.
Position: Full sun for best flowering display. Free-draining soil is a must, and they prefer dry winters with reliable moisture throughout summer.
Highlights: Amazing flowering – though the ‘flowers’ are technically bracts (modified leaves) – in neon colours, with lush foliage when not in flower.
Uses: Fantastic in large tubs and smaller gardens. A number of Bambinos are large enough to train over garden arches and arbours to great effect.
4. Orange trumpet creeper (Pyrostegia venusta)
The stunning beauty of this vine flowering in mid-winter never fails to send people rushing to their local garden centres asking for an ID. Beyond the bounty of blooms, pyrostegia is evergreen, very vigorous and has dense foliage. It’s also known as flame vine.
Climbing type: Tendril climber. Position: Full sun for best performance, but protect from frost. It tolerates most soils, but avoid heavy clay or water-logged spots. Position where the cascading blooms can be seen to their best advantage, such as hanging from a balcony rail or tumbling over the top of a wall.
Highlights: Masses of stunning, vibrant orange flowers in mid-to-late winter. As the habit of the vine is pendulous, it creates the impression of a flaming orange waterfall. Its foliage is glossy green and the stems are streaked purple. Overall, it has a distinctly tropical look.
Uses: Great for a winter flower display. Ideal for hiding walls, wire-mesh fences and even sheds, due to the dense cascading foliage.
5. Creeping fig (Ficus pumila)
This evergreen climber is a beautiful option for softening unpainted walls. Just a couple of cautionary notes to keep in mind – it’s unsuitable for painted surfaces and needs to be pruned quite regularly to keep it under control.
Climbing type: Sticky feet (self-clinging roots).
Position: Prefers full sun and is tolerant of most soil types, provided they’re free draining. Make sure the surface it will attach to is firm, as a mature plant can become quite heavy.
Highlights: Grown primarily for its tight-clinging foliage, creeping fig must be pruned regularly – this stops the adult foliage developing, so the leaves stay small and neat.
Uses: Ideal for covering unpainted masonry walls and fences, or large rock surfaces.
6. Star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides)
This evergreen climber is truly the landscaper’s friend. It will perform fabulously in a range of conditions, and looks brilliant with very little care. You’ll often see it described as vigorous but, in fact, it can be a little slow to establish, then has distinct growth spurts after flowering.
Climbing type: Twining climber, which may develop a few sticky feet (or aerial roots) as it matures.
Position: Performs well in partial shade through to full sun. It tolerates most soil types, but performs best in quality free-draining soil.
Highlights: In spring, the plant is smothered with small white flowers with a fabulous fragrance, and the foliage is great for adding permanent structure. Uses: Perfect for climbing over just about anything – arbours, pergola posts, lattice, wire fences – or along cables. It also works very well as a dense groundcover for covering large areas.
7. Passionfruit (Passiflora edulis)
Not only do they produce mouth-wateringly delicious fruit, passionfruit vines can also serve as a beautiful camouflage over unsightly walls and fences thanks to their evergreen foliage and distinctive purple flowers.
Climbing type: Tendril climber.
Position: Plant your passionfruit vine in full sun with protection from strong winds. Passionfruit vines are versatile but are best suited to subtropical and temperate climates. Passionfruit vines grow extensive root systems so ensure the spot you choose to plant has plenty of space. The best soil for passionfruit vines is rich in organic matter and well-drained with a pH of 5.5 to 6.5.
Uses: Passionfruit vines can be trained to grow along your fence, on a trellis or over an arbour, just install some wire or mesh to support its tendrils. Your first edible fruit will appear around six to eight months after planting but have patience – the best crop will come in around 18 months.
8. Banksia rose (Rosa banksiae)
The Banksia rose is a vigorous and hardy climber that can quickly take over an area but fortunately it's very easy to train. It produces masses of beautiful, buttery yellow flowers.
Climbing type: Scrambler.
Position: Choose a spot in full sun or partial shade with moist, well-draining soil. They require a surface you can tie them onto – think lattice, pergolas or posts.
Highlight: The Banksia rose is fast growing, making it ideal option if you're in need of a quick covering.
Caring for climbing plants
"Most climbers will need an annual trim-back to keep them under control," Roger says. "After flowering is the best time. But any time plants start to get out of control, and send out long tendrils where you don’t want them, be prepared to get out the shears and give them a cut back."
Climbing plants aren't only designated to outdoor areas – certain species of climbing plants can also be grown indoors in pots.
"You can grow climbers in containers, as long as they’re generous in size and include a small frame for the plant to lean on," Roger explains. "Moderate growers like Mandevilla are ideal for pots. While climbing plants aren’t usually thought of as indoor plants, some such as ivy and creeping fig, can be grown in pots in sunny rooms. And devil’s ivy (Epipremnum aureum) is one of the easiest of all indoor plants to grow – you can train its stems to spread over a window sill or even tape them to a wall."