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. 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.