A doctor can bury his mistakes but an architect can only advise his clients to plant vines.
~Frank Lloyd Wright
Vines are a great way to cover an eye sore or add vertical plant interest to a small garden. Just about every garden has something ugly or boring that could be covered with a lovely vine. A dull fence, a neighboring garage that you’d rather not see or perhaps you’d like to add an arbor over your gate.
Are you afraid of vines after having seen a wisteria or English Ivy (Hedera helix) swallow up someone’s house? Not all vines are rampant thugs nor do they have to take over the house. I am going to describe how I prune 3 of my vines, Solanum, Wisteria and Fuchsia in my yard. This will be general pruning advice for many (not all) woody, deciduous, perennial vines.
The above picture is of a Solanum crispum glasnerium (Blue Potato Vine) taken in late summer. The trellis it is on is 16 feet (5.2 m) long and 7 feet (2.1m) tall. As you can see the plant covers it and rises several feet above it. In my locale it is in perpetual bloom from May well into December. Only our coldest sustained deep freeze will stop the blooms and make the leaves fall. It is a fast grower with no pest problems that I’ve experienced. After you initially train the twining branches where you want them, it is no work at all aside from annual pruning. Hummingbirds love it and I see the squirrels eat the green and orange berries in winter. I’ve had two of these vines. Only once, on a previous vine did I see sucker growth coming up a foot away from the plant. I’ve never had suckering from the second vine. It may or may not be a problem for you.
Above is the same vine after I prune it in March. Initially I tied the young pliable vines to a fence or trellis where I wanted them to grow and thicken. It blooms on new wood, so every year when you prune you will keep only those branches that will create a main framework for you. All the rest, prune out.
Next is my wisteria vine, trained into a ‘standard’. The photo above is in bloom, below is pruned prior to blooming. Twenty five years ago when we bought this house it was climbing over the roof, into the siding and about to swallow the back stoop. It is not self supporting. The trunk would have to be much thicker, so I have it supported by a cut willow branch. Wisteria is a bit trickier to prune. They bloom on old wood. The leaf buds come out at the same time as the flower buds. The flower buds will begin to elongate with a scale-ly appearance, while the leaf buds will stay tightly closed. Only then do I prune the wisteria, if it needs it, so I can tell if I am about to cut off flower buds. If your wisteria is really a big mess, you may have to sacrifice flower buds for a year to get it back into shape.
If you don’t like to putter in the garden on a weekly basis do not plant a wisteria. While this type of pruning easily keeps it to a manageable size and shape, it sends out new tendrils all throughout the summer that will quickly turn it into a mess. Be prepared to cut them off weekly to keep ahead of it.
Here’s a great example of another pruned wisteria. The main framework of it is trained along the front porch and around the side of this house. All the rest is removed each spring.
The wisteria below is out of control, reaching into the gutters and under the siding. It could be cleaned up and pruned the same as the one pictured above.
Next is my Fuchsia magellanica ‘hawkhead’ after pruning. A gorgeous fuchsia with a small lavender flower which the hummingbirds love. Left alone it will be a bushy shrub, but you can form it into an upright small tree. It took a few years to get it this big (over 6 feet/1.8m) and for the vines to thicken where I wanted them. When it’s in full leaf and flower, it covers the whole area. It is not self supporting. I use green flexible tie ‘tape’ to keep the main stems tied to the support which is an aluminum fence post, cemented in and painted black. I cut all the small branchlettes off the main network of branches in March or when I see new green leaf growth emerging.
• The time to prune your woody vine is when it is dormant but about to break dormancy or just as it is breaking dormancy. If it is still dormant there will be no leaves or buds opening. The leaf buds may be ‘swelling’, getting ready to ‘break’ but no color green is yet showing. The hardest time to prune is when it’s fully leafed out. It is really hard to see you’re progress with all those leaves in the way. In my region, late winter early spring is the best time to prune deciduous, woody vines.
• You need to know if the vine you are buying blooms on ‘old wood or new wood’. It is an important question to ask at the nursery. Wisterias, for example, bloom on old wood meaning they set their flower buds the previous summer and if you prune too hard you’ll cut off those flower buds. The buds will not necessarily be visible to you but they have formed in the stem nonetheless. A climbing rose on the other hand blooms on new wood so you can prune those in the spring with no fear of cutting off this year’s blooms. They set their flower buds on the new growth. I prune climbing roses the same as the Solanum. Leave the long, main arching canes, trim off the small stuff and cut out any dead canes.
• When you are cutting, think framework. Naturally, you’ll cut to a smaller overall size than you want the plant to be when in full leaf/flower. It may take you a few years of pruning to gauge that, as you prune and see how big it becomes when leafed out.
• When you are vine shopping from a reputable nursery, ask for pruning advice from the nursery staff and ask how ‘vigorous’ the vine is you are considering. The term vigorous on a plant tag is the grower’s cheeky way to get you to buy what is possibly a thug, plant or vine. Vigorous often translates to invasive. Yes, really. Ask a lot of questions before you buy, and if the staff can’t answer, find another nursery. In my region, early to mid May is often when nurseries offer vines at sale prices.
As I mentioned above, this advice is for some vines. Not all can be pruned this way. Clematis vines for example, depending on the type of Clematis you have, it can either be cut down to the ground or must not be pruned at all, except to remove dead stems. It’s best to ask the nursery personnel for specifics regarding what you are buying.
A very important post script. If you live and garden in the USA, please do not buy, plant, or even consider English Ivy (Hedera helix). On parts of the west coast Hedera helix is listed on the noxious weed register and now illegal for many (but not enough) nurseries to sell. The seeds are spread via air mail, courtesy of soaring birds. They are fast growers and hardy, quickly climbing over anything. It is smothering and choking out our native woodland shrubs. Not only does it grow up those pretty stone and brick estate mansions, it grows up our forest’s trees and can girdle them, which kills them. There are many grass-roots organizations spearheading its eradication in our forests, woodlands and wetlands, but they are a drop in the bucket of what’s needed. The mature, waxy leaves repel even the most deadly herbicidal sprays. It is best battled by hand. If a gardening ‘expert’ tells you to plant English Ivy for soil erosion control…find another ‘expert’ for a more educated solution. There are many, many better options, specific for your region. Please do not settle on English Ivy.
In Bloom In My Garden Today: Daphne caucasica 'Eternal Fragrance', Anemone nemerosa 'robinsoniana', brunnera macdrophylla, Mahonia, Corylopsis veitch (Winter Hazel), Rhododendrons, Clematis, Muscari (Grape Hyacinths), Hyacinths, Tulipa turkistanica, Hepatica, Daffodil, primrose (double English), Heleborus, Bellis perennis (English daisy), violet primrose