Down in the Garden: Growing garden climbers

Creating a wall of green to hide an ugly fence, covering a difficult patch of ground or making a pergola a shade house in summer and a sun trap in winter, can all be achieved with the help of climbing plants.

Some are better suited to growing along the ground and usually known as creepers and others, sometimes referred to as ‘scramblers’, are shrubs that when trained will climb.

All can be incredibly useful design elements while providing beautiful detail, colour and texture to your garden.

Why Do Plants Climb?

Members of the plant world have three major things on their to do list: find nutrients, water and sunshine.

In order to find the later, they need strong stems and branches to support their journey upwards towards to light.

Each plant type also needs to grow to a certain height to absorb that sunshine based on the environment they are in, the type of plant they are and who their neighbours may be.

Having a towering tree as your garden bed fellow means you are going to have to adapt so that you can live on less sunlight or find some other way to get that warmth and light.

Although we often joke that plants don’t have legs, in a way some have in fact developed modified leaves, stems and roots so they can move by grasping onto their neighbours and climbing. They don’t need thick trunks or large branches to support their quest, instead they spend their energy growing vines to attach themselves to other plants and features in the landscape.

Deciduous or Evergreen?

When choosing a climber, ask yourself what you want from the plant because although it may look lovely in flower in that magazine, it may not suit your actual requirements.

There are deciduous climbers, ones that lose their leaves in winter – not so great if you want to cover an ugly fence, but perfect if you have a pergola and want both winter sun and summer shade.

A few deciduous climbers to consider are Wisteria, Crimson Glory Vine (Vitis coignetiae) and Ornamental Grape (Vitis vinifera)

Evergreen climbers keep their leaves year round and some examples are, Jasmine, Mandevilla, Bower of Beauty (Pandorea jasminoides), Wonga Wonga Vine (Pandorea pandorana), Arrowhead Vine (Syngonium podophyllum) and Creeping Fig (Ficus pumila).

One of the most beloved climbers in eastern Australian gardens, the Bougainvillea are usually evergreen in warm areas like here on the Coast and deciduous where winters are very cold

They are a very easy-care climber provided you prune regularly – just watch out for those spikes!

What Goes Up Also Grows Down and Around

A bit of a warning, many climbers have extensive and strong root systems to anchor them while they make their way onwards and upwards and their roots also naturally seek water.

That includes your underground pipes.

Another issue to be aware of is that some climbing plants can take over very quickly in the right conditions for them.

The sheer weight of a tangled climber can pull down garden structures and fences and some plants can invade the structure of houses including brickwork, gutters and roofs.

These days cultivars of many climbers have been developed that are not as over-zealous in growth, but all the same, you may need to select well and put in extra time to maintain shape and spread to your liking with regular pruning.

A good example of more controlled growth in a notably energetic climber is the American Wisteria (Wisteria frutescens) rather than Chinese or Japanese Wisteria.

Plants you need to carefully consider before introduction, if at all, are the Honeysuckles such as American Honeysuckle (Lonicera americana) and Japanese Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica).

While they have beautifully scented flowers and the Japanese variety provides a lush and inviting evergreen cloak, they can easily take over via their fast-growing runners and rhizomes, choking native trees and shrubs and causing terrible damage.

These are not the only culprits as many introduced climbers, such as English Ivy (Hedera helix), can also pose problems.

Choose wisely.

Support for Climbers

Climbers forgo strong and thick trunks and stems for parts that are subtle and flexible in order to spread and climb. This means that when you bring them into your garden, you need to give them a support to grow on

Take a look at a mature plant and take note of the trunk and branches to assess suitability for your existing structures and when building new ones.

Jasmines grow with thin, soft twining branches that can cover most fences and garden structures without causing damage through weight or strangulation.

They require little other than a light trellis or guiding wires to grow.

Heavier plants like the Wisteria with its thick gnarly trunks and twisted branches need heavier support to hold them up and to avoid destruction of your structure.

I’ve personally had a gorgeous Wonga Wonga Vine (Pandorea pandorana) close its vines like a vice around a lightweight garden arch until the top popped off!

Climbing plants have a few different methods of adhering themselves to structures as they make their way along.

Some, like Hops (Humulus lupulus) have the most fascinating tiny grappling hooks to grip.

Others shoot out tiny sticky roots to burrow into anything along their path like common English Ivy (Hedera helix) does.

Perhaps the most obvious are the tendrils that plants like Passionfruit Vine (Passiflora edulis) twine around footholds as they climb. These coils are a remarkable adaptation as they not only ensure a very secure grip but also act like a car shock absorbing spring when the vine experiences wild weather.

Whatever you are growing on whichever type of structure, ensure that there are adequate ways for your plant to spread and help their method of anchoring (hooks, twining, aerial roots or tendrils). You may need to add trellis to walls or fences, guide wires or mesh to provide support and you will need to check often and occasional provide addition points of security by tying vines and branches to your support or structure. Use rubber coated wires or strong natural twines and make sure that you do not over tighten such points.

Climbing Flowers

If you have or desire for a cottage-style garden, climbing roses are a design feature that instantly sets the tone and mood of your entire home, lifting it instantly into a whimsical, romantic and rather pretty space.

There are roses that are classified as true climbers, but you can also train many others, (especially rambling style roses), to climb.

Arches, walls, pergolas, pillars, fences and screens can all hold a climbing rose beautifully.

The secret is to find roses with pliable stems for ease of training and to train canes horizontally to encourage flowering.

Jasmines herald the coming summer as they release their perfume upon the first balmy nights.

These divine plants can grow in a range of light requirements from semi to full sun depending on their variety.

Be careful with the sun-lovers if you are wanting to cover a fence as they have a habit of growing straight up to cover the top of your fence, leaving the rest bare.

Other climbing plants with amazingly gorgeous flowers not mentioned yet include: Morning Glory (Ipomoea purpurea), but it is very invasive as it spreads easily via self-seeding; Clematis (Clematis occidentalis) love full sun and will tolerate a bit of shade, but they must have cool roots so mulch well; Trumpet Vine (Campsis radicans) with of course trumpet-shaped flowers in hot reds, oranges and yellow.

Mandevilla are also experiencing a bit of comeback in gardens at the moment and why not? They are remarkably well-suited for warmer climates such as ours here on the Coast and blossom during summer.

Australia Native Climbers

On a very rainy day this week I dropped in for a chat with Vicky and Mitch at the beautiful Narara Valley Nursery, Narara and asked them which Australian native climbers would grow well on The Central Coast.

They suggested: Purple Coral Pea (Hardenbergia violacea) which is a very reliable, lightweight vine that trails easily over fences. It will need part to full sun and be advised, it is frost sensitive. Blossoms in winter with pea shaped purple flowers.

Bower of Beauty (Pandorea jasminoides) is one of my all-time favourite plants with its clusters of delicate pink trumpet-shaped flowers with deep crimson centres that seem to flower forever.

There are a few interesting cultivars around as well and all are not fond of the frost but will grow in full sun to part shade.

Wonga Wonga Vine (Pandorea pandorana), a close relative to Bower of Beauty and can be distinguished by more bell rather than trumpet-shaped flowers.

This one is a little more able to cope with at least a light frost and again likes part-shade to full sun.

Snake Vine (Hibbertia scandens) is more of a creeper but can be trained to cover low structure – its bright yellow flowers are just lovely in lower parts of the garden, but it must have full sun. Another creeper that can be trained to a low climbing height is Kangaroo Vine (Cissus antarctica) and this is a shade lover.

There really is a climber for all your intentions and needs, you just have to plan a little to ensure that both your structure and your climbing plant are a good match for each other and that your climber is going to like living and growing in the area your garden is situated in.


Coachwood Nursery, Somersby Open Day – 30th October 9 – 4pm Rare and collectible succulents for sale along with dried flowers and arrangements. Free entry, bookings essential: 0491147448

Grace Springs Farm, Kulnura has morning and afternoon farm tours on multiple dates and a ‘Small Farm Workshop’ – 8th November. Various prices, to book: 0425 258 699

‘Native Plant Propagation’ online class 7:30 – 9pm, 2nd November – to book:


Cabbage, carrots, chillies, beans, beetroot, eggplant, parsnips, potatoes, radish, squash, tomato, basil, chives, oregano, alyssum, asters, carnations, cosmos, foxglove, marigolds, sunflowers.

Cheralyn Darcey is a gardening author, community garden coordinator and along with Pete Little, hosts ‘The Gardening Gang’ 8 – 9am every Saturday on Coast FM.