Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Vine love

As an urban gardener, I learned quickly to think vertical. Not only do vines and climbers increase the productivity of a limited space, but they also add new heights of visual interest when a space-and-sun-hogging tree just isn't feasible. All of my favorite garden design books advise the creation of outdoor "rooms", an idea which always seems a little out of reach for my tiny plot. Our whole property, however, is surrounded by a tall cast-iron fence. In the height of summer, when covered with climbing roses and annual vines, the fence becomes a floral wall. If I squinch my eyes enough, my fences of vertical vines give a very private and room-like feel to our yard. Past the grape arbor, along the garage, is a second tiny shaded space. So, my garden rooms make up a horticultural studio apartment, or as a New York real estate broker would spin it, a "junior one bedroom".

I've posted on my two favorite vines before, the cardinal climber and the black-eyed susan vine. They will both be making a repeat appearance in my 2010 garden along with the scarlet runner bean and various morning glories. I have a clematis or two struggling along in various spots, despite suboptimal conditions and neglect on my part. I don't have the heart to rip them out and every year, against all odds, they do put forth some nice blooms. Both the scarlet runner and the cardinal climber are hummingbird friendly, so I'll keep my fingers crossed that we'll get some visitors this year. After watching the recent PBS special on hummingbirds, I was pretty much ready to up and move southward. Yet even if tiny birds do not appear, the vines please tiny humans. My son loved the scarlet runner with its fairy-tale beans. If I have the energy this spring, I plan on trying to make him a little wire structure and plant it with annual vines. Hopefully by the end of the summer will create a quiet green hideout for him.

As for new annual vines for this year, I am going to try Asarina scandens, Vigna caracalla and Passiflora incarnata. I think the V. caracalla and the P. incarnata (Maypop passion fruit) are actually perennials, just treated as annuals here in the northern zones. I may container plant a few and see if I can nurse them along over the winter. After browsing through the online catalog of Summer Hill Seeds, I was so taken with the photos of the Vigna caracalla "Corkscrew vine" that I impulse purchased a package of seeds on the spot. If I can get even just one of those flowers to bloom this year, I will be a satisfied woman: the blossoms are so sculptural, and colored so delicately, I imagine I could spend hours inspecting them. The passion fruit is also a flower-driven purchase. The blossoms of the Maypop look like otherworldly jellyfish -- not unlike something out of Avatar. Apparently, they do fruit, but I suspect they might need a longer, warmer season than we can offer here in Chicago. So, there it is, sucked in by showy flowers. I know I should be moving towards more design sophistication and focusing on foliage and massing, etc. But these two flowers are so breathtaking in pictures that it will be like Christmas if they ever grow in my scrappy little patch of earth. And what is the point of gardening if you can't get giddy over a flower or two? I'll trade a whole swath of healthy hostas for a few moments with the corkscrew blossom.

I've already started the Passiflora, here it sits at a steady 70 degrees above the fridge -- germination is spotty (30% on the package!).

Finally, I am going to put in some Cascade hops along the sunny corner of my hopefully new front porch (that was supposed to have been done already-sigh). Hops is a strong fast-growing vine, yet one that dies back to the ground every season. Oddly, I am not a home-brewer, at least not yet, but I know a few folks who might be interested in making a seasonal IPA with fresh hops. I was reading a few on-line guides to growing hops and ran across a truth that bears repeating to all urban vine lovers. Watch where you plant in regards to overhead wiring. Before you know it, fast-growing vines can wind their way up your overhead power, cable and phone lines. Last summer, I faced a small crop of green beans hanging 15 feet over our backyard. For safety and convenience, this was clearly not ideal. But it did make me wonder...could I train a whole crop along overhead twine? I could have a green-bean roofed patio. Hows that for a room?


  1. I like the idea of the room roofed with edibles -- and yet, I had some pole beans migrate out of reach this year (lovely, purple-podded heirlooms) and knew the frustration of not being able to get to them, so I wouldn't recommend it. ;)

    Cardinal climber was my favorite vine this summer. I saved seeds and plan to grow a whole bunch more of them this year as the hummingbirds loved them and came in droves, delighting me.

    A suggestion for you: put out hummingbird feeders and buy an already-blooming fuchsia or two, maybe a lantana (they love Miss Huff!) to entice them early in the season when they first migrate to your region (here that can be as soon as mid-March). That way, once your cardinal climbers are in bloom, they're already in the neighborhood.

  2. I am way behind on the vertical gardening - we look sadly flat out there. I hope to give it a go this year!

  3. Dibs on the hops!

    I'm trying to find a quick grown pretty vine for our not too sunny pergola over the back deck. Lots of nice space to cover, but northern exposure so most of my sun loving first bets are out.