Climbers for city gardens
by Rhiannon James
Climbers can totally transform a small, enclosed garden. Some are dense enough to turn the walls green, cloaking ugly fencing and creating a lush backdrop for the space. Others can scramble across the top of a boundary or around balcony railings, adding privacy, or cover a pergola to create a shady, secluded spot. And many will bring colour, scent or fruit too, keeping things interesting at eye-(and nose-) level. The only question is which one to choose? Our experts name their highlights.
A climber that has been providing endless pleasure is Aristolochia californica. It has shown great vigour from the moment it was planted outside my back door and now festoons the back of the house in an abundance of long trailing stems, each clothed in beautiful matt green kidney- or heart-shaped leaves that are quite unlike those of any other genus. The bare stems are currently covered in buds and beautiful pale orange ‘dutchman’s pipes’ will soon clothe this strange plant from base to tip end. This is a much-underrated group of plants that deserves wider recognition.
James Aldridge, garden designer (www.jamesaldridgedesign.com)
There are many plants to choose from when it comes to clothing the boundaries of a city garden but my failsafe is Trachelospermum jasminoides. Evergreen, scented, well-mannered and tidy, it is a plant that seems to thrive in many conditions. I have seen it growing in dense shade where it was only licked by late summer sun – OK, it didn’t flower much but its leaves were still glossy and green and bounced light around, giving life to the space in a way that other climbers’ foliage couldn’t. Given some sun, Trachelospermum or star jasmine offers even greater rewards, producing thousands of small, star-shaped bright white flowers in the summer which emit a scent reminiscent of warms nights in the Mediterranean.
The evergreen leaves of Trachelospermum cluster close together on the plant and this dense habit helps to unify mismatched garden boundaries and provide a green and lush backdrop to a scheme. It doesn’t enjoy every situation – cold winds and wet ground make for a very unhappy plant – but if you have a sheltered, sunny spot and can provide some wires around which it will weave itself, it’s a plant that will reward all year round.
Kate Gould, garden designer (www.kategouldgardens.com)
I tend to prefer to grow wall shrubs against walls and fences, rather than climbers. Indigofera heterantha or Himalayan indigo is one of my favourites and it’s very little used. It’s a gorgeous shrub with arching bendy branches, which make it easy to train, and it fits perfectly in a city garden as it’s very well-behaved and contained. Indigofera is spectacular against a south- or west-facing wall or fence (particularly if the fence is painted black). I first came across it at Fenton House in Hampstead. It stopped me in my tracks with its drop-dead gorgeous pink flowers and lovely fine pinnate leaves. I have been using it ever since. It does take a little while to get established but it’s well worth the wait!
Ana Sanchez-Martin, garden designer, (www.germinatedesign.com)
Holboellia latifolia, Pileostegia viburnoides and Hydrangea seemannii
Holboellia latifolia has everything you could ask for in a climbing plant. It’s a vigorous grower with shiny, thick evergreen leaves. Off-white flowers in spring produce a knock-out gardenia-like fragrance that can transport you to the tropics. Plant it where you can appreciate the scent early in the year. It twines its way through trellis, wires, banisters and drainpipes and after a hot summer it will produce fruit that look like small aubergines but they’re not too tasty. It will grow to 20ft/6m in no time.
A member of the hydrangea family from eastern Asia, Pileostegia viburnoides is perfectly hardy despite its origins. A worthwhile addition to any garden, this evergreen self-clinging climber has leathery oblong leaves and produces long-lasting sprays of small star-shaped flowers on flat heads in late summer. As with most self-clinging evergreen climbers, it’s slow to establish but it’s worth waiting for a few years for it to really get into its stride. It will grow happily in sun or shade and will eventually reach 15ft/4.5m or more.
Hydrangea seemannii isn’t the climbing hydrangea you find in most garden centres but an evergreen relative from Mexico which is hardy to -5°C. It produces large, leathery leaves and huge flower buds which burst open to reveal spectacularly large, creamy white flower heads. A mature plant is a gobsmacking sight in summer. It climbs up to 20ft/6m on any surface by aerial roots.
Declan Buckley, garden designer (www.buckleydesignassociates.com)
Clematis ‘Harlow Carr’
Late-flowering clematis are a great choice for a small garden, bringing colour and beautiful blooms – and they really are exquisite, I can gaze at them for hours – from July to October.
Unlike evergreen and early-flowering clematis, late-flowering clematis can be hard pruned in spring, which is an advantage in a small garden as it means the ultimate height can be controlled.
Pushed for a favourite I’d go for Clematis ‘Harlow Carr’, named after the RHS garden in Yorkshire that I used to run. It has sumptuous violet-purple flowers and gets to about 2m in a season.
Matthew Wilson, garden designer, writer, broadcaster and Managing Director of Clifton Nurseries (www.clifton.co.uk)
And for something a little different . . .
I’ve given up on climbers in small gardens. Not because I don’t like them. I do, but I’ve found that you either end up with something that never covers the space you need it to, or you spend the next ten years hacking away at a plant that would be much happier covering a barn in the countryside.
I’m becoming a bigger and bigger fan of vertical gardens in all sorts of sizes and for all sorts of spaces. The systems with frames that hold planters are best for a smaller garden. They give you total control over what you plant and if you change your mind, that’s fine. One year you can be growing vegetables and the next, a tropical forest. It’s all down to the plants you choose.
In our two new vertical gardens here at The Roof Gardens, the planting reflects our commitment to sustainability in the food we serve in our restaurants as well as in the way we manage the gardens. We are planting herbs for fish and seafood near our seafood bar on the Babylon Terrace. In the English Woodland garden, where we have the perfect south-facing site, we are filling our vertical planting with forage food such as herbs and fruits, many of which can be found in the English countryside.
David Lewis, Head Gardener at Kensington Roof Gardens (www.roofgardens.virgin.com)