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Grow a Climber through a Shrub

A shrub can act as a great support for a climbing plant—instead of the typical trellis. Here are tips for pairing and planting shrubs and climbers together.

A shrub can be a great support for a flowering climbing plant, and in return the climber dresses up the shrub. Such a pairing also offers a way to economize on space in a small garden.

clematis viticella

Pairing a shrub and climbing plant takes some planning. Here are things to consider:

  • Compare the growth rates of the plants. They should match so that one doesn't overtake the other. If the shrub is a slow grower, let it grow alone for several years before adding the climber, to give it a head start.
  • Consider foliage size and shape, plus flower color, shape and season. Pair a small-flowered climber with a shrub with large leaves, such as Aucuba japonica (Zones 7–10) or Magnolia ×soulangeana (Zones 4–9). If the climber has blue or purple flowers, match it with a shrub with light green or white-variegated leaves, such as the shrubby dogwoodCornus alba 'Elegantissima' (Zones 2–8) to make the flowers stand out. A summer-flowering vine is the perfect match for a shrub that blooms in early spring.
  • At planting time, set the climber so its roots are on the shadiest side of the shrub. This will encourage it to reach for the sun—winding around and growing through the shrub to reach the bright light on the other side.

Clematis (shown, C. viticella) is probably the most popular choice for growing through a shrub. The viticella hybrids—such as 'Betty Corning', 'Etoile Violette' and 'Polish Spirit'—work especially well. They are the easiest clematis to grow, being fairly adaptable to soil type and exposure (though they like sun best). They also resist clematis wilt. Clematis pruning is simple with this group—they should be pruned back to 12 inches from the ground in late winter. This is a boon to the supporting shrub, particularly if it is spring flowering. The shrub can hold center stage until the clematis begins to grow back in later spring.

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Learn how and when to prune every plant with Lee Reich's updated The Pruning Book.

Choose from hundreds of great plant pairings with the Encyclopedia of Planting Combinations.