No matter the size of your garden, you aren’t making the most of your space if it doesn’t include a climbing plant or two. Climbers expand your available growing area because they use the vertical plane. They can be an important design element, providing interest at eye level and higher, hiding an eyesore, serving as a shady green ceiling or any combination of the above.
However, certain climbing plants have earned the group a reputation that causes gardeners to shy away from using them, whether we think of them as too slow (think climbing hydrangea) or too rampant (think certain honeysuckles).
Happily, there are plenty of climbers that are quick to grow and flower, yet unlikely to eat your landscape alive. Here are five to try from seed.
1. Black-eyed Susan vine (Thunbergia alata)
Typically grown as an annual for its small but profuse and cheerful flowers. Reminiscent of its wildflower namesake (Rudbeckia hirta), the species blooms with golden petals surrounding a dark center; however, that “black eye” is not a cone, and there are just five petals. The flowers are also much smaller than true black-eyed Susans, at just over an inch round. This vine climbs three to eight feet in a growing season. Cultivars can be found blooming in shades of yellow, orange and red.
Sowing: Soak seeds in water overnight before planting them. Sow seed in the garden after the danger of frost has passed, or start seed indoors six to eight weeks before the expected last frost. Transplant seedlings after nighttime temperatures remain above 50 degrees (F).
Growing: Provide full sun to part shade—more sun means more flowers—and moderate water. It grows equally well in the ground and containers. It climbs by twining its stems around its support. Hardy in USDA Zones 10–11. Note: Thunbergia alata has been reported as potentially invasive in Hawaii, Florida and scattered Southeast counties (see http://www.invasiveplantatlas.org).
2. Sweet peas (Lathyrus odorata)
A cottage-garden classic, sweet peas provide masses of fragrant, often bicolored blooms during the cool days of spring. Climbing types demand a trellis in the garden, to which they’ll cling with skinny tendrils, like those of garden peas.
Sowing: In the garden, the dark brown, round seeds are easy to roll right into planting holes poked about a half-inch deep. Use nail clippers to nick the seed coat first. If they’re started indoors, sweet peas should be sown in biodegradable pots, so the entire pot can then be transplanted into the ground, avoiding root disturbance. Indoor sowing should occur six to eight weeks before the last frost date. Direct sowing takes place about four weeks before the last frost date in USDA Zone 6 and colder. Fall is the best time to direct sow sweet peas in warmer regions.
Growing: Sweet peas need fertile soil, even moisture and full sun. Most thrive in the cooler temperatures of spring, although cultivars have been developed to cope with heat.
3. Chilean glory flower (Eccremocarpus scaber)
Chilean glory flower has ferny leaves and bright, tubular flowers through the summer. Although it is often grown as an annual, this species is really a tender evergreen perennial. It can grow 10 to 12 feet in warm areas, but it tops out around 8 feet in cooler climates. To climb, it twines around a support and grasps hold with tendrils, too.
Sowing: In cold climates, seed should be started indoors 8 to 12 weeks before the expected last frost of spring. Transplant the seedlings into the garden when temperatures remain above 40 degrees (F) in spring. In Zone 8 and warmer, direct sow the seed after the last frost.
Growing: Site this plant in full sun to light shade and moist, well-drained soil. Where Chilean glory flower is not hardy, take cuttings in autumn, root them and winter them in a bright spot indoors. These starts will bloom earlier than seed-grown plants the next year. Evergreen in Zones 9–11. Root hardy to Zone 8.
4. Scarlet runner bean (Phaseolus coccineus)
Both edible and ornamental, scarlet runner bean produces beautiful red flowers and eight-inch-long beanpods that can be eaten whole or shelled for use as fresh or dried beans. It gows to eight to ten feet tall with twining stems.
Sowing: The quick-to-sprout seeds are easy to start directly in the garden just after the last frost of spring. Beans should be ready to pick about 60 days after sowing.
Growing: Harvesting the pods will keep the plant flowering. Although flowering remains consistent in hot weather, the production of beans might taper off as temperatures peak in midsummer. It will resume when temperatures decline. Scarlet runner bean can remain productive until a hard frost. This plant is often grown as an annual, but it is a short-lived perennial in Zones 7 and warmer.
5. Canary creeper (Tropaeolum peregrinum)
The wing-like, golden petals of this Peruvian vine’s flowers are said to have inspired its common name, canary creeper. Its leaves resemble those of its cousin, common nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus), except with deep lobes. Growing up to 12 feet long, it climbs by linking its petioles (leaf stems) around a support.
Sowing: Seeds can be started indoors four to six weeks before the last frost date or sown outdoors after the risk of frost has passed. As with nasturtiums, scarifying the seed can speed germination; nick the seed coat with nail clippers or soak the seed overnight.
Growing: Provide full sun for the plant, but give the roots some shade. Well-drained soil that’s not too rich will promote the best growth and flowering. Root-hardy to Zone 7, canary creeper can be grown as an annual in colder regions, where it may reappear from self-sown seeds in subsequent years.
Photo credits: Black-eyed Susan vine by Carl Lewis/CC BY 2.0; Sweet pea by Annie Spratt; Chilean glory flower by Michael Wolf/Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0; Scarlet runner bean by Carl Lewis/CC BY 2.0; Canary creeper by Niepokój Zbigniew/Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0