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Climbing High - our pick of climbing plants

Climbing High - our pick of climbing plants

After our wet and wild winter, it is a relief to see spring arriving. Trevor Bridge explains how to get our gardens back on track and shares his favourite climbing plants with us…


Winter is over! It’s now time to venture back into the garden with the anticipation that spring brings. Days are lengthening, the milder weather and sunny days are heating up the soil, seeds are germinating and seedlings are growing faster. April showers provide quite low rainfall but the weather is normally significantly warmer than March. If, however, spring is late our plants will respond to the wetter conditions we usually get in May. As I declare each year though, don’t be lulled into a false sense of security - delay sowing or planting tender plants until the middle of May as frost, high winds or hail can still strike. Place horticultural fleece over vulnerable plants or prop old tiles around them to create shelter from the wind and to retain some of the day’s warmth overnight.

What to do in April and May


swiss-chard-franceSwiss chard, poirée, is well worth a try and can be sown from mid-April to June for harvesting July to mid-November. Try poirée ‘Bright Lights’, a colourful mix of yellow, orange, pink, purple, red and white stems which contrast with rich green leaves. It looks well in the flower border as well as the vegetable plot and can be cooked or eaten raw, adding colour to salads. Another favourite is perpetual spinach which can be sown now. It self-seeds well providing a crop that can be harvested year after year. Broad beans can be sown in April and even early May for harvesting in the summer. French beans are sown in succession from late April until mid-July and will take ten to twelve weeks to mature. They need a minimum soil temperature of 10°C so sow them under cloches if it’s cold. It’s a good idea to sow a few at a time at intervals so they are ready to harvest throughout the summer. Do the same with radish, spring onions and salad greens. Sweetcorn can be sown under cloches now and as the soil warms sow beetroot, carrots, cauliflower, lettuce, parsley and turnips. Sow courgettes, squash, marrows and pumpkins in May when all risk of frost has passed. If you haven’t planted your early potatoes they should go in as soon as possible. Plant second earlies up to mid-April and maincrops mid- to late- April.


Sow hardy annuals such as sunflowers, calendulas, poppies, zinnias, cosmos and stocks directly into the ground. Perennials worth considering are coreopsis, helenium, lupin and verbascum. Now is the time to hard prune buddliea and lavatera to stop them becoming leggy. Cut back hydrangea stems that flowered last year and check climbers to see which need tying in. Dead-head spring flowering plants such as primroses and pansies to promote further flowering. Once the risk of frost has passed tender summer bedding can be planted and taller perennials that tend to fall over will benefit from support now.


Climbing plants - plantes grimpantes

There is something quite magical about climbing plants in a garden, whether it’s an old-fashioned rose rambling around a doorway in a cottage garden, climbing hydrangeas covering an old wall, pergolas threaded with fragrant honeysuckle, arches and fences draped in sweet peas or clematis threading through trees and shrubs. I love the way that climbers seem to have a mind of their own, seeking out places to spread their wings and broaden their horizons.

Scented climbers are wonderful, the heady fragrance of a honeysuckle on a still midsummer’s evening is an unforgettable experience. I can still vividly recall the one we had at home when I was a boy; its intense perfume still lingers in my memory.


Climbers have a plethora of uses in the garden and are enormously versatile. They soften and brighten up bare walls, add height and vertical interest to borders, and cover fences, trellises, arches and obelisks. They are excellent for screening unattractive areas, for providing privacy and, if you are short of room, they are a great way of adding flowering space to a small area.

They are also a haven for wildlife as nesting sites for birds, and flowers and berries are a valuable food source for our feathered friends as well as bees and butterflies.

In the wild, honeysuckle, chèvrefeuille, scrambles through hedgerows, making it suitable for growing in partial shade. The variety ‘Graham Thomas’, available in France, produces large creamy yellow flower heads in mid and late summer. It is ideal on a wall, a trellis or grown up a tree. Their delicious fragrance intensifies in the evening, making them perfect for seating areas or next to a door or window so their scent can waft into your home. Honeysuckles are twining plants – they will not cling to walls unless they are provided with a framework for support.

clematis-gardening-franceClematis montana, clématite montana, is very vigorous and, provided it is supported on a frame, will rapidly cover a trellis, wall or fence. It has a rich wealth of scented, large, pure white or white flowers from spring to early summer. It is fairly easily grown but prefers shade and its roots must be kept cool and moist.

Clematis and climbing roses, rosiers grimpants, are a classic garden combination. They can provide different bloom colour combinations and extend the flowering season. They require similar situations and as clematis are not self-supporting they will happily ramble through a rose. White roses suit any colour of clematis - try Rose Mme ‘Alfred Carrière’ with pale blue Clematis ‘Perle d’Azure’, pink Clematis ‘Comtesse de Bouchaud’ or red Clematis ‘Rouge Cardinal’. Apricot coloured Rose ‘Compassion’ combines beautifully with pale pink Clematis ‘Little Nell’. Long flowering, fragrant, bluish-pink Rose ‘New Dawn’ is perfect for any clematis other than white – it goes well with purple Clematis ‘Twilight’. Rose ‘Pink Perpétue’ is ideal with late-flowering deep violet Clematis ‘Gipsy Queen’.

Other climbing roses include ‘Aloha’, a floriferous short climber roses-climbing-france-gardeningbearing strongly scented, pink old-fashioned flowers; ‘Iceberg Climbing’, a vigorous rose with fragrant white flowers; ‘Etoile d’Hollande’ with deep crimson flowers and very strong fragrance; ‘Mermaid’ which has sulphur-yellow flowers; ‘Paul’s Scarlet’, popular in French gardens due to its ease of growth and intense red flowers and finally, ‘Pierre de Ronsar’, a perpetually flowering old-fashioned climber with fragrant creamy-white double blooms.

Rambling roses, rosier liane, differ from climbing roses in producing large sprays of smallish flowers once a year, while climbing roses have large flowers held singly or in small groups. ‘Albertine’ is a reliable rambler, bearing strongly scented, coppery-pink, flowers; ‘Bleu Magenta’ produces rich violet-crimson flowers; ‘Dentelle de Malines’ is excellent with dainty sprays of pink flowers; and ‘Félicité et Perpétue’ is a dependable rambler with large clusters of delicately perfumed, creamy white flowers.

Campsis bignone are very popular in France with their clusters of showy trumpet shaped flowers and ash-like leaves that turn bright yellow in autumn. They are vigorous, deciduous, woody climbers, clinging by means of aerial stem roots, although Campsis grandiflora is best tied to supporting wires. They thrive best on a warm, sunny wall and need shelter from cold winds. Campsis grandiflora has intense orange flowers, Campsis x tagliabuana ‘Indian Summer’ has orange blooms with a red throat whilst Campsis radicans ‘Flava’ has deep yellow flowers.


Ivy, lierre, is popular as both a climber and for ground cover and is valued for its ability to thrive in shade. It is a native plant and an important source of food and shelter for wildlife, especially during winter. It is not a parasite and will not normally damage sound walls or trees, and trimming will prevent it becoming too heavy. Many variegated cultivars are available such as Hedera colchica ‘Dentata Variegata’, a vigorous climber with large green leaves with cream margins and Hedera helix ‘Glacier’ with small grey-green leaves with white edges.

passion-flower-france-climberThe passion flower, fleur de la passion, is a well-known evergreen with exotic flowers sometimes followed by edible fruits. They need full sun or dappled shade and shelter from cold winds. Passiflora ‘Perfume Passion’ has superb highly fragrant lilac-white flowers from April to the end of summer and Passiflora caerulea has lovely large white flowers with blue and purple centres.

Parthenocissus, vigne vierge, are high climbing and popular in France for covering walls. They have rich autumn colouring and provide important habitat for birds and insects.

Parthenocissus quinquefolia, the Virginia creeper, is excellent for high walls, climbing smooth surfaces using strongly adhesive pads.

Parthenocissus henryana, the Chinese Virginia creeper, is less vigorous with delicate silver veined foliage and useful for a north-facing wall in a small garden. It is self-clinging but needs netting or a trellis until established.

Parthenocissus tricuspidata, Boston Ivy, has bright green leaves that turn to spectacular shades of red-purple in autumn. It is very vigorous and needs regular pruning to contain its growth. The ‘Ivy League’ colleges in north-eastern USA are so-called because this climber clads their buildings.

Jasmine, jasmine blanc, is a well-known lovely vigorous twiner that produces delicately fragrant white flowers from June to September. It’s best grown over an arbour, porch or other structure and it also grows well with climbing roses, honeysuckle or clematis.

Another ubiquitous climber in France is wisteria, glycine, notable for its attractive fragrant cascading flower clusters and vigorous growth. Wisteria sinensis has large clusters of fragrant mauve flowers whilst Wisteria sinensis ‘Alba’ has white flowers. It becomes woody with age, needing support and pruning to keep it in bounds.

Sweet peas, pois de senteur, are perfect annual climbers for growing up a trellis or obelisk. They provide swift bursts of colour and scent and make ideal cut flowers. A small bunch will fill a room with sweet aroma. They are grown in the flower garden or the jardin potager where they are a good companion for runner beans. Early April is your last chance to sow them.

The climbing Hydrangea anomola ‘Petioralis’ , hortensia grimpant, is cultivated for its abundant rounded clusters of attractive white flowers and is useful for a shady or north wall. It is a lovely architectural plant, quite slow-growing and clings with adventitious roots.


© Living Magazine - all rights reserved. First published in Living Magazine April 2014