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Do garden climbers have you climbing the walls?

Soaking wet days in January deter even me from gardening. While the rain pours out of the gutters, some of them blocked, I have been reflecting on a part of the garden at which I am least successful: the walls of the house. Every house-and-homer has them unless they are limited to a flat. This column, therefore, can be acted on by most of you.

A word first about the categories available: roses, climbers and wall shrubs. Roses do not naturally climb vertically. They like to fix themselves on to something else. Everybody wants them on a house wall but they must be held up on it with wall nails and wire. If you do not want to go up a ladder, be very careful about the roses you choose. Big ramblers will rapidly outgrow you.

Climbers include few plants that will cling as well as climb. The clingers are invaluable, especially ivies and climbing hydrangeas. These wall plants are the ones to choose if you want no trouble. I have done nothing for 30 years to a climbing type of hydrangea, the evergreen seemannii, and it is my storming success, neat, self clinging and covered in flowers in July to a height of 20ft and a width of many more. It is even happy facing east, though nursery lists sometimes suggest it is not fully hardy.

I really recommend it and its child, the newish semiola, a cross between seemannii and the deciduous petiolaris. Semiola is also evergreen and its flowers are bigger.

Ivies, listed as hederas, are excellent clingers too. A classic larger-leaved one is Hedera canariensis Gloire de Marengo, whose grey leaves are edged prettily with white. It is a top choice for shaded walls, but Glacier is another winner, grey leaved with a wide cream margin. If you prefer a plain green ivy, I like Green Ripple, whose bold leaves have jagged edges.

There are many others on offer, Goldheart being a charmer whose leaves have yellow central markings. It does not grow too fast or tall. These special ivies are sophisticated answers to the shaded walls of a house or courtyard. If the shade is extremely deep, they are the best answers.

The Pilgrim, a David Austin rose that flowers repeatedly © GAP Photos/Howard Rice

Hedera canariensis Gloire de Marengo, a large-leafed ivy
Hedera canariensis Gloire de Marengo, a large-leafed ivy © GAP Photos/Nova Photo Graphik

Honeysuckles are more frequently chosen, but they do not cling. They like to twine round something, a drainpipe being irresistible, and then they hold themselves partly on it. To grow them well you need to fix runs of plain wire into the wall before planting them. Stretch the wire out horizontally and leave about 2ft between each line of it on the wall. Then, tuck the first growths under the wire as each extends upwards and the honeysuckle will twine on it and stay upright.

On an airy north-facing wall the wonder plant is Lonicera tragophylla, a lovely tubular-flowered honeysuckle with flowers of clear lemon yellow. It has no scent, but is a fine sight in flower. Two more vigorous options, both scented, are Lonicera similis delavayi and japonica halliana, both having tubular little white flowers, the latter’s ageing to biscuit-yellow. They are rampant growers, so some strong wire is essential.

Remember that both can be cut down to a height of 2ft each spring and will then scramble up again without becoming too dense and falling off the wall. They are excellent answers to north-facing shade, though they are not ideal in very narrow spaces. They are both evergreen.

Wall shrubs need space to grow forwards off a wall’s surface and should not be the first choices for a narrow bed. Many of them need reining back with thick wire and careful pruning to keep them tidy. On a light, north-facing wall my success is the scented white Viburnum burkwoodii, a lovely May-flowering shrub that will accept a hard pruning nearly back to the wall’s surface after flowering. It is completely hardy, unlike camellias, whose flowers are prone to browning by British spring frost if trained on a shaded wall.

I have better results from roses, especially the excellent alba rose, Queen of Denmark, flowering once but so healthy, shade tolerant and extremely pretty when showing its double soft-pink flowers. It too can be pruned back in winter to stay close to the wall’s surface, as can a China rose, Climbing Cecile Brunner.

Lonicera tragophylla,
Lonicera tragophylla, a lovely tubular-flowered honeysuckle: good on an airy, north-facing wall © GAP Photos/Adrian James

The good news is that many David Austin roses are also possibilities, but not in dark shade: I really like his yellow The Pilgrim and pink The Generous Gardener, though both are even better where sun gets to them. Then, they are first choices as they flower repeatedly and furnish themselves with flowers right down to their base as few older climbing roses ever do. The use of this class of rose on walls has widened gardeners’ options: go for it.

On east-facing walls, clematis will often grow and flower well, two of my favourites being white Henryi and deep lavender blue Lady Northcliffe, one which can be kept to a height of only 5ft or so. To support a clematis I prefer to use wide-meshed netting, plain white usually being cheaper than green plastic. Lengths of it fixed vertically on to the wall will hold a clematis very well. If it runs up and flowers in a muddle only at the top you are not pruning the plant correctly. If well pruned it will continue to flower across the wire’s full expanse.

Catalogues from specialist growers will guide you about the times and scale of pruning, one of the best being the catalogue from Thorncroft Clematis near Evesham in Worcestershire (thorncroftclematis.co.uk). You will be spoiled for choice.

If you do not want to go up a ladder, be careful about the roses you choose. Ramblers will rapidly outgrow you

On sunny walls, facing west or south, town gardeners, especially in warm London, should grow the white climbing potato vine, Solanum jasminoides album, and on high walls, some mimosa, Acacia baileyana, as a tall wall shrub for early spring.

Those who are more exposed to frost should look for a hardier Solanum, laxum Crèche du Pape, whose flowers are tinged with blue. Instead of the tender mimosa I recommend Clematis tangutica Bill MacKenzie, autumn flowering and prunable each spring to a low height. It is covered in yellow hanging flowers and silvery seed heads from autumn onwards and grows excellently in southerly sites too.

Excellent self-clingers, facing south, are the evergreen trachelospermums, well up to life in modern English winters. Asiaticum is especially good, with scented cream yellow flowers, and those with variegated leaves are pretty throughout the year. Summer clipping will keep them to a height of only 8ft or so.

My mistake has been to go for wall shrubs that are too big, from ceanothus to magnolias which grow too far off the house. Fit the plant to the place, even if it has the word “wall” or “climber” in its particulars.

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