By Mel Bellar

Let’s face it, vines are very cool in the garden. They add verticality and texture that provides style and, in some instances, can create valuable shade. Vines work well on trellises, arbors, pergolas and fences. At our house, we have Boston Ivy on the foundation. However (at this moment) it is also climbing up the sides of the cabin. I know that this is a real “no no”; but I do love the way it looks. There is a constant battle waged to keep it on the foundation and off the logs, and I often lose! Yes, vines add a romantic quality whether draping over an arbor, adorning a fence or even taboo-climbing up the house!

Like much in life, vines are beautiful but sometimes dangerous. Case in point: wisteria.  Wisteria is a gorgeous and effective vine to cover a pergola or an arbor, but, it can be problematic in a number of ways. The Asian varieties with the long, aromatic, dripping purple blooms are easy to get going but tend not to bloom for 7 to 15 years in our area. Better get yours planted soon if you want to enjoy them! Yet give them some time and they become a scary force of nature. They can pull down your house and take over your forest. Thankfully, this is not a big issue in our zone 4, but venture just a bit south towards Woodstock and you can see some scary things.

The Chinese varieties, Wisteria sinensis, are also zone 4 and yet even after they have reached their blooming maturity sometimes the buds will freeze in an early frost and miss a season. We are lucky to have some nice natives and hybrids that perform well and are better behaved.  These natives can take a while to get going, and despite blooms that are not nearly as dramatic and fragrant, they are still well worth the effort. Check out Blue Moon or Amethyst Falls wisteria; they both do well in our area and will give you blooms pretty quickly.

Next up, the honeysuckle. Several varieties of honeysuckle vines do really well in the Catskills and they just feel right here. Dropmore Scarlet and Gold Flame are two beautiful varieties that I find quite reliable, but I am sure that there are many others. John Clayton and Mandarin tend to be finicky and weak, and although Major Wheeler is supposed to be a strong red flowering option, I have not had luck with it either. After establishing, honeysuckles will last for years without much fuss and will cover an arbor or trellis pretty quickly (in a few years.)  Do prune out the dead stuff every year or so and they can be pruned hard if you want to manage their size as they will grow between the gutters and the roof and beyond if you let them.

Need to cover a large area like an arbor or pergola quickly and densely? Consider grapes. Many varieties of grapes do well here. I am mostly concerned with the leaves and the look rather than the fruit, and thus haven’t experimented with many of them. However, I have recently planted numerous varieties to mix it up and try to produce some fruit for clients as well as creating shade. Perhaps I will have something more to say about this project in a couple of years—stay tuned. Plain old Concords on a fence and arbor create the entrance to my garden and I think that the fruit is pretty, dangling down from above and along the fence rails. My big issue with grapes, at least in my garden, is that they are the Japanese beetles’ favorite snack.  Arrrgggggh.

Many folks know that I am not a big fan of roses.  They have a few strikes against them in my gardening world. They don’t do particularly well here, and they are very fussy (not my favorite combo.)  However, I have an amazing climbing rose that covers a large arbor over one of the entrances to my garden in bright pink roses every June. It was given to me as a rooted cutting in 1996 and lived on our roof deck in Manhattan for 6 years until we moved it to our brand-new home in the Catskills (where it originated.) I don’t know for sure, but I think it is a Seven Sisters climber.  Currently Zone4 is building a dramatic arbor for a new client who wants an old-fashioned climbing rose, so I have been doing some research on the Web. Check out

And for our floral lovers, Clematis probably has the most impressive display out of all of the vines.  It is happy climbing on some cabling on a porch, a turteur, a fence or trellis. Clematis is all about the flowers and not much to behold when not in bloom.  There are dozens of varieties that grow here, but as usual I am most attracted to the hardy tried-and-true varieties. In this case it is the Clematis “Jackmanii!”  It delivers an impressive display in late June that goes for quite a while. We planted one at Two Old Tarts a couple of years ago that bloomed well into September this year and was amazing.

Dutchman’s Pipe is another old-fashioned vine that we see a lot of in the Catskills. It has very interesting flowers, but you have to do some digging to see them, as they are well concealed. The foliage, however, is big and dense and can hide a porch and pull down the beams if they aren’t stable.  The one on Marlys Hanns’ house right in town is a pretty great example.

There are many other perennial and annual vines to talk about another time. I am going to be in Japan most of next month and will either write something about Japanese gardens or miss a month if I am too zen-ed out.

 Mel Bellar is the owner of Zone4 Landscapes and a passionate Andes gardener