I had been meaning to write about Allan Armitage's vines and climbers book for some time. In my small garden, sometimes the only way to go is up, so I've been a big vine fan for some time. But some of the vines I depend on are anathema to other gardeners.
Allan Armitage has a sensible attitude about aggressive climbers. It’s much like mine. If a given vine is a thug on your property, rampaging over other plants, clambering up trees, and smothering any trellis that you’ve put up to contain it, then don’t grow it. But don’t try to make it impossible for anyone else in this big and diverse country to grow it.
Like many hyper-local endeavors, gardening does not readily adapt itself to one-size-fits-all advisories, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the area of vigorous plants. Ficus, a rowdy tree that uproots California sidewalks, has to get along as a houseplant in Vermont. Colocasia (elephant ear) is invading wetlands in Texas and Florida, but in the Northeast its bulbs are carefully overwintered so the huge exotic leaves can adorn summer patios.
This is why I love Armitage’s Vines and Climbers (Timber, 2010). As a Georgia-based plant breeder, lecturer, and garden writer, Armitage could easily have left out such cultivars as wisteria, hedera (ivy), and ampelopsis (porcelain vine), plants that gardeners throughout the U.S. consider—at the very least—overly enthusiastic.
Indeed, many Southern gardeners I know would never allow a wisteria vine on their property, regardless of its graceful and beautifully scented lavender flowers. Things are different in Buffalo, N.Y. Summer visitors to my garden gaze up at my wisteria and ask wistfully “Has it bloomed yet?” The plants are notorious for their refusal to bloom until as many as ten seasons have passed, but they are cherished when they do flower. Even in Buffalo, the vine needs to be cut back regularly, and often works best when trained to a tree-shaped form, placed well away from any structures it might overwhelm.
While wisteria has its flowers to recommend it, hedera (ivy) has no such pleasing camouflage, and has to depend on its elegant foliage. You don’t see many defenders of ivy. Yet, where I live, I can point to situations—deep shade, a tree-root-choked soil—where hedera is the only groundcover that can survive. This year I plan to experiment with some unusual variegated ivies to see if they can get through a Buffalo winter; their ruffles, white, light green or silver markings, and other unusual features would make a welcome change from faltering grass, boring pachysandra, or bare dirt. Hedera is banned in the Pacific Northwest, and loathed in most of the warmer states, but in the colder zones, it still serves a welcome purpose. Allan Armitage readily admits hedera’s powerfully aggressive properties, but when discussing his experience with planting ivy, he takes a philosophic view far removed from the hysteria I usually see whenever ivy is discussed: “I can moan about how I had to rip the plants from the trees. I can complain about the need to keep the edges of the path trimmed every year and mutter about keeping it off the azaleas and rhodies. However, that is part of gardening and for me the net positive aspects of the planting were far greater than the negative.”
Even the tolerant Armitage finds it necessary to warn his readers about ampelopsis brevipedunculata (porcelain vine)—“I recommend talking to other gardeners or extension people in your area before growing it. We don’t need another kudzu.” —even as he praises it—“walking under these rampant leafy growers in the summer is a thrill.” It’s a big mystery to me. I have grown the green and white “Elegans” cultivar of this plant for a few years and have yet to get it to the stage where anyone taller than a small dog would be able to walk under it.
Whether you prefer to say it in Latin (de gustibus non est disputandum) or in the contemporary vernacular (your mileage may vary), assume that every gardener’s experience with a certain plant will be different. This recognition is what I most appreciate about Armitage’s survey, which includes over 115 plants, many with utterly unsullied reputations. The world of vertical plants is full of beauty—and some danger. But it would have been a boring book had he left the danger out.