Vines add another dimension to the garden - height. They clamber over arbors, up trellises, cling to walls and fences. They take up very little earth-space - just enough for their roots. You can build an arch over a pathway, or a pergola over a patio or deck - and cover it with blooms.
When we bought our house, the southwest-facing slope of our backyard was a baked, sere swath of dirt, where nothing grew. Double-blasted by the sun and the reflection off our windows, even weeds shriveled and died here.
One of our first house-guests was a colleague who knew a lot about how human beings adapt to natural habitats, and he said, "What you need here is a ramada!" With that always in mind, a few years later when we were able to create our garden, that's exactly what we built, with the help of other talented friends, craftsmen and garden designers. A level deck with a pergola and a graceful shade tree keep the blasting sun out of the house and offer a sheltered spot to sit and enjoy the garden. The pergola provided structure to support vines that could provide color and beauty throughout the year.
The most dramatic of these is the wisteria, which begins to bloom in early spring. By now, May, its blooms are over but its vigorous foliage keep the deck below cool and shady. And now, the next act begins.
There are almost 300 species of clematis in the world, and when British gardeners got ahold of them in the mid 19th century, they bred them and crossed them and introduced hundreds of varieties. The flowers are often large and showy - I remember as a child poring over the Wayside Gardens catalog admiring the huge, flat, starry blossoms of clematis with names like "Nelly Moser", "Mrs. Cholmondely", "Duchess of Edinburgh" and "Comtesse de Bouchard."
Thought many lust after clematis, for some reason gardeners hesitate to grow them. A devastating fungus called "clematis wilt" can wipe out a promising plant in an instant - and who wants to take on that heartache? Plus, recommendations for pruning clematis are complicated and present a challenge that puts off beginning gardeners.
For pruning purposes, experts divide clematis into three types of plants, and you'll see them labeled as "A", "B" or "C." The "A"s bloom early, on last season's wood. You cut the flowering stems back right away after flowering, so they can grow next year's growth, but you leave the old growth alone. The "B"s bloom in June on shoots that grow from old growth, so you prune these carefully in February and March, in order to stimulate the flowering shoots. The "C"s bloom completely on new growth, so these are the simplest - whack the whole plant down to three feet or so in late winter, and let it grow in the spring.
I have to confess I have lost track of which type my clematis is. When I bought it, I thought I was buying "Etoile Violette," but since it's a tender bi-color lavender instead of deep violet, it's clearly not what I thought.
Its delicate flowers spangle the leaves of a purple-leaved grapevine that twines up the pergola and into the branches of the jacaranda tree. The tree's showy purple flowers come in late June, and then when autumn comes, the grape leaves flame rich scarlet. Containers on the deck provide summer color, with a white David Austin rose called "Winchester Catherdral" and pink zonal geraniums.
It all sounds very well put together, doesn't it? Except I am a lazy, neglectful gardener, and I haven't done any pruning, and very little maintenance and care.
But isn't that the beauty of it? If it can look like this in my garden, just think what it can look like in yours!