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June 11, 2005

Vertical Gardening

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Building a garden is a lot like building a city: pretty soon you’ve run out of expansion space and the only place left to go is up.

Going vertical can add so much depth to your gardens. They allow you to use a number of different vines and to include structures that are both functional and attractive.

I admit I’m a little biased since I am loony for vines. We have a green chain link fence around our backyard so we don’t have to freeze our tails off on frigid Minnesota mornings when the dogs need to do their business outside. The fence is practical but not particularly aesthetically pleasing.

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To combat that, I am growing vines, vines and more vines up and along the fence both to disguise it and give us some privacy from our neighbors. In true suburban fashion, anything we do in our backyard is open for viewing by those surrounding us. While I can’t prevent the people on the hill behind us from looking down onto our property, I can shield our goings-on from the people next to us.

I have lost track of the number of clematis I have planted along the fence; my best guess right now would be 11 or 12. They provide an ever-changing tapestry of colorful red, white, burgundy and purple blooms from mid-May until the first snowfall and interesting seedheads beyond that.

Some of the clematis are better than others at covering the fence, which is why I’ve interplanted them with Dutchman’s pipe, Virginia creeper, annual morning glories and other vines. Dutchman’s pipe has been a disappointment. I’ve tried a number of different locations but I have yet to find the ideal location for this vine to really thrive. It was helpful the year I finally figured out NOT to cut it back in the fall because its new spring growth comes on old wood. It’s learning by trial and error, folks.

My most recent success has been the honeysuckle purchased last year for our thirteenth wedding anniversary. I planted it in full sun, and this year it has rewarded me with a wonderful display of bright coral and orange blooms. The hummingbirds are pretty excited about it, too. They have been coming to feed from it every night this week around dusk.

We are adding a few more arborvitae along our back fence to finish our goal of completely camouflaging it. Last summer I had planted a Clematis recta purpurea with purplish leaves hoping it would scramble along and fill in the gap between two banks of arborvitae. With the new arborvitae coming in, I had to move the clematis or lose it. I planted it next to the honeysuckle, hoping and planning for the day when the orange honeysuckle blossoms will rise above the purple clematis leaves as they grow together.

Vertical gardening can provide focal points to your garden, such as this arbor covered with a “William Baffin” rose on one side and a “Jackmanii” clematis on the other, in the true British fashion of mixing and matching roses and clematis. The goal would be to have both of them blooming at the same time so the hot pink rose and the velvety purple clematis would play off each other. But the rose has already started blooming, and I haven’t seen any buds on the clematis yet. Hmmm.

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I’m most proud of the “Blue Moon” wisteria (developed by the local Rice Creek Gardens) that we are training to grow over our 16’ x 16’ pergola. It is completely hardy to Zone 4 and produces fragrant bluish-purple blossoms twice each summer.

We planted the original vine at least five years ago over the arbor shown previously. When we did our house and garden remodel three years, we included the much-coveted pergola in the plan. At that time we dug up the wisteria in October and ditched it in a perennial bed, hoping that it would survive the winter.

Come spring, we planted the stalwart wisteria vine at the base of one of the pergola columns and started covering off-shoots with soil and compost to get them to root. This is a propagation technique known as layering that can be done with many different vines, including clematis.

Now we have wisteria vines in progress around all four posts and more layered shoots ready for transplanting. And the first buds have begun to appear.

If you are thinking of adding wisteria to your garden, make sure you have a very strong structure to support it as it will get very big and very heavy. When we were in Britain, we saw several wisteria vines whose main trunks were bigger than my upper arm. I can only hope!

Don’t forget annuals and vegetables for your vertical scheme. I started these hollyhocks (Alcea ‘nigra’) from seed last summer and planted them along the south side of our house where they are the happiest in full sun. Since hollyhocks are biennials, meaning they bloom every other year, they have finally set tremendous buds this season. I can’t wait to see them! I planted Lavender “Hidcote” in front of them to hide their skinny “ankles.” I’ll write more about the lavender in another posting.

We put the pergola in the area that had originally been my vegetable garden. I now do my intensive vegetable planting in two small, raised beds. To make the most of my limited space, I am growing “Sugar Snap” peas up a willow wigwam. They have an edible pod and the vines will grow to six feet. Last year, we grew a variety of scarlet runner beans along a bamboo teepee to create a hidey-hole for Graham. This year, I’m opting out of the teepee but I have started runner beans in a ring outside of the peas, hoping that the beans will use the peas to climb and will start to bear fruit when the peas have finished.

I almost forgot our “Concord” grapevine growing behind the compost bin. We had to move it as well when we moved the wisteria, so it is just starting to feel established. Last year it produced several bunches of grapes but not enough to make jam yet. When the ripening grapes are purple and have started to get a silvery “bloom” on them, pick them immediately, otherwise you will come out the next day to find the birds will have gotten them all.

I also started a number of different sweet peas and an Indian pea on a willow wigwam in our middle back perennial bed. These have been surprisingly slow to start since we have had very cool, moist weather conditions, just what sweet peas like. The Indian pea seed we purchased at a wonderful garden store outside of London in Fall 1999. I was able to save some seed from that which was set last year. Let’s see if 1. it germinates and 2. it holds true to its original form. It had a luscious peacock blue flower.

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What’s Happening in the Garden Now

Rain, rain and more rain. Sigh.

The Mystery Plant

Confession time: up until a recent comment from Kim, I really had no idea what that plant was. Brian wanted to post a photo and asked me to identify it, and all I could say was it was from the borage family. I got it from a neighbor who thought it was Virginia bluebells, a plant native to Minnesota. The flowers are similar but Virginia bluebells are an ephemeral, and when the plant was still in high bloom with enormous leaves in August, I knew it wasn’t that.

So thanks to Kim for directing me to search the web for comfrey to see if this was indeed the mystery plant. From the photos I saw and the descriptions I read, I’d say that was it.

Did you enjoy this little garden guessing game? If so, here is the mystery plant for this week to see if you can identify. Just leave a Comment at the end of this blog entry.

Here’s What’s Blooming Now

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Lavender “Hidcote”
Sweet William
Oxeye daisy
Penstemon “Husker Red”
Salvia “May Night”
Indian blanket
Iris – both Siberian and bearded
Nepeta “Walker’s Low” (the bees really like it!)
Rose – “Carefree Wonder,” “William Baffin,” “Graham Thomas” and more
Perennial cornflower
Prairie smoke

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Garden Chores for the Week

Continue to weed.

Those cannas are still waiting for me…

Pot up plants for friends.

Vegetable Garden

I have loads of mint right now so I’m trying to use it in new ways. For my bag lunch on Friday, I added mint to a casual salad of tomato, cucumber and chive blossoms with a French vinaigrette and to my dessert honeydew. Yum!

I just ate two strawberries wet with rain. Double yum!

Posted by maasx003 at June 11, 2005 8:16 AM | Gardens


Hi Jackie,

a really great, informative post. I've bookmarked it so I can read it (and re-read it) at leisure.

I really like the view of your garden in the 1st image - it looks so lush and full!

Oh, the mystery plant looks just like my Cimicifuga racemosa 'Brunette', so that's my guess!

Posted by: Mia Goff at June 13, 2005 12:13 PM

Mia, I just took a look at your blog and I have plant envy! I'm starting to add heucheras to my gardens. I've becoming more and more interested in foliage and textures. My favorite heuchera at the moment is "Plum Pudding." Gorgeous burgundy coloring. I have it next to blue oat grass and other silver things like artemisia "Silver Mound." I'll have to try some of the ones you are using!


Posted by: jackie at June 15, 2005 11:18 PM

Wow Jacki-this was the best yet--I love your pictures--so have you thot about giving up the hx center and just write about gardening, rhubarb receipes, etc.?? Mom sent me an article that you wrote in your single life, after Grandpa Bader died--you had the journalistic knack even then. Hope to seeyou soon. Just got back from Tulsa last Fri after 10 days down there. km

Posted by: karen m at June 17, 2005 9:57 PM