clematis jackmanii vine

Jackman clematis. Photo: D. Ricigliano

Updated: March 7, 2023

Like shrubs, trees, and ground-covers, vines can be an important element in any garden. Each species and variety has distinctive characteristics that make it well-adapted to certain locations in the landscape plan.

Uses of vines

Woody ornamental vines are both functional and decorative in the landscape. These underused plants offer attractive flowers, interesting foliage, ornamental fruiting, and outstanding fall color.  They can soften harsh architectural features, screen unsightly objects, shade porches and patios, enliven fences and walls, and add form and color to a pergola or trellis.  

Plant selection

Vines can be useful in a variety of locations. Some are valued for the shade they provide when trained over an arbor. Others add interest to a planting when used against the wall of a building or to frame a doorway. Vines can be useful in forming a cascade of bloom on rough, steep banks while holding the soil in place.

They offer diverse visual qualities and are valued for the rich texture of their foliage, their decorative habit of growth, the fragrance of their blooms, and the beauty of their flowers. Some are valued for the graceful tracery of their simple stems or for the beauty of their leaf patterns.  For the home gardener, vines offer a rich source of material for creating interesting, exciting, and beautiful plantings.

Vines can be divided into groups based on their method of climbing: 


These vines attach themselves directly to any surface. Examples are Virginia creeper and climbing hydrangea. They climb by clinging with small root-like holdfasts to the wall as a means of support. Sometimes these are modified tendrils with small circular discs at the tips. 


Grabbers grab their supports. They climb by attaching and winding tendrils or leaf-like appendages, which act as tendrils, around the object on which they are growing. Examples of grabbers are grapes and clematis. Use wire or stout twine as supports.


These vines climb by twining their stems around their supports. They include honeysuckle, actinidia, and wisteria. All vines do not twine in the same direction, yet the method of climbing is not haphazard.  The plants of each species invariably twine in one direction, so it is important to start the winding of young vines around their support in the correct direction. For example, native bittersweet twines by climbing from left to right; Hall’s honeysuckle twines by climbing from right to left. Observe how each vine climbs, and then provide the proper means of support for the vines you have selected. Supports for twiners include wires, trellises, and arbors.


Sprawlers lie on their supports. They include jasmine and roses. To remain tidy, sprawlers need to be tied to their supports.

When choosing a vine, consider the following questions:

Is the climbing habit appropriate for the support or site?

  • Does it prefer sun or shade?
  • Is it being planted primarily for bloom or its foliage?
  • Will it be a permanent planting?  If so, select perennial vines hardy for your area.
  • Will the vine drop undesirable fruit or other plant material on or near the site?
  • Will stinging or other nuisance insects be attracted to the vine?
  • Does it exhibit rampant growth that will require frequent pruning to control?


Planting woody vines follows the same set of steps as discussed for trees and shrubs.  Define the purpose of the vine prior to selection and planting.  Evaluate the planting site in terms of light exposure and soil conditions. Modify soil chemistry and structure based on your evaluation and soil test results.  

One aspect of vines, not found with other woody ornamentals, is the need for some type of support.  The type of support is based on the type of vine selected, and it’s important to begin training vines when they are young. 


As with other woody ornamentals, maintenance includes watering, fertilization, mulching, pruning, and attention to pests and diseases.  Unlike other woody ornamentals, vines usually require ongoing attention to training in terms of their support. 

Watering depends on the type of vine selected, soil conditions, and weather.  Check soil moisture periodically and water if dry.  Water thoroughly, soaking the soil to a depth of six to 10 inches. 

Fertilize vines once a year until they are well established and covering the desired support.  Some vines grow extremely rapidly and once the support has been covered, fertilization can be stopped.  The standard recommendation is one pound of nitrogen per each 1,000 square feet (1.6 ounces per 100 square feet). Use a general purpose granular fertilizer (synthetic or organic), such as 10-6-4.  Apply fertilizer in early spring prior to new growth.  

The same benefits of mulching that apply to trees and shrubs apply to vines.  Mulch materials should cover a relatively large portion of the root zone area and should be no more than three inches deep. 


Pruning techniques vary depending on the type of vine and specific use of the vine. The general principles of pruning ornamental shrubs also apply to vines:

  • Always prune back to a lateral branch, twig, or bud, and do not leave a stub.
  • Remove dead and weak wood back to healthy wood. 
  • Annual thinning of old and weak stems encourages new growth. 
  • Thin any crowded stems by cutting them to the ground. 
  • Some fast-growing vines can be severely pruned to induce growth close to the ground.  If done early in the spring before new growth starts, it causes no harm. 

The best time to prune most vines is before new growth begins. Prune early, spring-flowering vines soon after they flower. New growth that develops after pruning will produce buds for the next bloom season.

Some common vines make rapid, vertical growth with few lateral branches except near the top.  These vines can be pinched or the leaders pruned back during the growing season to develop more horizontal-growing branches. Then, vertical growth can be allowed to develop where needed. Horizontal branches tend to grow more slowly and to produce more leaves, flowers, and fruit than vertical branches.

Insects and diseases can cause damage to vines. Become an observant gardener to minimize problems. At the first sign of a problem, determine the cause; monitor the situation, and select a control measure if necessary.