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Native Plant Garden 10 Years In: Lessons Learned Growing Native Vines

Part 1 - one fence, three vines.

Three native vines trained along a fence in early fall
Virginia Creeper, Honeysuckle & Native Clematis Along A Fence

Ten years into this garden, I have tried lots of native vines and love them all. To sum it up - right vine, right place! The 1/8 acre garden, shaped like a seven, provides a lot of runway for vines along a fence line. Ten years also provided a lot of time for trial and error. With flowering vines, even the "errors" are delightful!

The original idea was to plant several native vines that flower at different times along the fence. I chose Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quiqufolia) for four seasons of interest and the fall color in particular, honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) for spring blooms and virgin's bower (Clematis virginiana) for the profuse white flowers in late summer followed by those captivating seed heads (technically fruits with a single seed called an achene).

Lesson 1: Virginia Creeper

Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) is a fast growing, easy to grow vine adding year round abundance to your garden - flowers in spring, berries in late summer, an incredible array of fall color and twisted bare wood in winter. This deciduous vine grows in sun and shade and a variety of soil types.

Some experts call this vine "very aggressive" meaning it grows and spreads rapidly. I can confirm. Because Virginia creeper has four seasons of interest, high wildlife value and can take full sun to shade, I was looking for a way to grow it in an urban garden that was more tame or managed in style. A small 1/8 acre garden did not seem the place for a wildly growing vine that can send out a twenty foot runner in a week or two.

During my second year in this garden, I planted 9 quarts of Virginia creeper spaced out evenly along about a 150 feet of fence line. The plants were maybe a foot tall, if that. I knew how quickly this vine spreads so checked every couple of weeks and continually pruned the side shoots of off the plant. In the first year, the vines started growing around the lower part of the fence and by the second year, reached the top of the fence. I continued pruning away any side shoots and allowed the vine to grow horizontally once it reached the top of the fence. As the vines matured in the third and fourth years, the main stems thickened considerably and most of the growth occurred at the top of the plant, horizontally along the fence line. Once the vines matured, they started producing blue berries. Today, the vine is mature, producing large leaves and flower heads leading to a bounty of berries in fall.

In this setting, this is a very high maintenance vine. Once the vine starts to leaf out in spring, I check weekly for side shoots and runners. Once the growing season is in full swing, it takes weekly pruning to keep the vine from running the entire length of the fence or growing out into the sidewalk. In late summer, inevitably, the main stem will throw out some runners at ground level. To keep the vine in check, it has been essential to prune those runners off before they root in and really take over.

The vine is beautiful and I plan to keep it. Would I do this again? I would not plant it along a fence near a high traffic sidewalk. A two week absence means the vine is creeping over into the sidewalk. If it is raining a lot, that can happen in a week. Since I love to prune, its not a problem but it is not for everyone!

Given the many attributes of this vine, I could easily see planting it over an arbor, covering a fence where runners would not be problematic or as a ground cover. Another option to reduce maintenance would be to plant the vine in a container. It is an easy to grow and stunning plant that offers so much in a garden. The trick is to find the location that will work for you.

Virginia Creeper Trained to Cover a Wall near a gate in a Denver CO garden
Virginia Creeper Trained to Cover a Wall, Denver Garden

I have often admired this use of Virginia creeper in a Colorado garden I visited several years ago. Do you have tips on how and where to grow Virginia creeper? If so, please share in the comments below.

Lesson 2: Virgin's Bower, the Native Clematis

Native vine Virgin's Bower in Full Bloom late summer
Virgin's Bower in Full Bloom

Virgin's Bower (Clematis virginiana) is a light, twining vine that is not terribly noticeable until it blooms. When it is planted in conditions it likes, clouds of small white flowers burst forth in late summer. This is a perennial vine that loves to ramble.  It is said to tolerate sun, part shade or shade. It grows naturally in moist soils. Experts say that it can tolerate dry soils in shade.

There is no shortage of common names for this vine. Depending on where you are, it may go by “virgin’s bower,” “woodbine,” “devil’s darning needles” or “old man’s beard.”  Whatever you call it, it attracts hummingbirds, bees and butterflies.

These were also planted as quart sized plants. They were slow to start and bloomed for the first time in the third summer.

In our garden, the vine is planted in areas that receive part sun during the day with full sun later in the day. It is also planted in an area with average to dry soils. In summers when rain is plentiful, the vine does well. You don't really notice it until the flowers appear. During periods of drought, in our garden, it really struggles. This past summer, which was very dry, the vine produced very few blooms. I intend to move the vine to an area with more moisture and shade to see if it can better withstand dry periods.

Initially, I tried to train the vine to grow along the fence much like the other two vines. Virgin's bower does not have a woody stem so, rather than pruning, it was more a matter of trying to encourage the flexible stems to twine among the fence posts. It was challenging to train it in that way. To me the best approach, is to let it do its thing. Many sources say you can cut it back to a few feet in the spring to encourage more blooms. I also read that in moist areas, it can spread rapidly.

Please note there is an invasive vine that very closely resembles virgin's bower, ‘Sweet autumn’ clematis (Clematis terniflora). This vine is from Asia and extremely vigorous. From the slightest distance, the two vines in bloom look alike. They also bloom at the same time. Many garden centers still sell sweet autumn clematis so your best bet for finding the native is a native plant nursery.

mosaic showing differences between native and ornamental clematis
Top right - native leaves. Lower right - ornamental leaves

The best way to tell the two apart is to look at the leaves. The native has lighter green, more delicate leaves. The ornamental has leathery, darker green leaves.

Lesson 3: Native Honeysuckle

native honeysuckle buds bright pink late spring
Honeysuckle Buds

Long story short - the lesson about growing native honeysuckle is to plant it where you can enjoy it and regularly watch the hummingbirds visit! Early on, I planted two types of honeysuckle along the fence line: straight species honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) and a cultivar 'Major Wheeler' (Lonicera sempervirens 'Major Wheeler'). For more information about the differences between the two, please check out this post.

Native honeysuckle is easy to grow, attracts hummingbirds, blooms in sun or part shade and produces bright red berries in fall. It grows quickly but not aggressively. To train it along the fence, I pruned away all side shoots and let it grow horizontally along the top of the fence.

Really, the only downside was that I planted it along the fence. That proved to be a great place for passersby to see it but not so much for those of us inside the garden! Since then, I have added native honeysuckle in containers and around several birdhouse poles inside the garden.

native honeysuckle blooms and growth late spring
native honeysuckle

An easy way to get more honeysuckle is to root cuttings of new shoots that do not have flowers. These typically appear on mature plants around late spring or early summer. In this photo, to the top right, you can see several maroon colored stems of new growth that would be perfect for cuttings. I place four cuttings, cut side down, in the corners of a quart sized pot in potting soil. If you keep the soil moist, within 6 weeks or so, roots begin to form at the base of the cuttings. You can tell whether any roots have formed by very gently tugging the cutting. If there is resistance, roots have formed. If the cutting moves easily, more time is needed. I usually can get one or two new plants per quart.

Lesson 4: The Combination (Virginia Creeper, Virgins Bower and Honeysuckle)

From growing these three native vines, the lesson learned is Virginia creeper is very vigorous and crowds out the others. The honeysuckle is strong enough to withstand the Virginia creeper only because the Virginia creeper is pruned regularly. Virginia creeper is probably best planted on its own. Honeysuckle is one of the easiest plants to grow in full sun or part shade and would do well in many situations. Virgin's bower does best with some moisture. All in all, I would not recommend planting these three vines together. Separately? Definitely!

Happy Winter Garden Pondering.


We want you to be as excited about planting Chesapeake natives as we are. “Plant This or That” gives you a native alternative to popular plants. Other posts highlight really fabulous fauna native to the Chesapeake.

Nuts for Natives, avid gardener, Baltimore City admirer, Chesapeake Bay Watershed restoration enthusiast, and public service fan.

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