Read This: Armitage’s Vines and Climbers

Vertical gardening has gotten a lot of attention lately (see my recent review of Garden Up!), and deservedly so. While gardeners have always planted vines and greened up their walls, a renewed interest makes sense for those of us who garden on tight urban or fenced-in suburban lots, where stark walls and dull wood fences dominate the view unless softened with a cloak of greenery. But even those blessed with an acre or more will find a compelling reason to grow up: adding vertical structure creates human-scaled “rooms” and interesting divisions of space, and as a bonus they give you a place to plant vines.

If you’re wondering what vines to plant, especially here in the hot, humid South, Allan M. Armitage‘s book, Armitage’s Vines and Climbers: A Gardener’s Guide to the Best Vertical Plants (Timber Press, 2010), is a good place to start. Armitage is a professor of horticulture at the University of Georgia, where he also runs the trial gardens. He knows his plants. What’s more, he knows which plants can take our broiling, lengthy summers without turning into a pile of mush. I normally don’t bother with plant books that aren’t specifically written for southern or western gardeners because so often they’re filled with tempting temperate-climate plants that I can’t grow without copious watering or mid-summer heartbreak. Armitage’s proved a happy exception. But don’t worry, cold-climate gardeners. There are plenty of vines for you here too.

Clematis pitcheri at the Wildflower Center

In his introduction, Armitage says he was inspired to write about vines and climbers because he’s been experimenting with them for years and yet finds few choices in retail centers. Moreover, he adds, people are often afraid to grow vines for fear they’ll swallow the house or invade the greenbelt. And for good reason. But there are many non-aggressive vines that can be grown from seed or ordered online, and it’s all about understanding what a vine will do in your particular climate. As he points out, one man’s house-eater is another man’s tame trellis plant.

Mascagnia macroptera, or butterfly vine

Annual vines are a favorite of Armitage’s because they don’t have a chance to get unmanageable before dying back, and because they allow you to experiment with different “weird and wonderful” vines. Some of his top picks are butterfly vine (Mascagnia macroptera, a perennial in Austin), moonflower vine, hyacinth bean, and Spanish flag, which I’m excitedly growing from seed in my own garden this year on the recommendation of Meredith of Great Stems (she calls it by its more romantic name: exotic love vine).

Armitage’s easy, conversational voice is laced with humor and personal anecdotes, making the book a pleasure to read. It’s a book for gardeners—“I suppose I should include all those neat line drawings showing different trellis systems or climbing posts, or how to dig a hole; however, if you don’t know how to dig a hole, you shouldn’t be reading this book”—and includes information about propagation and etymology. His tone, however, is accessible rather than professorial: “[E]verything I have written is not to be taken too seriously. After all, this is gardening, not rocket science….Have fun.”

Plenty of color pictures on each page, both close-ups and long shots, illustrate the beauty of the 115 plants he profiles. So if you have a fence or arbor that’s begging for a little excitement this summer, browse through Armitage’s Vines and Climbers and you’re bound to discover a new plant that will get your garden off the ground.

Disclosure: This book was sent to me for review by Timber Press. My review, like everything in Digging, is my own honest opinion.

All material © 2006-2011 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

posted in Books, Vines

10 Responses

  1. Diana says:

    Love that pitcheri photo – wonder when you got that? Love all the focus on vertical gardening – I’ll have to check out the book, too. Garden Up is wonderful.

    I went back to the Wildflower Center last Sunday to see the owls again and took that pitcheri photo. I wish the one I’m growing at home looked so good! —Pam

  2. Jean says:

    I got some Spanish flag seeds this season as well. But I’m still waiting patiently for my new trellises to be finished. :-) Thanks for the review.

    You need to get those seeds planted, Jean. It’ll be hot soon. —Pam

  3. I think I need to add this book to my collection, as I love vines! Spanish Flag vine: awesome. Hyacinth bean: super-awesome.

    I haven’t grown hyacinth bean either. I’ll have to try that one next year. —Pam

  4. nellie says:

    This looks like a book I should have. I’m having trouble getting anything to climb out of my poor soil onto my arbors into my bug-infested woodland garden.
    You should put your review onto my blog, I’m trying to get a good range of books from a variety of reviewers and have just started it. If you do it, be sure to put a link to your blog on there. To do so, write the review in a comment then I will cut, paste and format into my blog’s page with you getting the credit.
    I’m up here in Zone 6 of WV but you have inspired me to try again with a climber. Perhaps I should stick to the honeysuckle that grows wild and sneaks into my garden regularly.

    Asian honeysuckle will grow anywhere, won’t it? And there’s no stopping it when it gets a toehold. Good luck finding a tamer but tough vine for your situation, Nellie. —Pam

  5. Gail says:

    It looks like a good book; I appreciate the review. That Clematis pitcheri is a looker (on list). Are you growing the Mascagnia macroptera vine? What a pretty flower. I’ve been adding vertical plants to the garden every chance I get and now I have a few more to consider. Hyacinth bean vine is a wonderful plant; perfect for the pinks and lilacs that I favor~Now that it’s warm it will take off and fill a wall nicely. gail

    Hi, Gail. Yes, I’m growing Mascagnia macroptera in my new garden (and it survived last winter’s dreadful cold, though it was knocked back to the ground), although the picture in the post above is from my former garden. —Pam

  6. Nice review Pam (and thanks again for the shout-out!). This book is on my ‘Mother’s Day’ list so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that my family remembers! Maybe I’ll leave my computer open to your blog as a little friendly reminder. I’ve never seen the butterfly vine in person and am considering growing it myself next year – thanks for the gorgeous photos!

    Is butterfly vine not commonly seen in northern CA? It’s not widespread here in Austin, but it’s readily available and you do see it around town. You’d love the seedpods, which look like papery, brown butterflies. —Pam

  7. Pam, thank you for such a fine review. I loved his quote. I like Spanish flag, but even though I like it, I’ve never grown it. However, hyacinth bean is wonderful here as are many annual and perennial vines. I’m really enjoying the smaller flowered clematis in my garden this year. So pretty. Oh, and American wisteria is coming along where I had to remove a rose bush due to rose rosette.

    Love reading your blog.~~Dee

    My mom liked to grow hyacinth bean in her OK garden. I tried it here one time, and it wasn’t happy. I’ll have to try again one day. —Pam

  8. Rachelle says:

    This book is on my nightstand. It is a good read and has great photography. I’m a bit jaded with plants so it takes something special to get me going. The photos of Momordia charantia, especially when ripe looking like it is some alien plant being from an R. L. Stine novel, have persuaded me to hunt down this plant. That it is edible when green, before it ripens to a yellow-orange with big flat cherry red seeds that more resemble teeth, is an added bonus!

    The hyacinth bean, trumpet vine, sweet autumn, morning glories, climbing roses, clematis ‘Josephine’, wine grapes, Boston ivy, honeysuckle, and akebia quinata which I’ve grown seem pretty tame comparatively!

    For the gardener into edible landscaping, Armitage does a nice job telling what vertical plants are edible, along with the how and when of their edibility!

    Good point, Rachelle. And yes, that Momordia is pretty freaky. Looks like a fun vine to try. —Pam

  9. Scott says:

    I’ll have to look that book up too…especially now that I have a fence to cover :-) Love that Clematis photos…I adore those little “lantern-style” clematis.

    Aren’t they adorable? I so desperately want my Clematis pitcheri to look like this one, but it’s sulky. I’m trying to be patient. —Pam

  10. Dustin says:

    I love that clemy!