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Vines That Eat Gardens
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Anne K Moore
Photographs Anne K Moore

We are going to talk about bad and ugly things. Don’t think of this as a Bah! Humbug! kind of article this holiday season, though. It is a friendly warning to know what you are planting, especially where vines are concerned.

For centuries, vines have been used to cover unsightliness and hold off erosion. Think kudzu, brought to the Southern states to stop highway rights-of-way from slip sliding into rivers, creeks, or neighbors yards.

Not only did kudzu seem a miracle in covering ground, it also choked out all weeds, saving highway crews dollars and labor costs. No more mowing where kudzu grows. Then the amazing thing turned into a monster. It didn’t stop at the rivers, creeks, or neighborhoods. It kept right on creeping, covering buildings and slow moving children in its path. Well, maybe not children, but you get the idea.

Most vines come into the garden in little pots, maybe as small as 4 inches. They masquerade as cute little plants with pretty leaves, some with promises of attractive flowers.

English ivy is one of these benign appearing vines. It looks so lovely with many, many choices of leaf shape and variegation. Who hasn’t been captivated by a shaded bed of solid ivy under a tree? If you haven’t tried to replicate this technique, you don’t know what a chore it is to keep the ivy out of the tree. “So what?” you might ask. Ivy climbing a tree trunk is pretty darn good-looking, too.

Ivy climbing a tree trunk might be esthetically pleasing but when it reaches the top, it can topple the tallest, strongest tree. Not by strangulation, but by weakening the tree by cutting the amount of sunlight the tree receives. Then, by adding weight at the very treetop, where it clusters, it causes an imbalance on the already weakened tree. Treetop ivy plus wind equals an uprooted tree.

Other tree climbers that can produce the same undesirable results are the Chinese and Japanese wisteria. They reach for the stars, or more accurately the sun, and end up pulling down their own support. American wisteria, Wisteria frutescens, is supposed to have better manners in a garden but in my garden, the so-called 8-10 foot long stems are reaching almost 20 feet up a small nearby tree. More stems have run under a deck to come up next to the house and more are creeping at least 15 feet along the garage on the ground. It also tends to root here and there all along the length of the stem. I think it is searching for a taller tree.

A friend (or was that a fiend?) gave me a native trumpet creeper vine. I had heard it could be a strong grower, but I planted it next to our wooden privacy fence because “the hummingbirds love it.” It has run along the fence, out from the fence into vegetable beds and under the fence, visiting the neighbors and their beds. Native does not necessarily mean well behaved. Roundup® is in its future.

Even annual vines useful for landscaping summer beds will take over if left alone for a week or longer. Look what happens if a Margarita sweet potato vine goes untrimmed. It smothers the sidewalk. With annual vines, you don’t have to be too concerned with their runaway antics. Frosts and freezes will take them out.

This is a cautionary tale. That cute little four incher with the pretty leaves could be a perfect cover or blanket more than you hoped.

Posted December 7, 2012

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