Amazing Annual Vines

Jack's beanstalk isn't the only show-stopping vine. In the real world, you'll find a host of annual vines that grow almost as rapidly as Jack's climber, and cover themselves with gorgeous flowers to boot.

What other plants from a $2 packet of seeds could cover the whole side of a house? Or cloak a summer porch in cooling shade? Hide an eyesore of a garage or rusty chain-link fence? Dress up an arbor? Soften the corner of a house? Create a welcoming frame around a front door?

Today, the popularity of annual vines is on the rise. More seed catalogs list diverse offerings. Marilyn Barlow, owner of Select Seeds Antique Flowers in Union, Connecticut, says annual vines are perfect for gardeners who want to create a cottage garden look. And many annual vines (Dutchman's pipe, morning glories, moonflower, sweet peas, nasturtiums) grown by our grandparents hold appeal as heirlooms.

Unique Forms, Unusual Flowers

When most gardeners think of annual vines, they probably think of morning glories, but some lesser-known vines are also worth growing. Chilean glory vine, Spanish flag, purple bell vine, and others are all easy to grow, and many sport exotic-looking flowers.

Barlow says that when she grows hyacinth bean, its red-veined purple foliage and sweet pea-like purple or white flowers stop people in their tracks. The bean pod, developing large and deep purple with an alluring sheen in late summer, has made more than one person wonder aloud if it is real.

Even within a particular species of annual vine, it's easier than ever to find a range of varieties. More seed companies are offering grouped collections, such as various colors of morning glories, or sweet peas dating from Victorian times.

Unusual colors are more readily available, too, such as a white cup-and-saucer vine, a white hyacinth bean, a red morning glory, and the Mt. Fuji series of morning glories, whose sky blue, violet, deep purple and crimson flowers (depending on variety) are marked with a white pinwheel-like pattern and picotee border.

With some annual vines, the appeal is sheer novelty. And because seeds will cost you no more than a fancy cup of coffee, you can afford to experiment. Scarlet runner bean produces brilliant crimson flowers followed by edible beans. Bitter melon has climbing foliage that resembles that of its cousin, the cucumber. It produces a warty green fruit about 3 inches long that eventually turns orange and splits in thirds to reveal bright red seeds. On love-in-a-puff, 1-inch pale green balloonlike seed pods pop between your fingers.

Landscape Problem-Solvers

Annual vines aren't just inexpensive oddities. They're also great problem-solvers. They can quickly conceal things you don't want to look at, or play up ones you do. And they're so easy to grow, they're ideal plants to introduce children to the magic of gardening.

Their design uses are almost limitless. Any porch, fence, arbor, large trellis, or pergola is enhanced by an annual vine. But because they grow so fast and are temporary, they lend themselves to experimentation. Make a bamboo or twig tepee for your kids, and cover it with an annual vine such as scarlet runner bean. Plant vines next to a tree 10 to 14 feet tall, and let them scramble up the trunk and into the limbs for a blooming tree until frost. Grow two vines alongside each other in whimsical combinations: a morning-blooming morning glory intertwined with a late-day moonflower, or an international mix of Spanish flag, Chilean glory vine, and Dutchman's pipe.

Use them to blanket a problem slope or fill a new flower bed in a hurry. For instant charm and color, frame a door or window with a vine climbing a string trellis. Less invasive kinds, such as black-eyed Susan vine, can even weave themselves among other annuals and perennials, creating a wild look. Plant shorter growers (4 to 6 feet) in containers and baskets. And hide every eyesore in sight ? a rusty toolshed, a dog kennel, the neighbor's dying juniper hedge.

Even tiny courtyard gardens or apartment balconies have room for annual vines. Despite scrambling to heights of 20 feet or more, the vines have relatively limited root systems and grow happily in a large pot.

How to Grow Annual Vines

Nearly all annual vines do best if sown directly in the garden a week or two after the average last frost date. They grow so quickly that if started too early indoors they become stressed in their small space and tend to suffer from transplant shock. Also, direct-seeded plants will catch up with their coddled indoor-started counterparts by mid July or so.

You may want to start a few plants of finicky germinators, such as sweet pea, indoors as a backup. That way, if Mother Nature supplies too little or too much rain, or too little or too much heat, for proper germination, the indoor seedlings can come to the rescue. Start indoors on the last average frost date; plant in peat pots or cardboard egg cartons so pot and all can be planted without disturbing the roots. Transplant seedlings once they have their second set of leaves, one to three weeks later.

Annual vines, like so many plants, like full sun and well-drained, good-quality soil. However, if planted in too-rich soil or fertilized with too much nitrogen, they tend to produce excessive foliage and not enough flowers. If you want to fertilize, work a little compost into the soil, or at most an all-purpose fertilizer, such as a 5-10-5, according to label directions. The best time is just as plants begin to bloom.

Keep seeds evenly moist until germination. After that, most vines require average to modest watering despite the heavy demands that all the foliage puts on their root systems. According to Wanda Sorrells, staff horticulturist for the Geo. W. Park Seed Co., "Many annual vines are highly drought tolerant. The only side effect [of too little water] is that they might not grow as big." And many might wilt slightly on a hot afternoon but revive by evening.

It's important to provide support at planting time. Some annual vines, even when planted just 3 inches away from the support, will spend days slowly whirling around, reaching blindly for a support in an eerily intelligent way. That time and energy could be put into climbing and developing foliage and flowers. At planting time, if the support can't be placed next to the seed, put a short twig into the ground leading from the seed to the support.

Most vines climb by twining rather than clinging. This twining habit makes them even easier to cultivate. Simply provide a pole or stake and they'll twine right up, though it never hurts to give them a guiding hand every few days until they're a foot or so tall. On a building or other smooth, flat surface, a trellis helps. Construct one of wood, string, or even monofilament fishing line, which creates a nearly invisible support. Unlike perennial vines, even vigorous annual ones (to 20 feet) are fairly lightweight and seldom topple their supports.

The few clingers, such as sweet peas, love-in-a-puff, and purple bell vine, do better with string, netting, mesh, or a trellis for support.

Once these vines are established, few pests or diseases bother them. Their height allows good ventilation, and because they're annuals, diseases seldom overwinter. (Or it may just be that the vines grow so fast they outrun any pests or diseases.) All are killed by hard frost. Simply pull or cut them down and compost the remains. Many are actually very tender perennials and grow year-round in USDA Hardiness Zones 9 and warmer.

Annual vines to grow

Twining snapdragon (Asarina). 6-12 feet. Named for its snapdragon-like 1-inch flowers in pink, blue, white, or red. 'Joan Loraine' is a new royal purple version. Full sun.

Love-in-a-puff or balloon vine (Cardiospermum halicacabum). 8-10 feet. Grown for its balloonlike 1- to 2-inch papery seed capsules, which form in midsummer and ripen to brown in fall. Inside are three jet black seeds, each marked with a perfectly shaped white heart. Full sun.

Cup-and-saucer vine (Cobaea scandens). 15-25 feet. Its 2-inch flowers, which resemble a fluted cup in a saucerlike calyx, start pale green and turn lilac or purple. 'Alba' is a white variety. Mature flowers exude a faint honey scent. Full sun.

Hyacinth bean or Egyptian bean (Lablab purpureus, formerly Dolichos lablab). 10 feet or more. Striking maroon leaves with deeper reddish maroon veins. Purple or white sweet pea-like flowers followed by beanlike seed pods about 2 inches long. 'Ruby Moon' is a popular variety. A white version is also available. Full sun.

Chilean glory vine or glory flower (Eccremocarpus). 8-12 feet. Narrow 1-inch long tubular flowers, in eye-catching combinations of orange, red, pink, and yellow (depending on the species) with delicate foliage, resemble honeysuckle. Clings with tendrils. Full sun.

Morning glory and relatives (Ipomoea). 10 to 30 feet, depending on variety and growing conditions. Nearly all bloom in the morning, but pure white moonflower (I. alba) opens late in the day. All seeds have tough coats. Before planting, soak seeds overnight in warm water to soften and speed germination. Most reseed prolifically; exceptions are noted. Full sun.

I. imperialis 'Mt. Fuji'. Flowers are crimson, sky blue, violet, and deep purple accented with a white pinwheel and picotee pattern.

Spanish flag or firecracker vine (I. lobata, formerly Mina lobata). 15-20 feet. Mexican native has sprays of flowers usually in scarlet fading to yellow, then white, to give the effect of a sunset. Dark green foliage has unusual fleur-de-lis shape. 'Citronella' has lemon yellow blossoms fading to cream and pure white. Full sun.

Cardinal climber (I. multifida). Similar to scarlet climber (listed below) but with less delicate, more palmlike foliage.

I. nil 'Flying Saucers'. Unusual white cups streaked with sky blue; 'Scarlett O'Hara' has crimson flowers and was an All-America Selections winner in 1939.

I. purpurea 'Grandpa Ott's' and 'Kniola's Purple-black'. Nearly identical-looking heirlooms; deep purple flowers with magenta markings surrounding a creamy white throat.

Scarlet climber or cypress vine (I. quamoclit). Similar to cardinal climber, but with smaller flowers and deeply cut, ferny leaves.

Morning Glory (I. tricolor). Includes 'Heavenly Blue'; 'Sunrise Serenade' has nasturtium-like burgundy petals. Low, bushy varieties, such as 'Early Call' (3 to 6 feet), work well in a flower bed or border.

Sweet pea (Lathyrus odorata). 3 to 6-1/2 feet. Intense spicy scent; one of the best-selling flowers a century ago and still popular today. Many colors available. Unlike most annual vines, likes rich soil and cool, moist conditions. Tolerates some shade, especially in afternoon and in warmer climates. Plant outdoors in spring as soon as soil can be worked, or in peat pots at 55°F to set outdoors in early spring. (In zones 8 and warmer, plant in late fall for winter bloom.) Mulch to keep soil cool. Climbs by tendrils, so needs a mesh, trellis, net, or other closely spaced support. Often dies out in heat, so choose heat-resistant varieties to extend bloom time.

Bitter melon (Momordica charantia). 6-8 feet. Melon grown for Asian cuisine makes a distinctive ornamental. Vanilla-scented, 1-inch, fringed pale yellow blossoms develop into a rich orange, warty-looking, pointed melon that splits in late summer to reveal scarlet seeds. Full sun.

Black-eyed Susan (Thunbergia alata). 4 to 10 feet. White, cream, yellow, or orange vincalike flowers about 2 inches across; arrowhead-shaped leaves. Suzie hybrids are short and bushy enough for hanging baskets; white, orange, or yellow flowers have dark throats. Full sun.

Scarlet runner bean (Phaseolus coccineus). 15 feet. Edible bean grown mainly as an ornamental for its scarlet flowers (which attract hummingbirds, especially 'Scarlet Bees') and buff- to red-mottled black seedpods. Heart-shaped emerald green leaves are especially attractive. Improved varieties for eating, such as 'Scarlet Emperor', are available. 'Painted Lady' has bicolored coral and cream petals. Full sun.

Purple bell vine (Rhodochiton). 10-15 feet. Purple "flowers" are actually calyxes measuring about 1 inch across; the real flower is inside the calyx. Vine with heart-shaped leaves attaches itself to a support by clasping leaf stems. Thrives in heat and full sun.

Nasturtium (Tropaeolum). 5-15 feet. A few nasturtiums truly climb. T. majus 'Fordhook Favorite' is a vigorous climber, as is T. peregrinum, often called canary bird flower because of its feathery bright yellow flowers. If you want other nasturtiums to climb, tie them to a support. T. majus flowers come in yellow, orange, red, copper, salmon, and pink and can be single or double. Varieties with variegated foliage are widely offered. The spicy-tasting flowers and leaves are a favorite addition to salads. Some varieties, such as red 'Empress of India', attract hummingbirds. Prefers poor soil with excellent drainage; doesn't thrive in extreme heat. Aphids love nasturtiums: wash them off regularly with a water spray. Full sun.

Veronica Lorson Fowler is a gardener and writer living in Ames, Iowa.

Photography by Suzanne DeJohn/National Gardening Association

Article published on June 23, 2008.

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