Property: Invasion of the climbing plants

Rampant creepers can transform a house, says Felicity Cannell, but they can also overwhelm it
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The Independent Online
THE MOST spectacular house in my road came up for sale last year. As expected, it sold in no time. It is a rambling flat-fronted detached Victorian building covered with a carefully trained ancient wistaria, which in summer drapes the frontage with delicate lilac lanterns.

To the horror of all the local residents who had coveted the property, the buyers immediately removed its best feature to reveal an unrelenting drab grey exterior. From eye-catching to eyesore in an afternoon.

There is no doubt that one of the most effective transformations of any building is a covering of green foliage which periodically erupts in blossom. Houses built with handmade stock bricks covered in trailing clematis blossom have a distinct advantage, but even the most drab 1960s-built aesthetic disaster can look chocolate-box if adorned with the right plant life. Incongruous extensions are enhanced as the brickwork mellows under a facade of greenery.

And, although it won't increase the value, it will certainly attract attention and may even clinch a sale out of season. Any house can get a pick-up in spring and summer with window boxes, hanging baskets and pots. But in autumn, a house covered with flaming red Virginia creeper takes some beating.

Virginia creeper and Boston ivy are rampant climbers, responsible for probably the most dramatic transformations. The long star-like leaves turn from green to stunning reds and purples at the time most buildings are starting to fade into the background. Later in the year, winter jasmine produces masses of white or yellow flowers. A frame of blossom round your front door may annoy you, but early January visitors will love it.

You must choose the right plant. Wistaria evokes visions of pastel Regency homes, while the Victorians preferred creepers. Now we favour building preservation and rip them all down. The trick is to get the balance right. A large detached country house may cope with a rampant honeysuckle, but a terraced cottage will be swamped.

Ivy has always had a bad press - being self-clinging it digs into mortar and pulls off rendering. It encourages damp and supports a variety of animal life. The Building Research Establishment booklet "Bird, Bee and Plant Damage to Buildings" reports: "Those concerned with the preservation of ancient buildings and churches are unanimous in the view that ivy should not be allowed to grow on walls."

Newer houses most need the camouflage, and fortunately they cope far better with self-clingers such as ivy, creepers or climbing hydrangeas. Modern materials have built-in waterproof characteristics, and if the plant is cut back at windows and gutters it is unlikely to cause problems. Also, its roots won't damage the foundations.

Plastic drainpipes, stack pipes and tanks will need netting or trellis even for self-clingers. Ivy is ideal for all-year coverage, but don't forget that once it has covered the eyesore it will carry on growing.

Most notorious is the "mile-a-minute" Russian vine, sometimes sold to unsuspecting householders as polygonum baldschuanicum. It will take over the whole garden and possibly the street if unchecked. But it is useful on isolated buildings and will smother an eyesore with pale green foliage and greenish-white flower sprays. Its growing rate is between 10 and 20ft a year. As one horticulturist put it: "You plant it and run for cover!"

For a longer-term view, wistaria, honeysuckle, clematis, rose or passion flower are more controllable and will not smother other plants. Wistaria takes five to seven years to produce its spectacular flowers. But all these need annual pruning, not least to encourage blooms.

On older properties these twiners and ramblers will cause fewer problems; they need wire or trellis for support and are relatively separate from the building. But make sure the structure is firmly fixed: a heavily covered trellis crashing to the ground is like a dozen tangled fishing nets. Considerable patience will be needed not to sacrifice the lot.

Steer clear of creepers in town gardens, but climbers are ideal for colour and variety. For roof terraces and yards plant wistaria, clematis and passion flower in pots. Jasmine and winter honeysuckle have gorgeous scents. Jasmine flowers intermittently in summer and autumn, and planted with the winter variety you'll have colour even in the snow.