What you need is a well-mannered climber

You don't have to grow ferocious roses up your arches and pergolas - clematis, jasmine and campsis are far more easy going. By Anna Pavord
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The Independent Online
Collapsing pergolas were much on my mind last year and when I wrote about ours falling to its knees, complete with mounds of solanum, rose, wistaria and clematis, many readers wrote in with solutions to the problem. John Torode of London recommended replacing my larch and elm with steel reinforcing mesh; cheap, thick enough not to rust through and easily available through builders' merchants.

Ruth Clarke of Harrold in Bedfordshire took his advice and is delighted with the result. She has used the mesh for an arch, six feet long with some trellis work adjoining. "It looks quite splendid," she says. "It is strong, lightweight in appearance (important in a small cottage garden), graceful and very functional. Now I need ideas of what to plant over it to have some interest all the year. And no thorns."

I know what she means about thorns. I spent three days last week untying old growths of Rambling Rector, Kiftsgate and Easlea's Golden Rambler from the pergola, cutting out a proportion of it and re-tying it, together with the new wands of growth. With one branch stuck in your hair, and another hanging on to your hand with the grim ferocity of a pit bull at bay, you begin to wonder why you grow roses.

Easlea's Golden Rambler has particularly vicious thorns, and is a trifle stiff, but despite these drawbacks, it is still one of the best of the roses on the pergola. Pruning it is made slightly complicated by the fact that it is smothered in a very vigorous spring flowering blue Clematis macropetala. Since the rose's legs are bare, it needs this softening skirt, but the clematis winds its tendrils everywhere and you have to cut out the old growths bit by bit in the short lengths left between their handholds. Autumn flowering Viticella clematis are easier to use with climbing roses on a pergola because you can cut all the stems down to within 18 inches of the ground in February and then prune the roses without their interference.

What about the thornless rose Zephirine Drouhin asks Ms Clarke? What about Kathleen Harrop I would reply. Zephirine Drouhin is an aggressive kind of pink and slightly too prone to blackspot and mildew for my taste. Kathleen Harrop is a much easier colour, a soft shell pink, but shares the same advantages of being thornless and highly scented and will climb to nine feet if tied in to a support.

In the main, though, Ms Clarke will have to look elsewhere than among roses for climbers to cover her arch and trellis. As in any other planting scheme, she will need some climbers with good foliage to give the bulk and luxuriance that makes a garden feel comfortable. Roses alone would not sufficiently camouflage the industrial underpinning of the structure.

For its airy, ferny foliage, as well as its clusters of flowers (orange, red or yellow, depending on variety) I am very fond of eccremocarpus. It has been the making of an east wall, where I let it loose recently to scramble up invisible lengths of chicken wire fixed to the masonry.

In mild winters it is evergreen. This year it has been cut to the ground by cold, leaving a messy tangle on the wall which will have to be cleared away this month before it starts shooting from the base again. It is generous in terms of flowering period, starting in midsummer and going on until the first frost. It is also well-mannered when it has to share its living space with another climber. That is more than you can say for honeysuckle which tends to swamp or strangle all but the toughest hosts.

Clematis of course will be near the top of anyone's list for covering an arch such as Ms Clarke has made, but they look very much better if they are grown through some host climber such as a vine, which will bulk up the clematis's own spindly growth. The most successful vine on our pergola is Vitis vinifera Purpurea which supports two clematises. One is an alpina, which performs in April and May before the vine has fully leafed-up. Compared with most clematises, C. alpina is weak in growth, rarely getting beyond 6ft, but it is extremely hardy. Growing with the vine is Frances Rivis which has mid-blue flowers with white stamens. Elsewhere, I have White Columbine, one of the most free-flowering of the alpinas, with pure white flowers.

The second of the vine's clematises fills in at the other end of the season, during August and September. It is C. viticella Etoile Violette which has rich violet flowers with a creamy little boss of stamens in the centre. This is a vigorous tribe, but easy to manage. They mind wind less than other types of clematis and they do not seem to collapse with wilt, which has just carried away Mrs Cholmondeley on the front of our house.

Ms Clarke says she is hoping to have "interest all the year". She does not say though how big her trellis is and without sufficient space to play with, all year interest is a tall order. If she has not got it elsewhere in her garden, she should plant winter jasmine. In late November it is the most heart warming sight in the garden when everything else is drear and pinched. It needs to be trained up high and allowed to cascade down to display itself most effectively. The growth is lax and easily put where you want it. Through the jasmine you could grow a yellow clematis such as C. tangutica. Where height is limited, go for the Helios variety which only grows to about five feet.

C. tangutica is an easy going clematis which you can prune or not as you please. I have one growing through jasmine and I prune it in November, before the jasmine comes into flower. The approved pruning time is February. Elsewhere, C. tangutica grows on its own over a stone wall and is never pruned. In terms of flower quality, there doesn't seem much to choose between them, so I would not say that pruning enhances performance. It is useful though to be able to let the host shrub breath for a while without a clematis bearing down on its shoulders.

Campsis, a tropical looking climber, with excellent foliage and brilliant orange red flowers, needs space, as do hop and passion flower. But even without these, Ms Clarke would have flower from the jasmine from November to March, from C. alpina during April and May, from the rose for a long period during summer, and from the other two clematis from July through September, when they would be backed by the dusty purple foliage of the vine. In October the vine itself will flare into brilliant prominence before it drops its leaves in front of the emerging flowers of the jasmine. Full circle.

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