How to grow climbers and wall shrubs
Climbing plants and wall shrubs bring high-rise beauty to our gardens, clothing walls, fences, obelisks and pergolas in colourful flowers and foliage. There are different types to suit all growing conditions and they’re particularly useful in small gardens, as they take up so little ground space.
- Most are quick to grow when given the right conditions
- Plant in spring or autumn
- Flowers can be produced in spring, summer and autumn, depending on species
- There are climbers for all growing conditions
- Most are happy with annual pruning
- Many are ideal for small gardens
All you need to know
What are climbers and wall shrubs?
Climbers are plants that have evolved methods such as twining stems, tendrils, stem roots and sticky pads, to enable them to grow through shrubs, trees or up vertical surfaces such as cliff faces to reach more light. In our gardens we can grow them up all kinds of vertical features, from walls, fences and trellis to arches, obelisks and pergolas.
Many climbers can develop a framework of permanent woody stems, such as wisteria and campsis, while others die down in winter and re-sprout in spring, such as golden hops.
Wall shrubs, by contrast, aren’t natural climbers. If left to their own devices, they would bush outwards and grow like shrubs often with lax, spreading stems. They can easily be trained onto supports to add colour and interest to bare walls and fences, while often benefiting from this more sheltered setting. Many of these plants can be long lived, .
Climbing annuals are fast and fun to grow, and complete their lifecycle in a single year. They grow rapidly from seed sown in spring, flower abundantly in summer, then die once they set seed and temperatures drop in late autumn. They include sweet peas and morning glory.
Wall plants are great for birds, providing them with sheltered roosting and nesting sites. Some plants, such as pyracantha, cotoneaster, ivy and honeysuckle, also provide them with berries to feast on in autumn.
Choosing the right climbers and wall shrubsThere is a huge range for you to choose from, with plants to suit every aspect, from shade to full sun, and most types of soil. See our guide to assessing your conditions.
Many are hardy, although wall shrubs are often grown in this way because they need the shelter and warmth of a sunny wall.
There are also plenty of tender or half-hardy climbers with vibrant, exotic blooms, for growing as a temporary splash of summer colour or as conservatory plants.
When buying a wall plant, bear in mind the amount of room you have available. Even though they don’t take up much space on the ground, some can grow vigorously, both vertically and horizontally. Check plant labels for their eventual height and spread.
All wall shrubs and many climbers need a system of sturdy wires or trellis for support, which should be put in place before planting. Wall shrubs need tying to these supports regularly as they grow. Some climbers will cling securely to wires or trellis using their tendrils, such as grapevines and passionflowers, while others need tying in, such as climbing roses. Only a few climbers are able to attach themselves directly to vertical surfaces – ivy, campsis and Virginia creeper are examples.
Getting the right look
Wall plants are great for adding colour and interest to walls, fences and other vertical features. You can also let climbers scramble through other shrubs, or even up into trees, to add extra interest.
They come in all shapes, sizes and styles, so you’re sure to find plenty to fit your requirements. There are various options to consider to help narrow down your choices:
Colour (and fragrance) of flowers and foliage
Season(s) of interest
Style – such as exotic or naturalistic, traditional or unusual
Evergreen (retains its leaves all year), or deciduous (loses its leaves over winter)
Short-lived (annual) or long-term (perennial) plants
Climbers and wall shrubs are a great way to soften hard boundaries, improve the appearance of buildings, hide unattractive sheds or other structures, and create extra screening or shade. Evergreen wall plants may even help to insulate buildings if grown on exposed north- or east-facing walls and keep them cool in summer, if grown on the south or west facing walls. And you'll create a warm welcome to your home if you grow climbing roses around your door.
These plants can be beneficial to wildlife too, offering shelter and nesting sites for birds, as well as flowers for pollinating insects.
For more on the benefits of covering your home's walls with plants, see our guide to green walls.
How and what to buyMost hardy climbers and wall shrubs are on sale all year round in garden centres and from online suppliers. They are usually sold in a choice of sizes, from about 30cm (1ft) tall and upwards, ready for planting directly into the garden. Prices usually increase with size.
Some climbers, such as clematis, may also be available as young plants or plug plants, which need to be grown on in containers until they are large enough to be planted out. These are cheaper, but take longer to reach flowering size.
Some tender or half-hardy climbers, such as rhodochiton and eccremocarpus, are sold through spring as small plants, in garden centres and from online suppliers. They can also be bought as seeds for sowing in early spring, including morning glory and cobaea.
When buying wisteria, it is best to choose a plant that is in bud or bloom. Young wisteria may take quite a few years to become mature enough to flower, so this will help avoid a potentially long wait.
Where to get ideas and advice
To explore the exciting range of climbers and wall shrubs, you can:
Visit gardens of all kinds, in all seasons – you’re sure to see a wide range of beautiful wall plants. The RHS Gardens are a great source of inspiration, and all the plants are labelled, so you can note down your favourites.
Ask at local garden centres, which should offer a selection of climbers and wall shrubs that would do well in your local conditions.
Go to RHS Find a Plant: Climbers to browse photographs and plant descriptions, and find out where to buy them.
When to plantWall shrubs and climbers are best planted in spring or autumn. The less hardy types should be planted in spring, so they have plenty of time to settle in before winter arrives.
To grow annual climbers, sow seeds indoors in spring.
Where to plant
Wall shrubs and climbers should be planted at 45cm (18in) from the base of a wall, to allow rain to reach the root zone. Planting away from the wall, also avoids the area of dry, impoverished soil usually found at the base of walls, while ensuring their roots aren’t restricted by foundations or rubble. The plant should be angled in to the wall or fence to enable it to grow against it
Similarly, when planting climbers to grow up into a tree, dig the planting hole about 50cm (20in) from the base of the trunk and away from the main roots. Use a bamboo cane, if necessary, to help the climber reach its permanent support.
Both climbers and wall shrubs, except the most vigorous types can be successful in large containers, but be prepared to water and feed them regularly through the growing season.
Tender climbers can be grown in a conservatory or greenhouse, or outdoors over the summer months in a warm, sheltered spot. Planting them in large containers enables them to be moved more easily into a frost free position during the winter
Tender climbers and shrubs for conservatories
Climbers with exotic flair
Prepare your soil
Most climbers and wall shrubs like free-draining soil, so add plenty of garden compost, or leaf mould to the entire planting area to improve the soil structure. This also helps the soil to retain moisture during the summer, as well as increasing soil fertility and beneficial soil microorganisms
How to plant
Planting climbers and shrubs is straightforward and they should settle in quickly. See our individual planting guides for full details:
WateringWater newly planted climbers and wall shrubs regularly for at least the first growing season, until fully settled in.
Those in containers will need watering as soon as the surface of the compost becomes dry, throughout the growing season.
Plants growing in the rain shadow of walls and fences or under the house eaves will need particular attention to watering, especially in summer
To boost flowering, you can apply a high potassium fertiliser (such as Vitax Q4), at the dose recommended on the packet.
Keep the ground around the base of wall plants clear of weeds, so they don’t compete for water or harbour pests. Applying a mulch (see below) will help to deter the germination of weed seeds in the soil.
Spread a 5cm (2in) layer of garden compost or other organic matter over the soil surface of the soil to help prevent it drying out and over time improve the soil structure. Mulch also increases soil fertility and the numbers of beneficial soil microorganisms The mulch should cover the whole root zone of the plant, but not touch the stem, as this could cause rot.
The warmth and shelter of a wall may give borderline hardy plants some extra protection. You can also provide additional insulation by laying a thick mulch over the root zone and wrapping them up before winter sets in.
Tender exotic climbers won't usually survive the winter outdoors, so bring them in before the first frost if you want them to continue into the following year.
Caring for older plantsIf wall plants have outgrown their site or become misshapen over time, you can rejuvenate them through renovative pruning.
Annual pruning keeps wall plants neat, attractive and flowering well – simply follow our step-by-step pruning guide.
Some plants have more specific requirements, including campsis, climbing roses, clematis, honeysuckle, wisteria and espalier-trained plants.
If pruning isn’t done on a regular basis, renovation pruning may be necessary to reinvigorate them and get them back into good shape.
Most wall shrubs and hardy climbers are robust and trouble free once established, as long as they're growing in conditions that suit their needs.
Still, like most plants, they can be attacked by various pests, including these sap-sucking insects:
Often these cause only cosmetic damage and may not need treating.
Plants that aren't growing in the right conditions are more likely to succumb to diseases. Those growing in dry conditions at the base of a wall, for example, may be more susceptible to powdery mildew.
Some of the tender or half-hardy annuals may need to be protected from slugs and snails, especially when first planted outside. Aphids may also colonise new shoot tips. Cold can be a killer for these plants, so don’t plant them out until after the last frost, and bring them back indoors before the first frost of winter.
Popular climbers, such as roses, clematis and wisteria may also be affected by specific pests and disease, as are some wall shrubs, such as pyracantha, can be prone to pyracantha scab and fireblight.
Vigorous climbers can be problematic if they outgrow their space, so always check plant labels for the eventual height and spread before buying. Virginia creeper and campsis, for example, can easily reach 10m (33ft). Be particularly cautious with the extremely vigorous mile-a-minute (or Russian vine), as its rapidly spreading, dense growth will smother everything in its path.
When grown on buildings, some vigorous climbers can damage guttering and lift roof tiles. See our guide to ivy on buildings.
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