Q: I want to use climbing vines or roses to create a “wall,” both on a chain-link fence and a series of trellises. I’m looking for something noninvasive that won’t choke out my perennials and veggies, and preferably with few or no flowers, so that it’s not so much a focal point as a fast-growing backdrop of green. — Suzanne Plunkett, Chicago, Ill.
A: Chain link can be unsightly, and covering it is often the best recourse. Your trellises, on the other hand, have a beauty of their own, so I’d suggest plants that will complement rather than cover them. Climbing roses such as ‘Dr. W. VanFleet’ or ‘Climbing American Beauty’ (except for the fact that you might find their flowers distracting) are an excellent choice for the trellises. They have very deep root systems and won’t interfere with nearby flowers and vegetables. Clematis also look wonderful on a trellis, and they’re easy to manage. Annual vines are another good choice; I wouldn’t be without them in my garden. Use them to fill in along the fence or on the trellises for the first year or so, while your more permanent plants mature. Balloon vine is the plainest of them. Cup-and-saucer vine and moonflower both have understated flower colors, but I’d also suggest experimenting with some of the showier exotics — cardinal climber, Spanish flag, purple hyacinth bean, asarina, and mandevilla. If they turn out to be too colorful for your taste, you’ll have to contend with them only for a few months, and none pose a threat to nearby flowers or vegetables.
Now, about that fence: Good old English ivy is tough on brick and wooden walls — its rootlets can crack mortar and squeeze boards from posts — but for turning a chain-link fence into a living wall of green, nothing is better or faster than Hedera helix. It’s extremely hardy and will thrive in shade as well as in a fair amount of sun in all but the hottest climates. Some cultivars grow faster than others (ask your local nursery for a recommendation on a good variety for your region). You’ll have to coax the vines to climb by weaving the runners up the fence, but plants in 4-inch pots, set a foot apart, should grow enough to cover a 6-foot fence by the end of three growing seasons. True, ivy is invasive — almost anything that’s fast-growing and evergreen will have a hefty root system that’s hard to rein in — but you can control it with root barriers and by pruning. To stave off an ivy invasion, install a heavy plastic root barrier, making sure it’s 1 to 2 feet deep; then add an attractive top edging of brick or bluestone that extends 3 inches above the soil surface. You’ll have to prune off the runners that creep over the edging as often as you can manage (ideally, about once a month during the growing season). But certainly do this at least once a year, when you clean up the garden after frost. You’ll also need to prune the foliage of the ivy wall about twice a year, once in early spring and again in midsummer. (Before planting a wall of ivy, or any potentially invasive plant on the edge of your property, remember to consult with your neighbors. Offer to help install a root barrier on their side, too, and to do the annual pruning.)
If ivy strikes you as boring or too much work, consider using wooden lattice painted a deep forest green (or whatever color matches your trellises). You can buy it ready-made; it’s very lightweight and easily wires to a chain-link fence. Lattice will hide the fence in a neutral way and provide year-round privacy. With the lattice in place, you could experiment with any vines you fancy. It’s an excellent support for climbing roses, clematis, annual vines, or just about anything — but ivy.