Climbing plants extend the garden, upwards, and cover things you don’t want to see. Once established, they can run away from your original idea. Suddenly a pretty honeysuckle or neat and tidy climbing hydrangea is taking over your garden!

Between November and spring is the best time to take action to renovate deciduous climbing plants to keep them where you want them and help them give you lovely foliage and flowers.

Beware: some climbing plants that have grown old and woody don’t respond well to renovation. Replacing them is a better approach for plants such as Ceanothus, Fremontodendron, Plumbago, Senecio and Solanum. If in doubt about your plant, seek advice at a local garden centre or from the RHS website.

climbing plants

This virginia creeper in Lower Thurlton shows how it can take over a garden. Be sure to keep yours in shape by renovating old plants and pruning to fit your space.

Basic pruning to renovate climbing plants

  1. Untangle the climbing plant from its supports and, if the stems are flexible, lay it as flat as possible on the ground.
  2. Sweep out old leaves and bits that have gathered behind the supports and repair any broken bits.
  3. Cut out any dead shoots or branches.
  4. Cut away tangled growth.
  5. Gently lift the climbing plant back to its place, and tie it back in place.
  6. Be firm with shoots that are reaching out or over the space you want covered, especially those that are growing out and away from the wall or trellis where they should be: cut them back them to within two or three buds from a main stem.
  7. Tie or pin young shoots to the plant’s support to create a good cover of shoots over the space.
climbing plants

Climbing hydrangea, such as this example at Shambellie House, looks wonderful when it fits a space. Be sure to prune it to fit before it takes over!

Three levels of more serious action to renovate climbing plants

Drastic action!

Cutting a climbing plant down to about 30cm (12 inches) from the ground is drastic, sometimes necessary and new shoots will grow from the base to cover your space in a new framework. Drastic action will mean flowers are unlikely, but old and tangled climbers often do not flower well either, so why not go for renovation and a better future? These are some of the climbing plants likely to need this action, and which respond well to it: Clematis, Cotoneaster, Hedera, Pyracantha, Vitis and Wisteria.

Gradual drastic action (preferred)

Cut down to the ground one in three stems each year for three years and cut the other stems down to half their length each year. This is less of a shock to the look of your garden, and to the plant, but there will be few flowers. This approach suits plants such as climbing hydrangea, forsythia and garrya.

Slightly less drastic action

Either: cut the plant down to about 60cm (2feet) from the ground. This approach suits climbing plants such as Jasminum, Lonicera and Virginia Creeper.

Or: cut all the shoots back to a bud or branch on main framework of branches or stems. This suits plants such as Actinidia and Passiflora.

Tools for the job

Climbing plants

Tools for pruning and renovating climbing plants: loppers, a pruning saw, secateurs, and please wear good gloves. Sarah Buchanan

Aftercare

  1. In the spring, feed the plant by adding to the soil around the roots a ‘slow release’ fertiliser at a rate of 120gm per sq m (4oz per sq yd) to the soil at the base of the plant. Add well rotted organic matter and mulch to the area around the roots too, and in dry weather water the plant.
  2. For a year after renovation, be watchful: tie or clip new stems into a framework to cover your space. The next year, prune out any weak or damaged stems or branches.
  3. Each winter (or at least every other year) follow the basic pruning advice above.