I’ve just installed a cedar arbor around a doorway on the shady north side of my house. Are there any perennial vines that would grow well in this spot?
Carolyn Sango, Ann Arbor, MI
The north side of a house can provide excellent conditions for a clematis vine.
Photo/Illustration: Jennifer Blume
Beverly Shaw, a perennial garden designer for ScapeArt Distinctive Landscapes in West Lafayette, Indiana, responds: Most gardeners assume plant choices for gardens located on the north sides of their houses should be limited to varieties that like shade. But depending on the size of your house, this assumption may not always be true. On the north side of my one-story house, a large-flowered clematis (Clematis ‘Ville de Lyon’) blooms prolifically. That’s because when the sun sits high in the sky in summer, its roots are cool and shaded but its leaves get sun.
And while the north sides of two-story houses may not benefit from exposure to high-in-the-sky summer sun, those not surrounded by trees do get bright indirect light. There are many perennial vines that can thrive in this type of situation. One excellent choice is a climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea anomala ssp. petiolaris, USDA Hardiness Zones 4 to 9). The foliage is crisp and green during the growing season, while winter exposes its exfoliating cinnamon-colored bark. Late spring brings white caplike flowers. It takes several years to become established, so I often plant it along with a faster-growing vine.
Variegated porcelain vine (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata ‘Elegans’) is an interesting choice for this setting, with its white, pale-green, and pink coloring on each young leaf, followed by handsome blue-to-purple berries in the fall. It is hardy in Zones 5 to 8, adapts nicely to most soils, and is less vigorous than the potentially invasive straight species.
Fiveleaf akebia (Akebia quinata, Zones 5 to 9) is another good choice for its foliage, which emerges in spring with a purplish tinge, then changes to blue-green. A. quinata ‘Variegata’ is a cultivar that’s noteworthy for its variegated leaves. Reddish-purple flowers appear in late spring followed by large purplish fruits in the summer. This vine likes a well-drained, slightly acidic soil. Keep an eye on its growth and prune it regularly, as it is likely to take over more square footage than you intended.
Some choices are so rambunctious that they can eventually topple your wooden arbor and are often best suited to strong metal structures. These thugs, each with its own partially redeeming merits, include honeysuckles (Lonicera spp. and cvs.) with their incredible fragrance, wisterias (Wisteria spp. and cvs.) with their showy flowers, and trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans), which attracts hummingbirds. All three are hardy in Zones 5 to 9, but be sure to reinforce your arbor before planting any of them and prune them to keep them under control.