Growing Climbers for Wildlife

Why Plant Climbers?  Now spring is here we can once again let our imaginations loose and plan for improvements and additions to our gardens, as long as we have spaces.  But often keen gardeners find that their plot is full to overflowing and another plant cannot be squeezed in anywhere.  The answer may be to turn our eyes skyward. Think vertically, and you we see endless possibilities!

It is all too easy to overlook the vertical element when we are designing a new area or filling in existing gaps, and we may fail to appreciate the opportunities that our garden boundaries can offer.  Many useful species of both native and non-native plants have the climbing (or scrambling) habit, and vary in height from a meter or so (tufted vetch, sweet pea or meadow vetchling) to twenty or thirty meters (travellers joy, ivy or Virginia creeper), making them suitable for just about any garden.  These versatile plants can be used to clothe walls and fences, cover pergolas and trellis, or they can be trained through other plants including hedges and shrubs.  Climbers add to the garden environment in many ways.  As well as enhancing the overall visual appeal with their leaves, flowers, seed heads or stems wherever they are grown, they also increase shelter for wildlife, some provide pollen and nectar for insects, and others have food for mammals and birds in the form of berries and seeds.  In all, climbers are tremendously useful and the good news is that every garden has room for more. Think in terms of vertical space, and even the most congested garden probably has room for a wild rose or clematis, some morning glory or honeysuckle. 

Even if you feel your garden is already full, it is worth remembering that more plants mean more wildlife, simply because the more diverse your plant collection the more wildlife you will attract.  Looking upwards opens up all sorts of possibilities.

Climbers are great for wildlife for several reasons, and a little research and some wise choices really pay dividends.  If you lack late summer flowers, ivy will provide nectar in September, October and even November for honeybees, hoverflies and butterflies such as red admirals.  If increasing your butterfly population is an aim, the magenta flowers of the broad-leaved everlasting pea are favoured by the brimstone butterfly – a species with very particular tastes and often a rather hard insect to please - and also the large white butterfly.  If birds are your interest, some of the small-flowered species of Clematis have seeds to encourage finches to the garden.  Even amongst the most common and available climbers, there are some treasures for the wildlife gardener.  But as well as their obvious food providing properties, climbers have one very specialised and important function in the garden.  They cover bare places, whether that’s the soil on the ground (ivy and travellers joy are examples of wild climbers that can both be used as ground cover), and the walls of your house or your fences, creating wildlife habitat that is especially valuable for birds.  This shelter is often used for nesting (and can accommodate nest boxes in secluded spots), roosting on cold nights or as a food foraging area, where dark places hide insects of all kinds.  Wrens love to search the sheltered places behind wall climbers for small insects and spiders, and blackbirds, robins and song thrushes often nest in the spaces produced by trellis against a wall, where the attendant climbers provide cover. The spotted flycatcher too, a bird that has declined massively in the last forty years, will nest in a small box amongst a wall climbers leaves. 

Although native may be our first choice, our wild climbers and scramblers are rather few compared to the wealth of attractive flowering non-natives available at garden centres, many of which have pollen and nectar to encourage insects.  The wild climbers also have a tendency to be very vigorous, although if you are prepared for their exuberant nature, bramble, hop and sweet briar are good for nesting birds, and ivy will disguise an unsightly shed in a very short time.  The lovely wild honeysuckle though is not only well behaved, it is beautifully scented, encourages hawk moths to its nectar, and birds (including bullfinches) to the autumn berries.  Other less enthusiastic wildflowers for scrambling into a hedge or along a low fence include tufted vetch with vivid purple flowers to attract plenty of bumblebees and even greater stitchwort will scramble its way up to a height of 60 cms or so.  Also for a sunny hedge bottom, or for weaving about in long grass, the yellow flowered meadow vetchling adds colour and bee fodder in early summer, using its tendrils to clutch onto grass stems. Dog rose and field rose in shades of pale pink, encourage hoverflies and pollen beetles, while the delicate narrow-leaved everlasting pea will tempt the occasional butterfly or long tongued moth. 

Sweet briar is a perfect intruder deterrent, having the thorniest stems of any wild rose, and its fragrant apple scented leaves will perfume the air after rain on a damp evening.  Most of our other native climbers are either too hot to handle in most gardens (hedge bindweed being a good example) or bear poisonous berries (bittersweet, black and white bryony) and are probably best left in the wild hedgerow.

We have few native climbers, but fortunately almost any climber will provide wildlife shelter, and this is one area where non-natives may be looked upon very favourably. Choose plants with flowers or berries for added benefit.  In the garden centre the variety of plants is tempting.  Variegated ivies, scrambling roses with open flowers and autumn hips, Ceonothus with its blue bee attracting flowers, climbing Hydrangea for hoverflies and small bumblebees, ornamental grapes, and small flowered species of Clematis including C. orientale, C. montana, C. viticella and C. tangutica. The latter produce a thick tangle of stems for nesting birds, delicate flowers with pollen for bees, and fluffy seed heads which finches and sparrows enjoy.  There are lots of possibilities. Occasionally when I walk around my garden I am struck by the incredible versatility of plants, and those that scramble and climb are no exception. There are climbers for hot sun or shade, dusty dry spots or lush damp places.  They truly are plants for every situation.  So if you have spaces, this is a great month to enhance the vertical dimension in your garden.  If you don’t have spaces, don’t despair!  Grow clematis through an established wall shrub such as Ceonothus, honeysuckle through your privet hedge or rambling roses into any convenient tree. 

How to plant

When planting any climber or shrub against a wall, it is important to remember that this can be a very dry environment.  Prepare a planting hole at least 30 cms from the wall, add plenty of well rotted compost and mulch well after planting.  Water through the summer whenever the weather is dry and top up the mulch frequently.  If your new climber is self-clinging, it will require a helping hand in the form of a stake or cane before it gets going and trellis or wall ties will be required for non-clinging plants. 

 Some Good Climbers for Wildlife

  • For bees – Tufted vetch, Clematis, ivy, climbing nasturtiums, Ceonothus, open flowered climbing roses

  • For birds – Travellers joy, ivy, rambling roses (with hips), small flowered Clematis, honeysuckle, Virginia creeper, ornamental grapes

  • For butterflies – Ivy, broad leaved everlasting pea

  • For moths – Honeysuckle, jasmine

  • For small mammals – Honeysuckle, wild roses or cultivated varieties with hips

  • For hoverflies – Wild roses, morning glory, climbing Hydrangea 


© Text and photographs Jenny Steel 2017