Layers of a Permaculture Food Forest Part 5: Climbing Plants

There’s a bit of an odd-one-out among the seven layers of the permaculture food forest garden – a group that doesn’t fit into any one particular compartment of the garden quite so neatly…

Like all plants, climbers start their growth in the root layer but can then ramble around anywhere from the forest garden floor – where they can be utilized as groundcover – to the very tops of the tallest trees in the canopy.

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Here we take a look at some of the species suitable for a temperate food forest garden and how to best implement them in your design.

Perennial Woody Climbers

Perennial woody climbers are climbing plants that form woody stems from which new growth appears each year.

Grapes

Vanessa Grape
Vanessa Grape
from Nature Hills Nursery, Inc. 

Grapes (Vitis sp.) may be the best known of the fruiting climbers, but there are some common misconceptions about growing them.

Whilst it’s true they do best when given maximum hours of sun and a dry climate, they can succeed in a greater range of conditions than most people imagine.

Look for varieties that are mildew resistant and take care in choosing those that will thrive outdoors in your given locality.

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Kiwi Fruit

Kiwi Magicâ„¢ Hardy Kiwi Combination
Kiwi Magic™ Hardy Kiwi Combination
from Nature Hills Nursery, Inc. 

Of all of the Kiwis, the fuzzy ones from China (Actinidia deliciosa ) are by far the best known, but there are others to try…

You might not find the fruits of the Hardy Kiwi (Actinidia arguta) in your local supermarket owing to their short shelf-life – but for the gardener this a superb alternative to their hairy cousin! 

Similar in many ways is the Arctic Kiwi (Actinidia kolomikta), with the self-fertile variety “Dr Szymanowski” being best known – and often planted ornamentally.

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Climbing-plants-kiwi-berry-food-forest-1
Once you’ve tried these, you might wonder what all the fuzz is about…

The fruits of both species are only the size of a tiny grape, but they are hairless and eaten whole, just as you would with any berry. 

Both species have delectable fruits that taste much like that of the hairy kiwi, and will still crop well in less favorable conditions.

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Magnolia Vine

Schisandra-chinensis-magnolia-vine
Schisandra berries are so beautiful that this vine is sometimes planted purely as an ornamental

Schisandra chinensis, also known as Magnolia vine, or Five-Flavored Berry is another climber from North-East Asia.

I like the last name because biting into one of these fruits is a real taste sensation!

The flavor could almost be described as “spicy”- with gingery tones and a bomb of citrus zest. Fasten your seatbelts!

The fruits are often dried, and can even be mixed into a paste with Hardy Kiwis to form fruit leather. They are renowned in the orient for their medicinal virtues, and in Chinese Medicine, they’re still used in many of the same ways as ginseng.

Passionfruit

Passiflora caerulea - two flowers 2019-06-27
Climbers like the Blue Passionflower can add dimensions of beauty and awe to your forest garden

The common or garden Passionfruit is a tropical species, but there are others from the Passiflora family that can be grown in a temperate climate.

The Blue Passion Flower (Passiflora caerulea) is the most well-known of the hardier species and is often planted in ornamental gardens.

Its egged-sized fruits which ripen dark yellow-orange aren’t nearly as good as those of its tropical cousin, but as a semi-evergreen climber with incredible flowers, it has its merits.

Whilst literature is a bit vague on the nuances between species, Passionflowers are renounced in herbal medicine for their sedative qualities when brewed in teas or made into tinctures, etc.

There is also an intriguing member of the Passiflora family described in the herbaceous section with superior fruits…

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Woody Climbers for Other Purposes

Jasmine

Confederate Star Jasmine
Confederate Star Jasmine
from Nature Hills Nursery, Inc. 

Common Jasmine (Jasminum officinale) is the perfect candidate for those looking to add some extra aroma in their forest garden.

I think scent is one of the most neglected of all aspects in garden design… whether a garden’s chief function is to provide food or beauty, we all know the heavenly experience of drifting through a cloud of floral aromas on a warm summer’s night.

The scent of Jasmine can be preserved by drying the flowers for tea, or by creating Jasmine oil – one of the most precious fragrances in perfumery.

Jasmine has also been shown to have anti-viral activity in lab studies¹ and has long been used as an aphrodisiac in eastern medicine.

Honeysuckle

Goldflame Honeysuckle
Goldflame Honeysuckle
from Nature Hills Nursery, Inc. 

Climbing Honeysuckle (Lonicera) species are another way to increase the aromatherapy power of your garden.

The beautiful Lonicera periclymenum is one of the sweetest smelling of all native plants in Europe and is an important wildlife species too.

european-honeysuckle
The European Honeysuckle adds elegance as well as fragrance to the garden. photo taken by: en:User:sannse. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Wisteria

Wisterias are yet another family of sweetly scented climbers and the only woody species in our list with the ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen – thereby adding fertility to the soil.

Wisteria flowers are also edible in small quantities and can be battered and fried as fritters or even crystallized in sugar to make the Chinese delicacy “Teng Lo”.

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Perennial Herbaceous Species

Perennial herbaceous climbing plants are climbers that grow and die back down to the ground every winter without forming perennial wood.

Yams

Dioscorea polystachya 003
The aerial tubers of the Chinese Yam can offer you a root crop without having to do any digging!

Yams have already been discussed in our root layer article, but are climbing in habit and some species such as Dioscorea japonica and Dioscorea batatas also offer up “aerial tubercles”.

These little pea-sized edible tubers grow on the plants’ stems and can be cooked and eaten in much the same way as you would miniature potatoes!

Perennial Sweet Pea

Perennial Sweet Peas or Everlasting Peas (Lathyrus latifolius and Lathyrus grandiflorus) are perennial relatives of the better known Sweet Pea.

Whilst they might not carry the same scent as their annual cousin, they do deliver profuse growth of scrambling vines that are soon laden with flowers and seed pods.

The flowers, young shoots, and seeds can all be eaten, in small doses, as they contain an amino acid that is toxic in larger quantities.

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Certain pea species also have edible, tuberous roots.

The Earthnut Pea (Lathyrus tuberosus) is the most well-known, and its tubers are said to be a real delicacy – if you’re lucky enough to beat the slugs and mice to them!

TUBEROUS SWEETPEA Lathyrus Tuberosus...
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Runner Bean

Runner Beans (Phaseolus coccineus) are normally grown as an annual vegetable but are in fact perennial in their native habitat of Central America.

In climates with only the mildest of frosts, they can be successfully overwintered and treated as a perennial, providing the roots are given a good thick mulch in the autumn.

The tuberous roots of runner bean, by the way, are also edible, and still eaten by the native people of its homelands.

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All members of the pea and bean family possess the superpower of being able to fix atmospheric nitrogen into the soil – so whether you crop them or not, the surrounding plants will benefit from their presence.

Mashua

Mashua-leaves-are-among-my-favorite-perennial-salad-crops
Mashua leaves are among my favorite perennial salad crops

Mashua (Tropaeolum tuberosum) was already discussed in our roots article, but you may find the twining vines equally valuable as a salad crop.

Its leaves are reminiscent of its cousin, Nasturtium, in flavor – but with a much smoother texture. Also edible are the beautiful flowers that arrive in late summer-autumn.

Hops

Chinook Hop
Chinook Hops
 from Nature Hills Nursery, Inc.

Hops are best known as the herb that flavors today’s beer.

An interesting choice – as this relative of cannabis has always been renowned as a sedative. The immature flower cones that are used for brewing can also be infused like Valerian to remedy sleeping difficulties.

You can also eat hops, and in Kent, UK, the young shoots were a prized ingredient of various spring dishes. The dried bitter flowers can also be used as a spice to add floral, earthy tones to your cooking.

Hops are rampant climbers, so be sure to give them plenty of space, or choose a dwarfing variety to make for a more manageable harvest!

Caucasian Spinach

Hablitzia tamnoides or Caucasian Spinach is a curious climbing relative of better known wild vegetables such as Fat Hen/Lamb’s Quater and Good King Henry.

It is cultivated and held in high esteem as a cooked green in cold, dry regions where other vegetables are less abundant.

These days, it’s gaining popularity among permaculturalists as a perennial spinach alternative. It is very shade tolerant and can climb up to 10ft (3 meters) high.

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Maypop

maypop-passiflora-incarnata-climbing-plant-food-forest
Warning: Maypop your eyes out in awe!

And finally, as promised…

Passiflora incarnata or Maypop is a herbaceous member of the Passionfruit family.

A native of the Southern United States, it can withstand temperatures as low as -20°C (-4F) and was an important food and medicine of the Cherokee Indians who still revere this plant as part of their cultural heritage.

Whilst its fruits may not compete with that of its tropical relative, they’re still popular eaten fresh or cooked into jams and jellies.

A very interesting climber to try in drier soils.

Climbers in the Permaculture Food Forest Garden

Mashua-vine-entwined-with-apple-tree
Autumn embrace! Mashua vine entwined with an apple tree

Unless they’re allowed to sprawl on the ground, climbers need something to climb up!

In a forest garden, climbers are usually given trees or shrubs to support them.

It’s often suggested that since a sturdy host is required, climbers should be introduced only after the shrubs and trees of the food forest garden are well-established.

This means a long wait, because trees may be in the ground for five years or more before they’d be ready to take the weight of a climber and its crop.

Added to that is another five years between planting your climber and receiving substantial yields.

If you’re in a hurry, you could always plant climbers in their final position earlier, but with a temporary post or structure for them to get started on whilst the host tree is getting established.

Managing the Host Tree

Climbed-halfway-up-alder-tree-to-harvest-climbing-kiwi-fruit
I really did have to climb half way up a huge alder tree to score these kiwis, at Plants for a Future, UK

Certain climbers, especially those bearing fruit, need lots of sun to crop well.

If this means climbing to the top of a 100ft (30-meter) high tree, grapes and kiwis will do it… you might just need some good tree climbing skills to bag your bounty!

A more feasible option involves sacrificing the host tree when it reaches its optimum size to support your crop.

Stripping a ring of bark from the base of the trunk will deem your tree a lifeless skeleton – so that all of the sun and even nutrients from its decomposing roots will be claimed entirely by your climber.

For this purpose, trees offering durable wood make for a longer-lasting climbing frame. Good candidates might include oak, sweet chestnut, and larch species.

Some of us might consider this practice rather barbaric, and it’d certainly be nice to ask the host tree’s permission before taking its life!

Alternatives would include positioning a wood, metal, and wire structure in a sunny position for your climbers to amble up, as you would in a conventional garden.

Know the Needs of Your Species!

Hablitzia tamnoides flower buds
Caucasian Spinach likes a dry, shady position

It’s important to know the individual requirements of each species in your forest garden. Three of the most important factors are sun, soil, and size.

Sun

Grapes, Fuzzy Kiwis, and Passionfruits need the most sun, followed by other fruiting species such as Hardy Kiwis, Schisandra, and Yams.

Plants that are only intended for leaf production tend to need the least sun of all – Caucasian Spinach even prefers a little shade from direct sun during the day.

Soil

Each species also has its own preferences for soil type.

Whilst grapevines need well-drained soil to avoid root-rot, Earth-Nut Peas and Hops can thrive in soggy soils.

It’s also often advised that climbers should be planted with their roots in the shade and allowed to grow up into the light. I’d suggest this for woody species in particular.

Size

Humulus lupulus 007
Wild hops can run wild, but luckily less vigorous strains are available

Understanding the eventual size and vigor of your climbers is crucial.

Whereas you’d rarely lose control of a Honeysuckle Vine, many climbers can grow several meters in all directions in a single season.

Some climbers, such as kiwis and Wisterias can also sucker like mad – meaning that even if you cut back their top growth, lots more underground shoots may follow.

Pay careful attention to the growing habit and planting position of each of your climbers to make sure things don’t get out of hand!

When It Comes to Climbing Plants, the Sky’s the Limit

Climbers include some of the most endearing plants you can grow in the forest garden, adding beauty, fragrance, fertility, and edible crops to the mix.

I hope this article has helped you to identify some plants that you’d like to try, and that their versatility will bestow a wealth of harvests to your life.

For more information on Food Forest Gardening, I highly recommend Martin Crawford’s book Creating a Forest Garden – an invaluable guide to designing and maintaining your own edible ecosystem in a temperate climate.

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  1. Zhao G., Yin Z., Dong J. ,”Antiviral efficacy against hepatitis B virus replication of oleuropein isolated from Jasminum officinale L. var. grandiflorum Journal of Ethnopharmacology 2009 125:2 (265-268)

Last update on 2021-08-02 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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