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.
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.
- Permaculture Food Forest part 1 – The root layer
- Permaculture Food Forest part 2 – Ground covers and herbaceous layer
- Permaculture Food Forest part 3 – Shrubs
- Permaculture Food Forest part 4 – Understory and canopy layer
Perennial Woody Climbers
Perennial woody climbers are climbing plants that form woody stems from which new growth appears each year.
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.
Thompson Seedless grapes are usually used for wine, as table grapes, and as raisins. They really fast growers that love full sun in zones 7-10. The grapes are super sweet - sweeter than any other grapes I've tasted!
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.
- Very sweet kiwi fruit
- Hardy Zones 3-9. Actinidia kolomikta 'Red Beauty'
- Use "Arctic Beauty" as the male pollinator.
- Mature Height: 12-15'
- Immediate shipping. Dormant shipping in winter.
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.
- Homegrown by Hirt's Gardens
- They can be grown in different types of soils; however, the soil must be well drained
- They are hardy in zones 4-9
- A beautiful vine on it's own! The Hardy Kiwi is THE FRUIT OF THE FUTURE
- The 2 plants you will receive (Meader and Anna) are growing in 2.5" Pot. Shipped dormant...
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.
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…
- The price includes Four (4) "Possum Purple" Passion Fruit Plants with USPS Shipping. These...
- Possum Purple is a sweet purple passion fruit that has an amazingly attractive filly-edged...
- Most all edible plants grow well in Full Sun, a little shade won’t hurt. For starter...
- Fast Growing Vine
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Woody Climbers for Other Purposes
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.
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.
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”.
- PRODUCES MASSES OF SWEETLY PERFUMED VIOLET FLOWER RACEMES A FOOT LONG!!!
- BLACK DRAGON IS A DOUBLE FLOWERING WISTERIA!!
- A VERY FAST GROWING, VINE 3-6 FEET PER YEAR!
- PERFECT FOR EMBELLISHING WALLS, GATES, FENCES, PERGOLAS, PILLARS OR LEAVE THEM TO CLIMB...
- LIVE PLANT WILL REACH 30 FEET AT MATURITY - SHIPPED IN CONTAINER WITH ORIGINAL SOIL, HARDY...
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 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.
- Brand:Lathyrus latifolius, Country Of Manufacture:United States, Plant Name:Sweet Pea,...
- Model:Perennial, Plant Category:Flowers, Flower Color:Mix
- Mpn:Vine, Seeds Per Pack:100, Plant Format:Seeds
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!
- Genus - Lathyrus Species - Tuberosus Common name - Tuberous SweetPea Pre-Treatment -...
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.
- 1 Package = 15 g Of Seeds
- Package contains approximately 15 Scarlet Runner Bean Seeds
- 10 foot vines are covered in attractive red blossoms that last throughout the summer.
- The edible beans grow up to a foot long and are especially good when picked young.
- When picked young beans can be used as a snap bean, or shelled and cooked as a lima.
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 (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.
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!
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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- Provide a trellis or arbor, and it will soon make a very attractive vining plant with deep...
- The big, leafy, leaves can be used throughout the summer either cooked or in salads. The...
- Sow 1 to 2 seeds for every plant you desire in your herb garden. There are many cooking...
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
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
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.
- For great trellis and arbor inspiration and ideas, see our article: 15 Sturdy Grape Vine Trellis Design Ideas
Know the Needs of Your Species!
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Used Book in Good Condition
- 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)