Thursday, April 02, 2009
My Wisteria~The Oldest Plant In My Garden
Here is the story of my wisteria...in response to many of the comments I received on my previous post I am offering my suggestions and warnings for those contemplating wisteria ownership.
We moved to our house 28 and a half years ago. One of the first things we did (after ripping out a hideous bottlebrush) was to plant a one gallon wisteria near the fence. Actually we planted it after digging out a section of concrete so the wisteria could be seen from inside the house right from the start. We had a wisteria at our previous home and I loved the totally exuberant kick-off to spring it provided. It was happy from the beginning and grew quite a bit the first year. I loved the way it crawled over the fence providing a green backdrop to the garden and keeping neighbor children from climbing over at the same time. I may have grown up in Ohio where backyards flow one into the next but I had lived in California long enough to treasure the privacy of my first real backyard. I have no memory of how many years it may have taken to begin blooming but I know it wasn't very many. Wisteria is a vigorous grower and it stretched along the fence quickly, eventually growing up into 25 foot tall privets that grew 30 feet down the fence line and then hanging down from the tops in long strands. This fence borders the side yard path from my front garden to the back and needs to be accessible... at least for someone who might be pushing a wheelbarrow. So one of the first things I learned was that you can't really hurt a healthy wisteria. I prune any branch at any time of year that might be in my way. And I make the cut close to the main branches so it doesn't just send out a new shoot two weeks later that will need attention. And it will do that. I also thin branches out all summer if the plant gets too bulky, with a good thinning done in the late fall. Cutting back all the branches to a short length is to be avoided as many of the flowering stems will be lost. After the neighbors took down their overgrown privets I began keeping the wisteria limited to the fence at about a 35 foot length, with just a bit allowed to drape over the entry arch. For about two hours of pruning a year I am rewarded with copious blooms each spring. And I enjoy continued bloom all summer thanks to a bit of a fluke. I had read that the seeds of the wisteria plant are toxic. They are produced in a pod not unlike a bean and having young children I decided I should pick the pods off as they grew. My wisteria would continue to bloom most of the summer, although not nearly as abundantly as it did in the first spring bloom. Many years later I read that this is a technique for encouraging continued bloom...which I just happened to luck into! I have since also read conflicting opinions concerning the toxicity but don't feel the need to personally test that out. A second advantage is that, left to ripen, the pods will eventually burst and shoot seeds quite a few feet away from the plant...sometimes with a fair amount of force. With the vine in such a central location it just seems prudent to eliminate as many of the pods as possible.
Although some growing recommendations will say acid soil is needed for bloom my soil is quite alkaline. My wisteria is planted on the east side of a north-south running fence between houses so the branches receive morning sun on into the afternoon but the roots are, for the most part, not in the hot afternoon sun. It is quite drought tolerant here...it receives some water when nearby pots get watered but I actually only soak the ground there once or twice a summer. A strong support system is needed, such as a sturdy fence or pergola. I planted my wisteria on a fence that was 15 years old. We replaced that fence about 3 years ago...I often joked that the wisteria was in reality holding up the fence. At that time I pruned my baby back to about 20 feet, did a rather brutal thinning and draped the vine over the cement. I told the fence guy I would understand if something got broken but that this plant was rather special to me. He did a wonderful job building around it and a day later we were back in business! Another advantage to growing the wisteria on the fence is the chance to enjoy the structure of the vine all winter when its leaves have fallen.Right now my wisteria is doing it's part to provide a gathering place for dozens of bees at a time all day long. And it smells wonderful on top of everything else! In my opinion an empty fence is a terrible thing to waste... and a wisteria might be just what you need to help fill that 30 foot long blank space.