Saturday 24 March 2018

Jeepers! What a bunch of creepers

Gerry Daly

Virginia creeper is a familiar climber on houses and walls in many gardens. It is especially noticeable at this time of year when the leaves progressively change colour to brilliant shades of crimson. It commonly clothes entire house walls and garden walls and is sometimes seen clambering up a large tree, adorning it with sheets of red colour. Much of what people call Virginia creeper is actually the related Boston ivy, the two species being members of the grapevine family, not ivy.

Each leaf of Virginia creeper has five separate leaflets while Boston ivy has leaves undivided but with three lobes on each. Apart from this difference, the plants are pretty much the same, climbing by means of sucker pads on slender tendrils. The pads stick to a wall or rock surface and are very tenacious, even after they die and dry out. Having these pads allows the creepers to creep, that is, not need any other means of support.

Virginia creeper can easily grow to over 20-metres high and wide and, in its natural habitat, it grows up trees in forests and on rock faces, scrambling up and over smaller plants. In some city locations, old plants have grown across entire terraces of houses from a single stem, often making well over 30 metres. Both Virginia creeper and Boston ivy are capable of making this size. The Virginia creeper is originally from Virginia and all of the east coast of North America. The Boston ivy is from China, Korea and Japan and gained its link with Boston because of its use on houses in that city.

Another of these creepers, from China, is known as Henry's creeper, a real beauty but not that often seen. It is not as hardy as the other two and can suffer from late spring frost in cold inland locations, but it can be grown in mild areas. It has striking silver veining on the leaves, and the same five separated leaflets as the Virginia creeper but doesn't grow as big as the others. The autumn colour is a blaze of purple and red.

Any of these is easy to grow in good, well-drained soil. Pin down the plant to soil level at the base of the wall and let it find its own grip with its tendril suckers. Be sure to control its spread around windows, doors and the roof-line as it is will happily grow over the roof if allowed.

"I want to start a vegetable plot. My garden had 10 inches of soil on top of hard compacted stones and yellow subsoil and poor drainage. I scraped off the soil with a digger and removed 12 inches of subsoil. Then I put back the topsoil and then filled in with new topsoil. I tested the new soil and found it was alkaline. Is there anything I can do to remedy or improve the soil for vegetable growing?"

E McCarthy, Dublin

Vegetables need a good sunny area with deep fertile soil that doesn't dry out too much in summer. The soil should be lightly alkaline for vegetables, so that's fine. Apply a 5cm layer of well-rotted garden compost or manure to improve soil structure and fertility and top up each year or two years to maintain organic matter content.

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