Sunday, 20 June 2021

How To get good flowers on a Honeysuckle

Earlier this year, I wrote about this problem, and I've had a few questions on the subject, so here's a bit of in-depth explanation, and then a perfect example of the principle.

Here's the back-story: I have a Client who wanted to screen off their wheelie bin area, so they erected a piece of trellis, and they wanted it to be covered in Honeysuckle flowers.  So we planted a Honeysuckle, and I spent the first year showing them how to train it, by persuading the stems to grow horizontally, from left to right, then from right to left, working their way slowly up the trellis.

"But we want it to cover the trellis!" they said. "Shouldn't we make it go straight up?"

I explained about the amazon jungle principle: that most climbers originate from densely wooded areas, which is why they have evolved to climb. They make their way up through the dense, dark canopy, until they reach the top. Then, when there are no more branches to climb, they flop over on their sides and languish in the sunshine.

Have you ever seen one of those wildlife or nature documentaries, where the presenter is winched up through the canopy? One minute it's all dark and leafy, and then they break through to the top, and suddenly they are in the sunshine, with a sea of greenery all around. 

Well, that's what it's like for climbers: they force their way up and up until they reach that point where they are suddenly in the sun. Then, having flopped over due to the lack of anything else to climb, they flower. Because now that they are out of the canopy, the flowers can be seen by pollinators, and once they are fertilised, the sun will ripen the seed pods.

In practical terms, this means that most climbers - this includes Honeysuckle, Roses, Wisteria, Clematis and various others - will only really flower generously, once they reach the top of their support: when the stems are laying horizontally, they "think" that they have reached through the canopy, and so they will now produce masses of buds.

So when we are training our climbers, we need to force them to go as close to horizontal as we can, in order to get flowers low down, where we can see them.  You have all seen climbers, I am sure, where all the flowers are way, way up there, out of sight: roses on arches are a classic example, and it's such a shame when we can barely see them.

This can be avoided by formative training: and it's quite simple, you literally just take the new growth, bend it gently sideways, and tie it to the support, as close to horizontal as you can.

Right, getting back to our Honeysuckle, then: last year, I diligently tied in the Honeysuckle at every visit, then left strict instructions with the Client, to continue the good work.

Here's what it looked like, last week:

Well, you can see where I stopped training it, can't you!

The lower two-thirds of the trellis is covered in flowers, exactly as requested: but the top part has just some bare, flower-free stems.

And that, dear readers, demonstrates the result of not following instructions! The Client wanted the plant to reach the top of the trellis, quickly, so they stopped training it left and right (just as soon as I wasn't looking!) and now they are disappointed that they have growth, but no flowers.

Had they followed the instructions, the trellis would have had flowers at least half-way up the "bare" part, although possibly not all the way to the top: but we both agreed that it would have been better to have had more flowers.

All is not lost, of course: we carefully untwined the upper, flower-free growth, and gently re-tied it to the trellis in a strict left-and-right pattern, which means that next year, it will also be covered in flowers, and the new growth will continue to be trained left-and-right, until the trellis is covered.

Having established this "framework of old wood", all we have to do each year, after flowering, is to cut of all those flowered shoots, leaving just the old wood. 

So there you have it - how to get fantastic flowers on Honeysuckle, at a height where you can see them, and enjoy them!

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