Discovering how to grow wisteria in your backyard will be one of the most rewarding gardening chores you ever take on.
Wisteria is the unrivalled queen of climbers, with its long racemes of flowers, born to dangle from a wall or hang through a pergola, filling the air with scent. But a queen can rule with an iron fist. There aren’t many plants that look more romantic and feminine, but don’t be fooled by the cascade of softness: wisterias will swallow your house whole, if you let them.
Wisteria stems grow at speed and, once thick and woody, will strangle tree trunks and bend lead pipes. Because some species have become invasive in part of the US, it’s important to learn about these very beautiful plants and what is required to contain their vigor before planting one.
Treated with care, wisteria are one of the best climbing plants you can grow – a delight for decades, producing a jaw-dropping curtain of flower racemes in May and June. These hanging tails of pea-like blooms clothe the front of the house, like a thousand flower garlands, and send their delicious perfume through open windows, making every spring magical.
‘Wisteria is a long-lived, woody vine that is a quintessential plant of many classic garden designs,’ says Maryland-based landscape architect and designer Kirsten Coffen (opens in new tab). ‘But it’s an aggressive, fast grower that requires substantial pruning in late winter to keep it in in check.’
How to grow wisteria
Before we begin the practical instructions on how to grow wisteria, let's talk which wisteria to plant.
Always purchase wisterias that are grafted (grown on rootstock) and come from a reputable supplier. There are white, pink, mauve, blue, and purple cultivars; some are strongly scented, while others only have a light fragrance. They vary in their vigor and in the length of their racemes.
Forms of Chinese wisteria (W. sinensis) and silky wisteria (W. brachybotrys) are suitable for walls and houses; whereas the Japanese wisteria (W. floribunda) is better as pergola ideas, where its very long racemes will not be covered by foliage.
Of the Japanese forms, ’Yae-kokuryu’ is a traditional purple variety; ‘Shiro-noda’ is an elegant white; the pink ‘Hon-beni’ would be at home in an English cottage garden; and the very long (up to 4ft/1.2m) racemes of ‘Kyushaku’ are white and violet.
If you live in one of the US states where W. sinensis or W. floribunda have become invasive plants (such as Virginia or North Carolina), it’s not advised to grow them or their more vigorous cultivars, unless you are prepared to keep them in careful check with pruning.
Instead, grow one of the less aggressive cultivars, such as the beautiful white ‘Jako’, or opt for an American wisteria, such as W. frutescens ’Amethyst Falls’, which won’t strangle forests if it escapes from your garden. Other relatively compact options include W. frutescens var. macrostachya ‘Blue Moon’ and ‘Aunt Dee’, which both smell of sweet peas.
‘I have found success using the American native form of wisteria (W. frutescens 'Amethyst Falls'),’ says Connecticut-based landscape-designer Donna Christensen (opens in new tab). ‘It is not as aggressive as the Chinese or Japanese forms. The fragrant purple flowers are a bit smaller and slightly tighter. However, I find it to bloom longer, and it is less inclined to take over. I use it where I want a soft sweep of fragrance and color over a mid-size arbor. It also blooms a little later than the Asian forms and sends out fewer runners. I have combined it with Asian varieties on a larger pergola for an extended bloom period, too.’
Thankfully, in many parts of the US and in the UK, wisteria is not an invading pest and easy to manage.
When to plant wisteria
Plant between October and April, on a day when the ground is not frozen or waterlogged.
Where to plant wisteria
‘Its beautiful spring-blooming cascade of purple (or white) fragrant flowers is best viewed when trained on a support, such as a sturdy pergola,’ says Maryland-based landscape architect and designer Kirsten Coffen.
Such a leafy, flowery canopy provides blissful shade in the heat of summer. ‘We plant it on rooftops in the city, training it to cover pergolas in order to provide shade,’ says Irene Kalina-Jones, landscape designer at Outside Space NYC (opens in new tab) in New York City. ‘But I also like it grown against buildings.’
It's best to grow wisteria in a sheltered site in full sun, such as a south or west-facing facade. The soil must be fertile and well-drained, so dig in plenty of organic matter (such as compost) upon planting.
If growing wisteria up a wall or the front of a house, take the time to erect a sturdy frame for the wisteria to climb – potentially, over many decades. Wooden trellis can rot, so a tensioning system of wires is arguably better. The wires must tighten themselves as the plant puts on weight or be easy for you to tighten (via turnbuckles, for instance).
How to plant wisteria
To grow wisteria successfully, it must be started off well. This is how.
1. Soak the wisteria
Soak the wisteria for an hour before planting by sitting the base of the pot in water.
2. Dig a hole of the correct size
While the wisteria is soaking, dig a hole at least 3ft (90cm) away from the wall it is going to climb. The hole ought to be 2-3 times wider than the wisteria’s container.
3. Loosen the soil, add compost
Loosen the soil at the bottom of the hole well with a fork, and dig in organic matter, such as compost.
4. Position the wisteria
Check the position of the graft (the bulbous union between the roots and the main stem) is above the ground.
5. Plant the wisteria
Backfill with soil, and firm in to prevent air pockets. Then, water in.
How to grow wisteria in containers
’In small gardens, it is possible to plant wisteria in a pot,’ says California-based garden designer Laura Morton (opens in new tab). ‘I provide some support, like bamboo canes, and prune hard. I select the best 3-4 vines to establish structure and secure them into place with the stakes (say one at 1 o’clock another at 5, and another at 10). Then they get pruned to 2-4 foot. Over time I prune lateral 'streamers' to 3-5 buds (because that’s where they bloom in year 2) and remove suckers from the base.’
How to control a wisteria
Staring up at a mature wisteria in full bloom, it resembles a purple waterfall flowing over the front of the house. These plants are beautiful, mighty beasts that require twice yearly pruning to keep them in check. It’s worth going to see a sizeable old wisteria – such as those in Sierra Madre, California and Knole in Kent, England – both for the delight of seeing them, but also to realise their vigor.
‘I love wisteria for the fat buds in spring and the voluptuous scented cascades that follow, but it must be wrangled so as not to overwhelm,’ warns California-based garden designer Laura Morton (opens in new tab). ‘I often anchor individual vines to a wall to create a tracery in a pattern. This makes it easier to keep under control.’ The tracery will also stand out and look striking in winter.
The pruning is easy, but must be done twice a year. The first cut should be done in July or August by removing excess whippy growth; to around 12in (30cm) and 5 or 6 leaves. Then, in February, take these shoots back to 2 or 3 buds (around 4in/10cm). Pruning wisteria will encourage a good show of flowers, but also keep the ambitious wisteria out of your guttering and away from your roof tiles.
Allow a new, young wisteria to climb to the top of the structure or wall you intend it to flower upon. Then begin to prune and tie in strong side stems horizontally, which will eventually create a whole wall of flowers, rather than just a mass of flowers at the top. It’s best to tie with flexible tubing ties that stretch as the plant grows, and to repeatedly untie and retie stems to prevent them becoming attached to the wires.
‘Since wisteria requires regular pruning, my main advice to those looking for a low-maintenance garden is: do not plant it,’ says Irene Kalina-Jones, landscape designer at Outside Space NYC. ‘Only plant it if you have time to prune it and if you are a gardener or are prepared to hire someone to do it for you. If it isn’t pruned twice a year, it is a pest. I’ve taken enough of them out of back yards where they have escaped and turned into a nuisance, due to a lack of pruning.’
Why isn't my wisteria flowering?
A baby wisteria may not flower for a few years after planting. To care for young wisteria plants and to ensure flowering, water them regularly and generously during their first two seasons, especially in drought or if the ground where they are planted is dry. Feed every spring with a general-purpose fertiliser until established, but never over-feed.
How fast does wisteria grow?
While wisteria take time to flower for the first time, they are quick to grow – up to 10 feet or more a year. This makes them a wonderful choice when you are looking for garden privacy ideas or garden shade ideas, as they will be in full leaf throughout the summer months. However, it also means that you have to be vigilant about pruning if you don't want them to take over.
Lucy Searle has written about interiors, property and gardens since 1990, working her way around the interiors departments of women's magazines before switching to interiors-only titles in the mid-nineties. She was Associate Editor on Ideal Home, and Launch Editor of 4Homes magazine, before moving into digital in 2007, launching Channel 4's flagship website, Channel4.com/4homes. In 2018, Lucy took on the role of Global Editor in Chief for Realhomes.com, taking the site from a small magazine add-on to a global success. She was asked to repeat that success at Homes & Gardens, where she has also taken on the editorship of the magazine.
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