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Shrubs and vines can dress up garden eyesores

By NANCY BRACHEY By Nancy Brachey
Nancy Brachey
Nancy Brachey writes about gardening for The Charlotte Observer's weekly Home & Garden section.

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  • Ask Nancy

    Q. I have a ficus tree that I saved a few years ago. Now, after a few moves from office to basement to home, it is dropping leaves like crazy. What can I do?

    Ficus plants are famous for dropping leaves when light conditions change. The only thing I can suggest is to see how the new leaves come out. Where they don’t emerge, the stems are probably dead and should be nipped off. The trip to the basement probably started all this dropping. Once new foliage emerges, try not to move it again because those leaves are accustomed to the new level of light. Here’s hoping you see new growth soon.


Everything seems so lush this year that other things tend to stand out when they aren’t swamped in something leafy and green.

I am thinking of the chain-link fence, a functional barrier many people use around their backyards to contain pets and children. Suddenly, its hard-edged look seems obvious. Conceal it? Dress it up? You can do either with plants.

Vigorous vines or evergreen shrubs will do the job, and reasonably fast. Among shrubs often used for this purpose, there are two I particularly like. One type is the Indica azalea, a large flowering shrub that is dense enough to conceal the fence. But it is also fine-textured, which allows its stems and leaves to gently work through the openings in the fence, thus acting as a concealer for both sides. Indica azaleas are a group that includes such famous ones as George L. Taber, a beautiful pale pink that can reach 6 feet over time. Another choice might be Pride of Mobile, which is a brighter pink. Southern Indica azaleas make very good tall, dense evergreen hedges with lovely flowers in spring.

Another choice to conceal your chain link fence is nandina, which is also dense in habit and feathery enough to conceal a chain link fence on both sides. Nandina is vigorous, with colorful tones in its foliage from dark green to red to reddish purple, depending on the maturity of the leaves. It bears white blooms in spring that turn into long-lasting red berries by mid-summer. I don’t like nandina enough to put it by the front door, but it makes a fine screen along a fence.

Among vines, many choices exist. The best for a chain-link fence are evergreen, meaning they conceal all year. That is important if the stretch of chain link is in an obvious position, less so if it is across the back property line where you notice it more when outdoors in the warmer months. The evergreen Carolina jessamine works well, producing large quantities of glossy, green evergreen foliage and bright yellow flowers for weeks in early to mid-spring. It requires sunshine to grow and bloom well. Another choice for a shadier spot would be the Armand clematis, a vigorous evergreen that blooms early and can stretch 15 feet or more. Unlike the shrubs, vines require some training to get them into position in and out of the spaces between the links. But a young plant is reasonably easy to train in this fashion so that the fence holds it up.

A third category is the climbing rose. These are highly decorative on a chain link fence, yet not a total concealer. In bloom, however, they are an excellent distraction. One thing to consider about climbing roses is the thorns they possess. If you are planting them close to a patio or pool where children’s bare arms and legs might bounce into the plants, consider something softer like nandina until the kids grow up.

Brachey: nbrachey@charlotteobserver.com
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