Sunday, June 3, 2012

The War on Wisteria

For a number of years I photographed a wisteria on 71st Street between Park and Lexington Avenues in Manhattan.  It was growing up the face of a townhouse, having been planted years ago in a small courtyard leading to the front door.

The house is unmistakable.  It is gracious, three windows wide, one of which was completely obscured by wisteria from the ground floor to the roof.  The wisteria grew not only upward but outward as well, leaping to the adjacent house.  I caught up with the owner of the adjacent house one afternoon.  “Surely,” I said, “you resent the encroaching out-of-control wisteria.”  “Oh no,” he replied, “we rather like it.”  
Wisteria on the March
Meanwhile, the courtyard paving of the principal house
had heaved as the wisteria continued its relentless march up the front facade.  The doctor occupying the ground floor office, while stepping cautiously over the heaving pavement, said, “I don’t really mind it.  I’m only annoyed when I forget the trunk I’ve lashed over the front door and bang my head.”  Clearly, New Yorkers regard any sign of vegetation as a bonus, no matter how intrusive.
Principal House Courtyard
Am I alone in the War against Wisteria?  In the Catskills we finally succeeded in removing the wisteria that was choking the base of a stone tower and wrapping itself around the outside staircase.  These shoots were the children of a wisteria 60 feet away; they had made their way underneath 20 feet of stone terrace, and then shot across 40 feet of lawn to make it to the base of the tower. 

We took the parent plant down to the ground last summer, and it is sending out shoots again.  It had been left unattended for years, if not decades, and had overtaken a massive stone fireplace and the aforementioned stone terrace, pushing up large flagstones with its roots before heading out across the lawn to the tower.  Of course, there was damage to both the exterior and interior of the house.  I don’t think I’ve mentioned that all this wisteria grew from a cramped one-by-two foot pocket at the base of the fireplace.

Within two weeks the wisteria had sprouted anew, indifferent to our best efforts.  By early this spring it had started up the wall again, wrapping itself through a door handle on the way.     

West Side Brownstone Window
Whenever you start to prune an old wisteria, take a deep breath and ponder the future carefully before you begin.  Timing is important here.  Wisteria buds appear in late summer or early spring, and the spectacular flower panicles bloom in early spring the following year.  When not pruned regularly, buds will refuse to set, resulting in the solid green wall on East 71st Street, and the similar blockage on the west side of town. 

Your wisteria won’t destroy you if you pay attention to its pruning requirements.  It will need regular pruning to keep its growth in check and to encourage flowers.  Often, wisteria grown on a wall doesn’t bloom because it is impossible to prune it without erecting scaffolding.  

East 71st Street in Winter, Unpruned
This is the time to make sure your ladder is equal to the task, and not a spindly kitchen stepladder.  If your wisteria has any age to it, the branches will be thick and difficult to cut.  You will also have long, waving stems to contend with, and masses of foliage getting in your way.  As you struggle deep within the vines, make sure help is within shouting distance. 

For pruning wisteria, you should need only three tools: a good pair of hand clippers kept clean and sharp;  a pair of loppers -– long-handled pruners essential for cutting heavy branches; and a good folding hand-saw or an axe to take care of the largest branches. 
If your wisteria is blooming well, prune it twice during the growing season; once in the first week in July, and again in early September.  If it has gotten out of hand, start earlier. In late winter, cut back all shoots to within two or three buds of the point where they started to grow during the previous season.  Then prune again in mid-summer by cutting the current season’s new shoots to within five to six buds of their bases. 

Well-controlled Wisteria Over Carport, Cambridge, MA
If you are not meticulous about annual pruning, perhaps the lesson in this is not to plant wisteria against any building you care about.  Even a well-constructed arch or arbor will not withstand the onslaught of a vigorous wisteria.  Don’t even think about a trellis. 

Wisteria in the Garden
If you must have wisteria, build a stout pergola as far away from the house as possible.  Select the largest cedar posts you can find and the strongest planed beams you can imagine.  Set the posts firmly in concrete and make sure your cross beams are attached for life.  Once you have designed a pergola strong enough to support the weight of the wisteria, make sure it is long enough to carry visually the weightiness of the plant itself.  Plan your pergola so that you can walk beneath it to another part of the garden.  Or set it facing a view, with a bench underneath.  If cared for well, your wisteria will provide unparalleled bloom in spring.  Just be prepared to add another dependent to your family.  

East 71st Street Houses, Finally Cleared
As to the fate of the houses on East 71st Street, new owners seem to occupy both.  Damages to the facades have been repaired. The wisteria has been pulled off the walls and hacked back to nothing.  However, if you look very closely at ground level…

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