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Vines: Plants that go up and out


What can we do with this?” asks Ms. Martinez, holding up a small pumpkin.

“Make a Jack-o-Lantern! For Halloween,” the 4-year-olds shout out.

“My mom makes pumpkin pie,” says Jason, above the din. That launches a discussion of scooping out the seeds, cooking the pumpkin, mixing the filling, and baking a pie.

“Where do we get pumpkins? Where do they come from?” continues Ms. Martinez. A brief silence ensues with several children venturing guesses. Then follows a discussion of how pumpkins grow on farms and how they’re planted and harvested.

Ms. Martinez opens a book, Pumpkin Circle: The Story of a Garden, and begins to read. After a few pages, she reads, “Week by week the backyard patch spreads before your eyes, filling every inch of space with leaves and roots and vines.”

“I see one,” says Julie. “I see a pumpkin in the leaves.”

“That’s right,” says Ms. Martinez. “Pumpkins grow on the ground among the green leaves. They grow on vines, and we’re going to learn more about vines this week.”



Vines are everywhere. They grow on fences, walls, posts, trellises, and gazebos as well as in flower beds, pots, gardens, and farm fields. Many vines produce flowers and fruit. On some vines, the flowers are ornamental, such as morning glory and trumpet vine. On other vines, the flowers turn into fruit, such as watermelon and cantaloupe.

The fruit holds the seeds for another planting. From a botanical perspective, these seed holders are called fruits, even those we ordinarily refer to as vegetables, such as cucumbers, tomatoes, peas, and beans, as well as gourds, such as pumpkins and squash.

What is a vine?
A vine is a plant with a long stem that grows along the ground or climbs a wall or other support structure such as a trellis. One way to categorize vines is how they climb.

Probably the most familiar type winds around an object, like a honeysuckle stem that winds around a pole or wire. Curiously, most twining vines twist around in a counterclockwise direction. Some vines use tendrils, tiny spring-like coils that reach out to an object for support, such as sweet pea and Virginia creeper. Others use rootlets, resembling caterpillar feet, which penetrate the soil and anchor the vine, such as pumpkin and squash, or hold fast to a brick wall or other surface, such as English ivy.

Woody-stem vines, known as lianas, include wisteria, poison ivy, and grapes. Non-woody-stem, or herbaceous, vines include cucumber, squash, and pumpkin. Vines can be annuals (replanted every year) or perennials (bloom in summer, die back in fall and winter, and return in spring).


How does a vine find support?
Vines seem to reach out willy-nilly, attaching to the first object within reach. Actually, the biological process is not completely known, but it can be more complicated—and ingenious—than random wandering.

Some vine stems turn to the light in the usual process of photosynthesis, while some reverse the process and seek the dark (skototropism), allowing them to find a tree branch, for example. Some vines respond to touch (thigmotropism), which starts the production of hormones that cause cells to grow in curling pattern.

Hanging on to a support can be a matter of producing an adhesive to stick to an object or using rootlets to pry into a porous wall. Interestingly, twiners curve around an object in a small diameter so that gravity or any downward force results in squeezing, much like a woven finger-trap toy that tightens the harder you pull.


Identifying vines
You’ll want to plant vines as part of your activities with children. Books and brochures can help identify vines that grow well in your area and that will appeal to children. In Texas, for example, Landscaping with Native Texas Plants, a book by Sally Wasowski and Julie Ryan, and Native and Adapted Landscape Plants: An Earthwise Guide for Central Texas, a printed brochure and an online resource, contain sections devoted to vines, with color photos.

You can also consult your county extension office, a local plant nursery, a nearby botanical garden, an organic farmer, or a master gardener for information and help.

It’s important to avoid propagating non-native, invasive species of vines, such as cat’s claw vine, Japanese honeysuckle, and kudzu. Be wary of English ivy and wisteria, which can overrun plants and structures in their paths and need constant pruning for controlled growth.


Because many vines grow quickly and require relatively little care, they make an ideal curriculum unit. Do the activities below and use them as ideas that will spark your own learning activities.


Take a nature walk
Scout an area such as the play yard, the neighborhood, or a nearby park to find examples of vines. Plan a walk route that avoids poison ivy, ants, and other hazards.

Take along a camera or cell phone, notebook, and bag for collecting vine specimens, leaves, and seeds. Encourage children to differentiate between trees, shrubs, vines, and grasses.

Point out basic plant parts: leaf, stem, flower, fruit, and seed. Explain that the root is underground, and show an example if one is easily available.

Examine vines, noting leaves, stems, and flowers or seeds. Ask children to discover how the vine climbs or spreads, such as by twining, reaching out with tendrils, or attaching with rootlets. Take photographs of different vines and their parts.

After the walk, display the photographs on the science table. Add leaves, seeds, and other items you may have collected on the walk. Provide hard-copy field guides to common plants in your geographic area for identification.


Science table
In addition to photos, provide live samples of vine cuttings as well as a magnifying glass. Ask parents to bring vine samples clipped from their household containers or yards. Place the cuttings in small jars of water and observe over several days to see if they will sprout roots. Pothos ivy, a common household variety, is easy to root and will live in water indoors almost indefinitely.

Early spring is the ideal time to plant vines in Texas, but you can use the winter months to get ready for planting. Learn about companion planting and vertical gardens, and build a teepee to shade children from the hot summer sun.


Companion planting
Companion planting is a method of selecting plants that will benefit others in the same space, such as protecting each other from pests. See “An In-Depth Companion Planting Guide” at Mother Earth News,

Native Americans used a type of companion planting called the Three Sisters, in which a corn plant served as a support for climbing bean vines, and the beans provided nitrogen to the soil. (Nitrogen is an essential nutrient for plant growth.) Meanwhile squash was planted in the ground around the cornstalk, serving as mulch for the corn and beans. Voila! Three vegetables in one space, each mutually beneficial to the other.

Children might like to try the Three Sisters project themselves or choose other mutually beneficial plants for a spring garden.


Vertical garden
Challenge school-agers to build a vertical garden for growing vegetables. A vertical planter basically consists of a frame that stands upright in a base. Vine are planted in the base and climb up the frame. It’s a handy device for growing vegetables in a limited space.

Encourage children to search for photos and instructions on the Internet. The goal is to build a creative, but sturdy, structure from junk. They can scavenge building materials from their backyards or curbside bulk trash, while you provide the dirt and vines. Consider dividing the group into teams, and let them set the rules (cost, safety, no adult help, time deadline, for example).

Frame. What about a large (5-foot by 5-foot) wooden picture frame, with strands of twine, stretched vertically and horizontally and attached with cup hooks? Or a large piece of wood lattice, woven wire fencing, or an old soccer goal net? Or bamboo poles strung with twine?

Base. What about two 20-gallon containers scavenged from a neighborhood contractor or home store filled with dirt or gravel to hold either side of the frame, with rectangular clay pots between the containers for the plants? Or a metal water trough? Or an old square-sided plastic garbage bin laid on its side?

Who knows? This activity may reveal latent engineering, architectural, and construction skills.


Make a vine-covered teepee
A teepee for the playground will provide a quiet, shady place for children to read, talk, or enjoy a retreat. Locate a space about 8 feet wide with well-drained soil that will get adequate sun.

For step-by-step instructions with color photos, see “Build a Teepee Trellis for Pole Beans” prepared by Veggie Gardener at Invite families and volunteers to help donate supplies and build the teepee in a weekend afternoon.


Here’s what you need:
measuring tape
shovel or post-hole digger
8 bamboo poles or rebar, each about 8 feet long
plastic zip ties
ball of sturdy twine
seeds or rooted cuttings of perennial vines
twist ties


1. Mark a center point in the desired space. Using the measuring tape, draw 8 lines, each 4-feet long and an equal distance apart, radiating out from the center. Connect the outside points in a circle to resemble a pie with eight wedges.
2. At the end of each line, dig a hole about 18 inches deep for the poles.
3. Lay the four thickest bamboo poles together in a bundle on the ground with wide ends at the bottom. Approximately 1 foot from the top, bind the poles together with zip ties. The four poles form a quadrapod.
4. Stand the quadrapod upright and place the four poles in four holes equal distances apart. Adjust the poles so the junction is above the center of the circle. Partially fill the holes of the four poles with soil to hold the poles in place.
5. Place the remaining four poles in the open holes and lean them against the quadrapod. Partially fill the holes with soil.
6. Using a zip tie, bind the additional poles to the quadrapod. This will require standing on a stepladder to reach the junction. Using twine, bind all eight poles together at the junction, weaving in all directions.
7. Finish filling the holes and carefully compact the soil.
8. Select one pie wedge to be the teepee entrance. Securely tie the ball of twine to one pole at the teepee entrance, 12 to 24 inches from the ground. Wrapping the twine around a bamboo joint will help keep the twine from slipping.
9. Pull the twine to an adjacent pole, and wrap around a joint. Pull the twine up another foot, stretch it across to the original pole, and tie down. Continue in a zigzag pattern between the two poles until reaching the junction, and then knot and cut.
10. Repeat Step 9 for the other wedges, except the entrance.
11. Plant a vine seed or rooted clipping in the ground midway between each pole, except the entrance. Spread mulch on the teepee floor and around the vine plants.
12. As the vines grow, train them on the lines of twine, using twist ties to attach. Water deeply and only when the soil is dry; remove dead growth as needed.


Learn the letter “V”
In the literacy center, write the word vine on a large index card. Provide toothpicks, straws, pencils, and craft sticks, and invite children to use the items to make the first letter of the word. Pronounce the V sound and distinguish it from B.

Variation: Encourage school-age children to recognize the phonetic similarities and spelling of words that rhyme with vine, such as dine, line, mine, nine, and pine, for example.


Squash spaghetti
Children are more likely to try new foods, including vegetables, if they participate in selection and preparation. Here’s a way to introduce children to a summer squash or zucchini that looks like spaghetti. As in all cooking activities, provide constant supervision.


Here’s what you need:
vegetable brush
paper towel
yellow summer squash or zucchini
plastic serrated knife
spiral slicer
tomato sauce
2 saucepans
hot plate
grated Parmesan cheese
plates and eating utensils


1. Have children wash their hands with soap and water. Invite them to wash each squash thoroughly with water and a vegetable brush. Pat dry with a paper towel.
2. Point out the knobby end that was connected to the vine. Discuss how the squash began as a flower and turned into a vegetable. Have children slice off the knobby end with a plastic knife.
3. Show children how to insert the squash into the spiral slicer and turn one end to cut the vegetable into narrow ribbons. While the squash is being prepared, heat the tomato sauce on the hot plate until warm.
4. Place the squash in a saucepan, cover with water, add a little salt, and cook for a few minutes, just until the squash is tender. Drain and allow children to spoon it onto their plates. Invite them to top with tomato sauce and Parmesan cheese.

Variation: Instead of cooking the squash, toss the raw ribbons with a little lemon juice, olive oil, and salt. Serve on lettuce as a salad. Or introduce the children to Spaghetti Squash. Use a fork to tease out the strands of meat in the cooked squash. They look like spaghetti ready for sauce and cheese.


Grapevine art works
People have grown grapes since civilization began. Grapevines have appeared in the art and architecture of the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and Byzantines. They have been a recurrent motif in religious artifacts and in household furnishings and crafts, such as wallpaper, needlework, and pottery. The Art Nouveau style (1880s-1910s), in particular, used vines as well as other nature-inspired designs, such as insect wings, flowers, and feathers.

Artist Nanci Erskine of Oregon paints vines, explaining, “I’m a painter who loves all things tangled and layered in the natural world.” See her paintings at

Invite children to use art materials to represent vines. They might roll play dough into long strips to resemble vines, for example. Some might prefer to draw vines using paint or markers, while others may wish to make a collage using construction paper scraps and yarn.


Do the grapevine
As a physical or music activity, teach children the grapevine step. Play a popular line dance tune or an old favorite like Cotton Eye Joe.


Step sideways to the left, the right foot crosses behind the left.
Step again to the left, and tap the right heel to the left foot.
Step sideways to the right, the left foot crosses behind the right.
Step again to the right, and tap the left heel to the right foot.


Books for children
Gibbons, Gail. 1999. The Pumpkin Book. New York: Holiday House.
Hart, Avery and Paul Mantell. 1996. Kids Garden: The Anytime, Anyplace Guide to Sowing and Growing Fun. Charlotte, Vt.: Williamson Publishing.
Levenson, George. 2002. Pumpkin Circle: The Story of a Garden. New York: Random House. (Available in Spanish)
Rockwell, Lizzy. 2014. Plants Feed Me. New York: Holiday House.
Sloat, Teri. 1999. Patty’s Pumpkin Patch. New York: Putman’s.


Texas Cooperative Extension and City of Austin. August 2004. Native and Adapted Landscape Plants: An Earthwise Guide for Central Texas. Available online at
Vaughn, Kevin C. and Andrew J. Boling. 2011. Biology and physiology of vines, Horticultural Review, Vol. 38. Available at
Wasowski, Sally, and Julie Ryan.1985. Landscaping with Native Texas Plants. Austin, Texas: Texas Monthly Press.
Weiss, Rick. Sept. 4, 2006. “Leave it to Vines to Find Their Own Spines,” The Washington Post.