A number of years ago, I had the wonderful fortune of visiting a garden called Ninfa. It was a garden just south of Rome, Italy that was very unique in many ways. There were many things that I loved about this garden and I have always said it is one of my favorite gardens. One of things that I was particular impressed with was how they had clematis planted at the base of a few small trees, and the clematis was trained to go up the tree and it weaved its way out on some of the limbs, looking as if the flowers were from the branches of the tree.
There are several kinds of clematis and the size of the different ones varies considerably. There are some that are quite vigorous growers and can reach a height of 20 to 30 feet. Many of the hybrids that you see in garden centers with large flowers grow to around 8 to 12 feet and the smaller species grow to 2 to 5 feet tall. I understand that Proven Winners offers a bush clematis ‘Stand by Me’ that I want to try some time since I have never grown a bush clematis.
When planting clematis, there are two things I have heard over the years that you need to remember. Clematis like “their head in the sun and their feet in the shade.” Sun helps them have a profusion of blooms and planting by a bush or some structure that will shade the roots is ideal. Second, clematis growth rate is “The first year they sleep, the second year they creep, and the third year they leap.” They spend the first year putting down deep roots and once established, clematis are strong growers.
When planting a clematis, be very gentle. The roots, crown, and emerging vine can easily be broken. Plant the clematis slightly deeper than it was growing in the container, so that the first set of true leaves are just under the surface soil. Water it well to get all the air pockets out and water each week the first summer unless you get an inch of rain that week. You can mulch around the plant too, but just keep mulch from the crown, where the vine emerges from the soil.
These lovely flowers come in a wide range of dazzling colors. You can find soft pastels like yellow, pink, lavender and blue to more dramatic colors like dark pink, bright red and deep burgundy. They come in white too. Most of the flowers are quite large and showy but there are others that are shaped as stars or bells. I love the lavender-blue ones like ‘Diana’s Delight’, ‘Jackmanii’ and ‘HF Young’. There is also a small blue one with the shape of bells that is a favorite called ‘Betty Corning’. It is delicate and pretty. If red is a flower color you want, ‘Rebecca’ might be just the one for you. It is dripping with color that does not fade in the sun.
When choosing the right clematis for a certain spot in your garden, it is very important to know the mature size of the plant. This will determine what type of support you will need. Some clematis grow to about 5 feet and can drape themselves over a bush in your garden while others might grow to about 20 feet and be extremely heavy and require a sturdy support like a trellis, sturdy fence, or tree. They can weave a rich tapestry of color and texture and make your garden even more glorious.
I grow ‘Sweet Autumn’ clematis and I have one growing up a tree. This clematis can grow to about twenty feet and the vine goes up the tree and then weaves its way out several branches of the tree. In August, my black gum tree looks like it has white flowers on the lower limbs.
Now pruning is an issue that scares some people off. Pruning clematis can be put into one of three different groups or methods for pruning. You can remove dead or damaged stems at any time but if you want to really know more about pruning, the tag will say which group your plant falls into. The main thing is to watch your plant and know when it blooms. Prune clematis when flowering is finished.
Group 1: The vines flower in spring, on growth from the previous year. Prune these vines right after they finish blooming in spring. The new stems that grow will then have enough time to make flower buds for the following year.
Group 2: These vines bloom in late spring or early summer, then again sporadically, on new shoots and old stems. The vines that bloom mostly on older stems have their heaviest flush of flowers in late spring, while those that bloom mostly on new shoots are more prolific in the latter part of summer.
Group 3: These vines flower in late summer or in fall, on new growth produced earlier in the season. These are the easiest vines to prune. Just before the season’s growth begins, cut all stems back to strong buds within a foot or so of the ground.
I have tried to plant clematis next to shrubs and trees to try to get the effect that I saw at Ninfa. I cannot say that mine look like the ones that grow at Ninfa, really a far cry from what they grow but I am still working to achieve a similar effect. I do have some pretty clematis vines decorating the top of a wall, some scampering up a tree and one decorating a statue.
Clematis is the “queen of the flowering vines”. Think about growing a few of these hardy vines that have lovely flowers and such a graceful habit. It might take a few years to get to the size you want but they are well worth the wait.
Betty Montgomery is a master gardener and author of “Hydrangeas: How To Grow, Cultivate & Enjoy,” and “A Four-Season Southern Garden.” She can be reached at [email protected].