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As I began looking over my “to-do” list for February, one of the care items is pruning back clematis in preparation for spring. I adore this plant, and have a number of varieties. Clematis (pronounced KLEM-a-tis) is a large genus with hundreds of species, made up of primarily woody vines climbing by twining leaf stalks or in some cases trailing over support. They’re grown for their colorful flat, cupped, or bell-shaped flowers. The fluffy spiral shaped seed heads add texture to the fall garden as well.
As their hardiness varies with species and cultivar, some gardeners have a bit of trouble. But not all cultivars are tricky. Some are hardy down to USDA Zone 3. They have a range of bloom times from late spring to late fall, and some just keep blooming over much of the growing season. There are evergreen varieties as well as deciduous. They can be anywhere between 6 ft. and 30 ft., depending on the variety and amount of sun for the above-ground growth and shade for the root zone. And of course – the quality of the planting soil. Well-drained, organic-rich soil with neutral pH and proper fertility, as they are hungry feeders.
Although most blooms tend to be three inches or less, the giant purple Clematis x jackmanii can produce blooms as wide as 7+ inches across! They are not generally seriously affected by insect or disease problems. While they are susceptible to wilt/stem rot, powdery mildew, leaf spots, and a few viruses, there are clematis breeding programs that produce very hardy and disease-resistant small-flowered varieties.
Clematis love the sun and generally need at least 4 hours of sun per day. Watch out for fading in the red or blue large-flowered hybrids and bi-color varieties when in full sun. Eastern exposure or lightly shades sites are perfect. If you have a full sun spot that clamors for a climber, try one of the smaller blooming varieties there.
Clematis don’t have the advantage of tendrils or aerial rootlets that allow climbers such as English Ivy to take hold and scale walls. They climb by their leaf petioles, so you will need to encourage the vine to grow vertically instead of horizontally by securing the woody stems to the support you’ve chosen to begin with.
Consider the adult size of the vine, fully loaded with blooms when you choose your trellis system. Match the ultimate size of the plant with the size of the support. Stone walls and fences make beautiful supports once the plant gets established. So do old sheds that have become an eyesore. An anchored section of chicken wire will help get started in these spots. If you can’t remove it, cover it beautifully!
If you plan to purchase a new clematis for the spring, prune it before you plant it. Down to about 12 inches high to prevent the stem from breaking off at the base. This pruning will encourage the plant to put out new growth down low, branching out to develop more stems, eventually giving you more flowers. After a proper mulch layer is applied, think about planting complementary colored, lower growing perennials around their base. This will have the added value of shading the root zone and hiding any “skinny legs”. Just make sure you don’t select base plants that have bully-boy root systems. Artemisia “Silver Mound” adds a nice texture and cooling color contrast. If you want to repeat the color echo of the clematis, veronicas will call out more blue tones.
For more information on this amazing plant, please take a look at:
Minda Daughtry is Horticulture Agent for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.