Get Clever with Your Clematis

Last summer a visitor to my yard stopped dead in her tracks as she caught sight of a golden-hued dwarf conifer in my garden. “I didn’t know evergreens flowered,” she exclaimed.

I assured her that they didn’t – at least not the way she thought. Pine cones might be considered the “flower” of the typical conifer – but those in no way resembled the velvety purple blooms that adorned the tree in question.

What she was seeing is one of my favorite tricks with vines – letting them use non-blooming shrubs and trees for support instead of a trellis. In this case, it was the giant flowering Clematis viticella ‘Etoile Violette.’ – a variety that is particular good at scrambling through trees and shrubs, making them burst into bloom in a most unexpected way, and at most unexpected times.

I love clematis. They come in all kinds of lovely colors, and the different cultivars bloom at different times so that you can have some of them in flower most of the summer. We tend to think of clematis and other vines as climbers – which is why most people can find room for only one or two in their gardens. After all – how many arbors and trellises can a single garden have before it starts to look like a poor man’s imitation of Versailles?

But many vines can do double or even triple duty without an arbor or trellis in sight. Clematis, ivy and many others can be used as groundcovers, for instance – a great way to deal with a hard to mow slope. While ivy can be quite dense, leaving you only room to tuck some spring bulbs for a floral display, clematis is much more delicate – you could conceivably plant two or more varieties for season-long flowering. Or you could combine a clematis or two with a groundcover rose for a lovely contrast.

I love to plant clematis in my rose garden. I grow many heirloom roses that bloom in June – and that’s it. A glorious show – and then a garden of greens unless you are smart enough to plant clematis at the base of the roses. When the first show is over, the clematis will scramble through the rose canes and bust into a bloom of its own, prolonging the effect.

If you choose carefully you can double your impact. A May-June bloomer, Bees Jubilee, with its mauve pink petals with a deeper mauve central bar will start flowering before the roses, and then continue along with them. But while the old roses will be done in a few weeks, this clematis will keep flowering until August! If mauve clashes with your planting then try H.F. Young, with Wedgwood blue petals and yellow anthers – gorgeous with yellow roses.

Pay careful attention to the colors you pair with your shrubs. One of my most vigorous clematis is the large flowered Niobe – a deep red that, unfortunately is entirely lost, blooming as it is through a Crimson Pygmy Japanese maple. The flowers and leaves are almost exactly the same color. Bad mistake! Next year I plan to replace it with Miss Bateman, which has white flowers and red anthers that will complement the crimson leaves of the maple beautifully.

One of the most stunning effects I’ve seen was a double white Duchess of Edinburgh climbing a small dogwood, then following a swagged rope to yet another small dogwood where it twined down through the branches. Two flowering trees for the price of one vine – and the Duchess has the most gorgeous seed pods I’ve ever seen – silky and ethereal!

If your garden has walls, you can sometimes encourage vines to tumble down them, rather than climbing up – which saves you enough in lattice that you can be a bit extravagant with the vine itself.

And then, of course, you can always grow these lovely plants in the traditional way. If you have, then you probably already know and love them and want more – so look around and see what else, be it tree, shrub or huge early-flowering perennial you can let it scramble through. Or simply let it ramble through the perennial bed, filling in bare spots and lending an air of casual grace. If you let go of the idea that a vine must climb a trellis, you can always find room for more!

One rule of thumb to remember – you’ll get more blooms from the smaller-flowered varieties – but of course the larger flowered types give more of a display.

The only real trick to remember with clematis is to plant them with their feet in shade and their lovely little heads in sun. Planting at the base of trees does this naturally, but if you have only full sun to deal with, make sure you either put down a good mulch at the base of the vine, or plant some frothy and fast growing flowers around it. And feed them – clematis are rather rudely referred to as “gross feeders” – not that they have bad table manners, but they just LOVE to eat!

One thing that can put beginning gardeners off clematis is the fact that many garden books make the pruning times seem daunting. Clematis fit into three numbered classes, all of which need pruning at different times – and it seems like it would be impossible to remember which ones get pruned when. But there is a simple rule of thumb here, too – remember when your plant blooms and you won’t get in trouble. Here are the rules for all three classes – with no numbers or fancy terms to remember.

  • Those needing no pruning except where space is limited. These would include the early spring-flowering species, hybrid and cultivars. Pruning here is best done immediately after flowering.
  • Those needing light pruning or just a general tidying up. These include all the large-flowered hybrids and double that flower before mid-June. Pruning in February to March.
  • Finally, those needing all growth cut back to around one meter or less above ground level. This often looks cruel, as very often you will be removing vigorous green shoots, but rest assured the plant will be all the better for it. The clematis that qualify here would be all those that flower after mid-June to September. Pruning in February to March.

And that’s really all there is to it. A few easy rules of thumb and a thousand great places to tuck plants that will keep your garden mysteriously in flower all summer long.