Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Upper South
June, 2011
Regional Report

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Include clematis throughout your garden for their vertical form and wonderful flowers.

Grow Up with Clematis

Jack may have had his wondrous beanstalk, but gardeners needn't feel jealous since we have our own magical vine, the clematis. Growing quickly up a trellis or tuteur or through other shrubs, a rapidly twining clematis provides an often-needed vertical element to a garden. But it is the flowers, unlike any others, at once delicate and sturdy, in a range of colors and forms, that seduce us with their beauty. Just as in any good fairy tale, such magic does come at a price. Or so we're told in all manner of books and articles on clematis. Special soil, special pruning, special this, special that. It's enough to make one to not even try growing clematis in the first place. What a loss that would be. Surely, there must be a way to make it simple.

Choosing Clematis
Clematis is a genus with over 250 species and more than 3,500 varieties, so choosing just one or a handful may seem no easy matter. To a great degree, you'll be helped out by the fact that what is available locally is usually limited, as most garden centers carry only a few varieties. Throw a dart, buy a plant, and gain experience in growing clematis. As you become smitten, you'll find yourself adding them to your garden, perhaps even ordering by mail from specialist nurseries. To learn about the main mail-order suppliers of clematis, explore the links available from the American Clematis Society at Many of these companies also provide growing information, but while you're on the American Clematis Society website, be sure to read their guidelines on growing clematis, the frequently asked questions about clematis, and the reviews of books about clematis.

My own experience with clematis started with the variety named 'Jackmanii' that was in my mother's garden for as long as I can remember, placed at the post at one end of the clothes line. The only care it received was being cut back to the ground every spring and maybe it got a bit of fertilizer. Eventually, there were a few perennials planted around it. The reward was a plant reaching over six feet tall and completely covered in dark purple blooms for many weeks in early summer. 'Jackmanii' was introduced in 1863 and is still one of the most popular varieties.

Years later, in my own garden, I just started buying clematis rather randomly, based on what caught my eye at a garden center. I would bring the plant home, look up information about the variety at Clematis on the Web (, the website produced by The University of Hull, in Great Britain. Their A-to-Z encyclopedia of some 3,500 clematis varieties gives basic information about each one, including the pruning group.

Pruning Clematis
How to prune a clematis is one of the aspects of growing clematis that either scares people off or at least is perplexing. The origin of the different pruning groups assigned to clematis is based on the fact that some bloom only on new growth while others will bloom on both old and new. Although I have every intention of making labels for each of my clematis, which will include the name and the pruning group, that chore has yet to be accomplished. So, in early spring, I end up just cutting them all back to 12 to 18 inches. Obviously, I lose early bloom on some, but they all bloom eventually. And I don't lose any sleep.

The main thing I find about pruning clematis is that the plants tend to start growing very early in the spring, usually in March, but sometimes even in late February. If you don't prune off the dead growth then, you end up with a tangled mess of new and dead.

Planting and Caring for Clematis
One of the main pests of clematis is a fungal disease called stem rot or stem wilt, where the entire stems and leaves wilt and turn black. This problem is not fatal if the clematis is planted with the stems set 3 to 5 inches below soil level when planting. If wilt occurs on your plant, simply cut off all diseased parts and dispose in a sealed plastic bag.

Just in case you skipped the above paragraph, let me reiterate that it is very important to plant your clematis deeply. The American Clematis Society also recommends preparing a hole at least 18 by 18 inches. They're probably right, but I'm not digging an 18-by-18-inch hole for anything that comes in a little bitty pot! So far, my two dozen clematis are at least alive and growing, just maybe not as big and luxurious as they could be. The Society also has a book available, Simply Clematis: Clematis Made Simple by Edith M. Malek. It provides lots of detailed information on growing clematis, most importantly from an American perspective, since many other books on clematis are from England.

For clematis to grow and bloom at their best, it is also important to apply a 3- to 4-inch layer of organic mulch over the root zone, keeping it 4 to 8 inches away from the stems to avoid stem rot. Fertilize every four to six weeks with a balanced fertilizer, starting in spring and continuing through August. Water thoroughly and deeply during a summer drought. Of course, you'll also need to provide some type of support and occasionally need to tie them up, depending on the situation. Use your imagination to think of ways that clematis can add another dimension to your garden.

The adaptability and survivability of clematis is actually rather remarkable. I've had one plant that has been knocked down, whacked off, overrun by other plants, and it still lives. I'm not recommending that you do that to your clematis, but it does show that they will withstand a certain amount of neglect and still reward you with those glorious blooms.

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