Vines for our gardens are frequently misunderstood and even more often, they are misplanted. Who hasn’t tended to a woody, messy and beastly vine, cutting it back repeatedly and then grumbling of too many bare, woody stems?
When shopping for vines, the most frequent requests are “I would
like it to have plenty of flowers”, “I don’t want it to get very large or take over” and “I don’t want it to get woody, thick and messy”. These seem to be the three must-haves among vine shoppers.
Trumpet vines, bower vines, star jasmines, bougainvilleas, honeysuckles, mandevilleas and passion vines are the most common vining plants in our gardens. But none of these can satisfy all three of these must-have requirements.
A clematis can. It flowers at least from spring to fall, it’s ideal for a small garden and it essentially never gets woody. So why aren’t our gardens filled with colorful, small-sized, light, airy clematis?
Perhaps it is clematis reputation as a difficult plant to grow that has suppressed their popularity.
Clematis come in almost every size, shape and color imaginable, but by far, the most popular are the medium to large-flowered hybrids. Nurseries are filled with clematis right now and since most are in full bloom, this is the perfect time to choose the variety that is right for you.
When you begin your search for the right clematis you will quickly be drawn to the extra large flowers of varieties like ‘Nelly Moser’, ‘General Sikorski’ and ‘Will Goodwin’. Like a magnet, big double-flowered hybrids will command the attention of every clematis shopper.
But when asked, I usually suggest that gardeners new to clematis start with one of the many selections of a species called Clematis viticella. Specific varieties to look for right now at nurseries are 'Etoile Violette' (deep violet), ‘Madame Julia Correvon’ (wine red), ‘Alba Luxurians’ (white), ‘Blue Angel’ (light blue) and ‘Polish Spirit’ (purple blue). All of these are bred from my favorite southern California species, Clematis viticella.
The notion that clematis are difficult is undeserved. If you can grow a rose, a foxglove, a hydrangea or a delphinium, you can grow a clematis, especially one of these easy to grow Clematis viticella selections. In fact, with their complimentary flower colors and habits, each of these popular plants make great clematis companions.
Clematis viticella are exceptional in their hardiness, vigor, long bloom period, ease of growing, and resistance to disease. In all but the hottest inland valleys, they can be grown in either full sun or modest shade. There's an old saying about growing clematis that states: “flowers in the sun, feet in the shade”. This simply means that, where possible, plant your clematis with the roots just to the north of a small shrub. Reasonable advice, but I have found that this is not an essential rule; a thick, cooling layer of mulch over the soil will do just fine.
When planting any clematis into the ground, but be sure to break up and aerate any clay soil with plenty of rich organic planting mix or your own home made compost. Most clematis also do well in containers, their flowering stems grown on a small obelisk or up a simple tepee made of three or four bamboo poles tied at the top.
Sometimes gardeners worry about when and how to prune a clematis. It’s a snap; for Clematis viticella simply prune it in winter. I usually prune them about the same time as I prune my roses; sometime in January. Look for the fuzzy little buds swelling toward the base of the plant and simply cut each stem above one of these buds. If you’re less patient, simple cut the entire plant back in one or two whacks with a pair of hedge shears. By pruning a Clematis viticella to 12 or 18 inches each year your plant will refresh itself with new foliage and new flowers every spring and never develop into a woody, thick, messy vine, which most gardeners despise.
Selections of Clematis viticella are an excellent choice for a small flowering vine, especially if you have been laboring under the impression that clematis are finicky.
Ron Vanderhoff is the Nursery Manager at Roger’s Gardens, Corona del Mar.