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All About Clematis

Clematis-DiamantinaClematis ‘Diamantha’

I think many of us gardeners tend to forget an important aspect of garden planning (if we plan at all!): thinking vertically. We’re getting better at it, certainly, given the ever-increasing postings of creative ways to raise up your plantings that pop up on Pinterest, social media and in recently-published books. People in apartments or any home with limited land and balcony space (and especially those folks fortunate enough to have rooftop gardens) certainly need to think about using their square footage efficiently if you want to cram in as many plants as possible…I certainly would, because I’m one of those gardeners who wants to try a little bit of everything. In either case, there are three ways to garden vertically: plant something in stacked containers (or tiered hanging containers); plant something in a basket or at the top of a wall and have it cascade downwards; or train a plant vertically, which often times are vines.

At the moment, we’re going to focus on vines, because of the three, they’re probably the easiest to use while also being useful for the greatest number of people. First, let’s categorize how vines behave so we can better understand how they fit into landscapes and planters. Vines grow by sending out rapidly-growing shoots that seek a vertical surface on which they can attach themselves. Their “instinct,” so to speak, is always to grow up. They hang on by clinging, twining or hooking onto their support. Those that cling work well on surfaces with some texture to them – like tree trunks, stone, brick walls or wooden posts – because they use growths that resemble roots or tree frog toes to work into small nooks and crannies and basically glue themselves in place. While great for stability, this can be a bit of a chore for removal if they ever need to be moved or cut back. Vines that use thorns to hook themselves into place – roses being the most familiar – can literally be a pain to deal with if they ever need adjusting. Within the twining group, you have two basic climbing techniques: twining stems and tendrils. Twining stems can be nice, because they can usually handle wider supports – like a pergola leg, a deck post or a tree trunk – without much help. You want to be careful, though, if growing a twiner up a tree trunk so it won’t strangle the tree as it ages. Still, stems are easy to unwind and re-direct if you can catch them when still young and pliable. Tendriled vines are even easier to work with because any support thin enough will serve as their ladder to the top.

Clematis-Pink-ChampagneClematis ‘Pink Champagne’

Clematis are unique among the hardy vines we grow in the mid-Atlantic in that they behave like a tendriling vine but don’t have separate tendrils. Instead, the stalks of their leaves serve as the tendrils, so they need a structure thin enough that they can wrap a couple of inches of leaf stem around it. Basically, if you can wrap one of your fingers all the way around a support, it should work for a Clematis. This opens up a world of possibilities, from the common arbors and trellises to netting, guy wires (either forming a free-standing curtain or mounted to a wall), the stems of other vines, obelisks, tomato cages…you name it. Even shrubs and small trees can be adorned with a Clematis vine without being strangled or smothered.

I favor Clematis over other hardy vines for the reasons of simple diversity and additional versatility: they come in a variety of flower colors, shapes and sizes; they can be chosen for different pruning regimens (from “I love to prune” to “I’ll prune when think of it” to “they’re never getting pruned”); they can be grown well in both full sun and partial shade; and they play well with other plants, whether by being compact and restrained or large and vigorous whilst not trying to smother you in your sleep. (Sweet Autumn Clematis, which does try to smother you in your sleep, we no longer stock due to its invasive self-sowing nature.) By these measures, most gardeners can find a place for at least one variety that both suits their conditions and suits their tastes.

Clematis-&-RoseClematis ‘Huldine’ & Rose ‘Zephirine Drouhin’

When looking at the selections, you’ll notice they are broken into groups based on how they bloom; this also can be informative on how to prune them, should you wish to, so you can avoid trimming off flower buds. Our posters and signage will give you guidance on which variety is which and when you can expect them to flower. Some varieties bloom only once, in spring; this includes the only variety that keeps its leaves in the winter, if sheltered from the brunt of winter weather. The repeat-blooming group flowers in late spring, rests, and repeats in summer or early autumn. The final, and largest, group is the continuous bloomers, which start up in late spring or early summer and keep going for several months. If you have the space, my advice is to mix them, so you have a medley of vines that’s in bloom the entire growing season; mix several varieties of Clematis or mix a Clematis with another vine. One of my favorite combinations is a Clematis with a climbing Rose, so you get the benefit of fragrance and a pairing of colors you can’t get by just using either of these species alone.

Clematis-virginianaClematis virginiana

Gardeners interested in natives will be pleased to know that there are several species of Clematis native to our area; alas, only one tends to be commercially available, and often intermittently at best. Virgin’s Bower (Clematis virginiana) is our white native look-alike to the weedy Sweet Autumn Clematis (call for availability). I have been lucky enough to spot another, most likely Clematis viorna, along hiking trails above the Potomac River. It’s always a pleasure to spot natives growing in the wild that, all too often, you only encounter online or in print. It’s validation that, hey, they do exist!

by Miri Talabac, Woody Plant Buyer

Stephanie Fleming was raised at Behnke’s Nurseries in Beltsville. Her Mom, Sonja, was one of Albert & Rose Behnke’s four children. She was weeding from the moment she could walk and hiding as soon as she was old enough to run, so many weeds, so little time. Although she quickly learned how to pull out a perennial and get taken off of weed pulling duty.

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