Clematis are perhaps the most beloved vining plant in the world. Clematis are the “Queen of the Vines”.
Until recently it was assumed that these regal plants were somehow poor choices for Southern California’s climate and soils. About ten years ago a dedicated and energetic gardener from Irvine began to sing the praises of clematis both locally as well as across the United States. Edith Malek, almost single handedly at first, set out on a lonely crusade to elevate the elusive clematis to the mainstream of local gardening.
Edith, the “Clematis Queen”, is the president and founder of the American Clematis Society and grows over 200 gorgeous examples in her Irvine garden. Before Edith began her crusade, clematis were noticeably absent from local gardens, now they are common. I’ve been gardening for over 30 years, but before I met Edith I had never cultivated a Clematis. I’ve grown fourteen since. She’s made an impact on me and I pay attention when she speaks.
Most clematis likely grown along the Orange County coast will be small vines, about six to twelve feet high. Plant them in an exposed position where they will enjoy the sun for at least most of the day, all day is fine. In soil with a clay component dig a good size hole, saving only the best of the topsoil. Add a quality planting mix as needed.
Getting the clematis out the nursery container without harming it may be your first and only challenge toward growing a beautiful plant. Always cut the container down the side, from top to bottom; never pull the vine out of the pot. Carefully set the rootball deeply into the hole, so that the plant’s stems are three to five inches below soil level.
Clematis prefer cool soil and setting the roots deeply into the soil will help to keep the roots cool. To cool things even more, apply a three to four inch layer of planting mix over the soil surface, above the roots. Azalea mixes work especially well for this. Replenish this mulch regularly, especially during the warm summer months.
Feed clematis abundantly from late winter into early fall, very much like you would feed roses. Not surprisingly, because of their similar fertilizing, watering, sun requirements and pruning time clematis and roses have long been traditional companions in a garden. As is common in England, I enjoy planting clematis adjacent to a large rose and letting the two intermingle. The effect is marvelous and should be popular locally, since roses are so common in our gardens. A rose-clematis combination looks especially attractive when the rose has an old-fashioned flower forms, like David Austin hybrids.
If you’re not growing your clematis through a rose or shrub or up a tree you will need to provide a support for it. Unlike most vines, clematis are light, airy vines, not needing heavy support and not building up thick, heavy growth after a few years. Finding support is especially easy for a clematis and can be from a free-standing obelisk or a nearby post, certainly an arbor or fence will do just fine.
Like roses, clematis require an annual pruning and the process can sometimes intimidate first timers. Summer or winter, light or hard; it will depend upon the clematis group that your plant belongs. Lot’s of advice can be found to guide you through the simple process. Edith suggests a pruning alternative; prune some stems lightly and some hard. This technique, she says, encourages flowers at various heights along the vine and has a built-in margin of error. Prune when the leaf buds begin to plump up, about late January in Orange County, the same you’ll be pruning your roses.
In my garden my clematis bloom about the same time as my roses, from April into November.
To learn a bit more check the current May/June edition of Fine Gardening Magazine. In it Edith has a beautifully illustrated article, titled The Many Faces of Clematis. Very well done. To learn even more join The American Clematis Society (http://clematis.org) or pick up a copy of Edith’s recent book on the topic, Simply Clematis.
If you ready to join the clematis crusade you should consider attending the American Clematis Society’s 10th Anniversary Convention in Irvine on June 2-3, with an optional garden tour on June 4. Space is limited and details are available on the ACS website. The program looks terrific, packed with great speakers well known to enthusiastic gardeners, including Rosalind Creasy, Annie Hall, Gloria Leinbach, Tom Spellman, Murray Rosen and, of course, the queen herself, Edith Malek.
Ron Vanderhoff is the Nursery Manager at Roger’s Gardens, Corona del Mar