My first clematis was ‘Mrs. N. Thompson’, a spindly specimen from a local garden center, but I thought it was something spectacular because it was a clematis that wasn’t ‘Nelly Moser’. Up until that point, I was under the impression that the only two clematis that existed were ‘Nelly’ and ‘Jackmanii’.
‘Mrs. N. Thompson’ never grew that well for me, in part because I don’t think it’s a great cultivar, but mostly because I now know that I did a lot wrong in growing it. But it introduced me to a plant that is my great gardening weakness. Every year I realize I have no more places to put more clematis and every year I buy more because they are just amazing plants.
I don’t know everything about growing clematis, but this post includes pretty much everything I know, and it has served me well in caring for the more than 30 clematis I have in my garden.
Many clematis are hardy from zone 4 to 9, but not all fall within the entire range, so double check that it will be hardy in your area before you buy.
All clematis want sun, although some can be pushed into part sun or even grow moderately well in some shade (‘Silver Moon’ grows—not rambunctiously, but it flowers—up the skirting on the north side of my deck).
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There is a long-standing saying about clematis that they “want their feet in the shade but their face in the sun,” and I think people take this too literally. When I planted poor ‘Mrs. N. Thompson’, I put chunks of fieldstone on top the roots (yeah, um, don’t do that). What I’ve learned is that they really just want moist, rich, soil to grow in with a nice layer of mulch on top (like a lot of plants); the shade part isn’t necessary.
Clematis is a rule breaker when it comes to planting. Typically plants should be placed so that the top of the soil in the ground is the same as it was in the container and planted directly in the native soil (turns out that whole “$10 hole for a $5 plant” advice was probably off base). But clematis are special (or for the kids out there: extra) and they want special treatment.
Here’s how I plant clematis. You will find variations on this technique and I suspect they all work, but I stick with what works for me. Dig a big hole, far bigger than the plant: about three times the width and twice the depth. Add in compost, well-rotted manure (it should not have a smell), a small amount of Espoma Rose-Tone and the soil you dug out. Place the clematis on a 45-degree angle toward whatever it will be growing up, with the crown buried 3 to 4 inches under the finished level of the soil.
(Edited to add: A kind commenter brought up that some people do not recommend this deep planting method is not recommended for non-vining bush-type clematis. I’ve read that as well, but I read it after I had already planted many bush types deeply. I can report that all are doing well, but in the future I will probably plant them shallower.)
Fill in the rest of the soil and water it in really well. Mulch well.
And then, you need to do the hard part. If it’s not already been cut back, you need to cut those vines back. I know it’s hard, but you want it to worry about roots, not flowers or stems right now. So cut it back to about two leaf buds. I promise it’s worth it.
This is the part where people freak out about growing clematis. Don’t let it stop you.
Clematis, like most vines, are pretty big feeders. There’s a lot of growth to support there. I fertilize two to three times a year with Espoma Rose-Tone: once in spring when I prune, once again before they flower (for late-flowering varieties) and then after they are done flowering. Never when they are in bud or flowering (I don’t know why, to be honest, but I read it somewhere once, so that’s what I do).
Keep up on the watering, especially while they are getting established, because they like moisture (but not sitting in wet soil).
Pruning is the part that throws everyone for a loop, but the good news is that you won’t kill your clematis if you do it wrong. The worst case scenario is that you’ll either have few flowers or all the flowers will be very high up in the air. You need to know what kind of clematis it is. They are divided into groups and that dictates how and when you prune them.
The plant tag should tell you what pruning group they fall into or you can look it up by the name of the plant. If you’ve lost the tag and can’t remember the name, you’ll have to do a little detective work, but it’s best to just let it go for a year, observe how and when it blooms and make note of it for the next year.
Group 1: These bloom on old wood, so you only need to prune out dead or damaged stems. If you need to prune for another reason, do it after they bloom. Group 1 clematis bloom very early.
Group 2: These are probably the most common kind of clematis and the ones people think of first. I prune these in early spring, when buds begin to swell, following a rule of thirds. One third of the stems get cut back to about one or two leaf buds from the base, one third gets pruned to about half their length (height?) and the last third remains unpruned. Some Group 2s can be pruned again after flowering and they may rebloom in late summer or early fall.
Group 3: I love Group 3s because they are easy. Just prune them back to one or two buds from the base in early spring or late winter.
See? That wasn’t so hard, was it? The best visual aid I’ve found is on Margaret Roach’s website.
As for winter care, well, there is none. Just forget about them until spring.
When you get addicted to clematis like I have, placing them is an issue. One can only have so many trellises. So I use nature’s trellises: that is, trees and shrubs in my garden.
In fact, I think clematis looks best when it’s intermingling with something else. I grow ‘Prince Charles’ on my Limelight hydrangea and the flowers look like they are on the same shrub. ‘Gravetye Beauty’ gets a little help making its way up the trunk of the Serviceberry tree and then scrambles throughout the branches. A Group 1 clematis (whose name I cannot recall) grows up the magnolia tree off the deck and last year did a wonderful job disguising the face that the magnolia died.
I also grow clematis together and in the classic combination of a clematis with a climbing rose (although I’m swapping out the clematis I grow next to ‘Autumn Sunset’ rose on the front of the house because they never bloomed at the same time and it seemed like such a missed opportunity to me).
Lately though, I’ve become enamored with non-vining clematis varieties that stay short and flop over walls or meander among other perennials. They are Group 3s so they are easy to clean up, and they are an unexpected addition to the garden.
My advice to gardeners is usually to shop their local garden center first, but I stray from that advice for clematis. The clematis I see in garden centers are usually spindly, with just a few long stems, forced into flowering so they sell better. Remember, we want roots, not flowers, at first. There are exceptions to this, of course, but if I’m buying from a garden center I look for something with lots of stems coming from the soil, not a few tall stems.
Specialist clematis nurseries grow them best, in my opinion, so the two I recommend based on my personal experience are Brushwood Nursery and Silver Star Vinery. I’m sure there are other good clematis growers out there, I just haven’t ordered from them.
Well, how have you been saying it in your head while you read this? I am a firm supporter of the CLEM-uh-tis pronunciation, but there are a lot of clem-MAH-tis folks out there as well. Say it however you like, just grow them!
The Plant Lover’s Guide to Clematis is an excellent reference.
You know this is like asking a parent who their favorite child is, right? Well, I do have a few favorites, but I’m always discovering new clematis that I love as well.
- ‘Sapphire Indigo’: A Group 3 non-vining clematis with deep blue (OK, purple-ish) flowers that absolutely cover the plant for most of the summer. Great seedheads as well.
- ‘Guernsey Cream’: A classic Group 2 that blooms very early and is just so creamy wonderful. I’d never be without it.
- ‘Princess Diana’: I have two of this Group 3 clematis because I thought the first one had died and I couldn’t be without its tulip-shaped pink bell-shaped flowers. The first one was fine and now there are two.
- ‘Sweet Summer Love‘: A small-flowering Group 3 with a lovely scent and crazy amounts of flowers.
- ‘Etoile Violette’: Dark purple, long-lasting medium-sized blooms that combine so well with so many other things and happily climb up my deck railing.
I don’t grow ‘Stand by Me’, a new introduction from Walters Gardens and Proven Winners last year, yet but I have my sights set on a mass planting of it because it comes to me in my dreams. I’m only sort of kidding. (Update: I planted three ‘Stand By Me’ clematis in a clump in the new patio garden area I redid in summer 2019.)
Well, yes, because there are downsides to any plant, particularly one that has such genetic diversity. Clematis wilt can be a problem with Group 2 clematis, although I don’t think I’ve ever experienced it. It’s a disease caused by a root-rotting fungus in which stems just suddenly wilt, often just as they are about to flower. To my knowledge, the only thing you can do for it is cut away the affected stems. Planting deeply helps new stems regrow and allows the plant to develop deep roots that will hopefully prevent clematis wilt from striking and, if it does, help it bounce back.
Some clematis are aggressive and even invasive in some areas. Sweet Autumn (Clematis terniflora) is a massive grower in most areas and will quickly cover anything and everything with a huge vine with thousands of small, white flowers. It is considered an invasive species in some areas, so handle that one with care.
Other clematis are rampant self seeders. I presume this is highly dependent on where you garden because I’ve never had a clematis self seed in my garden in 17 years, but take note that some may have that habit in your garden.
Do you grow clematis? If so, I know you have a favorite. Share it in the comments. I might need to add to my collection.