KC Gardens

Versatile clematis bring bold, bright color to your landscape

Clematis are prized for their bold flowers and habit of often reblooming in summer.
Clematis are prized for their bold flowers and habit of often reblooming in summer.

Clematis adds vertical interest to the garden. This durable vine, prized for its bold flowers, deserves a place in any landscape.

But there seems to be some confusion about this plant’s care — mainly about pruning.

Find the right location

Clematis grow best in well-drained soil, so they struggle in our heavy clay. Before planting, amend the area with compost or peat moss to improve not only drainage but the soil’s ability to hold water. This vine grows best with an even supply of moisture, especially in the heat of summer.

Some think this plant is fussy because it likes sunshine and cooler roots. Hot soil in summer stresses clematis, so plant it where the roots will be shaded in the heat of the day. Planting a small perennial or shrub nearby can achieve this. A generous layer of organic mulch (3 inches) such as wood chips provides the needed cooling effect for the roots.

Summer care

Once established, clematis need supplemental watering during dry periods (mulch reduces that need). Timely watering will result in a more vigorous vine and repeat flowering in summer and fall. These late season flowers are always a bonus.

Vining plants like to be fed, since it takes energy to produce the growth for flowering. Feed the plant each spring with a couple of tablespoons of low analysis fertilizer sprinkled around the plant. Some expert growers use composted cow manure in the late winter as the mulch layer and fertilizer.

Unraveling pruning

If you read the hardcore gardening books, pruning clematis can be confusing. They place each variety into one of three groups, with each group having its own set of instructions. If you’ve forgotten the name of your plant, this makes these instructions pointless. For those wanting the “Clematis Pruning for Dummies” approach, here is my recommendation.

Prune clematis in the early spring, when growth begins. The simplest way is to cut the plants back to the ground. The result will be a smaller vine and a later flowering period, but the plant will survive. This may seem brutal, but it’s easy and it works.

If you don’t want to reduce size and want to maximize flowering, here is another simple trick. Start at the top of last year’s vine that looks dead. Move down the vine until you spot a live bud starting to grow. Prune just above the first live bud.

Continue this approach, removing all the dead growth on the twining vines. Once the dead growth is cleaned up you are done pruning.

Be careful when working around clematis, as the new growth breaks easily. Reattach any loose vines to your structure using twine.

Clematis should be in every landscape. They add a pop of color on a trellis along the fence or home, or covering an obelisk in the garden. Your only problem will be deciding which variety of this addictive plant to grow.

Dennis Patton is a horticulture agent with Kansas State University Research and Extension. Got a question for him or other university extension experts? Email them to garden.help@jocogov.org or visit KCGardens.KansasCity.com.