Photo By Gardenvines.com
Brown and brittle, they do not climb now. Like an exhausted old man on a jungle gym, their arms hang down and sadly recall a rambunctious youth. Thus it is as I pass the trellis that holds the remnants of last summer’s clematis vine.
All about the garden are its kindred. One hangs from the bare branches of a fig tree and another grips its companion, a crab apple tree who helps his old friend through a harsh season. As forlorn as a plant can look, a tumbleweed blowing through a ghost town.
We have no reason to be sad. Just as yesterday’s exhaustion is forgotten with the morning song, the winter’s deadliness is to yield to the vigor of spring. As the late days of winter begin to lengthen and warm, we find ourselves on our knees in the garden. There is the most pleasant sort of spring-cleaning going on. Gingerly our fingers tease back the leaves from around the feet of shrubs. Gently the debris is brushed from atop those who are waking. The noses of daffodils sniffing fresh air again, the eyes of peonies waking, perfectly sculpted buds of hellebores rising and at the base of that trellis...young and healthy shoots aiming to climb it for themselves. The clematis is back in school!
Gardeners are parents. They enjoy the opportunity to raise, to train a new generation. The fact that these particular children do not soil the house or stay out late or crash the car or forget their homework makes them perfect for those who only want the enjoyable parts of parenthood.
These flowering vines are suited to those of us who enjoy seeing things brought to their fullest potential. In their exuberance there is such promise. They do not feel bound to the modest piece of earth where they were born, delightedly sneaking into any place they can place their fingers. Like all children they love to climb trees, scrambling through branches and emerging in unexpected places, proclaiming their presence with a flourish of blossoms. It is just this character that makes the gardener/parent—gardian?—so needed. These prodigies can all too easily become prodigal. Regular visits to give direction are always wise.
The clematis, in modern landscaping, has been sometimes relegated to the mailbox. Waiting on the mailman like a child trying to intercept his report card, he climbs over it and greets the neighbors with cheerful blooms. This is not an abuse, but there are many other places to play. Depending on the variety, clematis can be used almost anywhere a little grace and delight are needed. I have used the aforementioned trellis, apple trees, viburnum and any other support that might serve to bring beauty to eye level. I inherited a “mailbox clematis” with my house, just to keep me from being derisive of the concept, and must say that he does a poor job of intercepting unwanted mail.
As I look about the garden, as I pore over the catalogs and websites, I see many more kids I would like to raise. How can they all be so different? Who could imagine such charm? That’s just the sort of appeal these joyful children possess. Let us embrace parenthood in our gardens and choose some new prodigies to raise.
There are hundreds of varieties of clematis available to us. I have seen them in boxes, stacked at the home improvement warehouse—pitiable souls who long for air and sun and soil. The picture on the box may seem a huckster’s ploy, but that feeble twig can really become that radiant beauty. It is an act of faith to purchase these pound puppies, but they can be loyal companions and reward your graciousness.
We may find them growing lushly, clambering up bamboo stakes at the local nursery. They can arrive as parcels on our doorstep from a distant specialty grower, the huddled masses so thankful to be freed from their postal confinement.
Just what are the requirements of these lovely and intriguing plants? It is common to hear that they enjoy having their “feet in the shade and their head in the sun.” It makes sense that a vining plant would seek the sun and that its roots would be in the shade of its supporting host. I know that my clematis likes organic matter added copiously to the sandy soil of my garden. In a heavy soil, I would like to break up the earth with a deep garden fork, creating fissures into which the roots can run. A top-dressing of compost can then be added, to keep these spaces open. A yearly re-application of manure compost seems sufficient to feed these plants and I like to work the fork gently around them in late winter to keep the soil aerated. In general, very easy and accommodating folks. I have not found many that have disappointed me.
The only regret one should have when growing clematis is that we have neither the room nor resources to grow more of them. Even a quick look at any website specializing in these plants will show that there are varieties to suit any mood or temperament. Quiet and demure species such as our native Clematis viorna, with its gracefully sculpted flowers, are to be admired by those who pause to enjoy them. More floriferous and somewhat more showy types such as Rooguchi can call us from further across the garden. The large-flowered hybrids such as Elsa Spath and Comtesse de Bouchaud or Duchess of Edinburgh can hail us from great distances, but still reward a closer encounter. These ladies must have been charming and graceful indeed to be memorialized by such beauty. I cringe to imagine the plant to which someone might attach my moniker.
It has been delightful to make the acquaintance of many species and varieties of clematis over the years and this year has again brought some new types to my plot. There seems to be no end to their allure. In addition to our own fine local nurseries who can be counted on to have plants, I would also recommend Brushwood nursery for mail-order options. I have been quite impressed with their selection and quality. Please give a little time to look into the many species and cultivars available. At least one of them will speak to you, and you will be a thankful person for having heard that voice.
Jeff Tilden is an Augusta-based garden designer and sometime writer.