Many people hesitate to grow clematis, believing they are too finicky for the casual gardener.
Cindy Tibbetts of Hummingbird Farm in Turner believes that anyone can grow clematis, and she wants to prove it. Just follow her instructions, and you will have a vigorous flowering vine that will live and prosper for 100 years or more.
Tibbetts spoke at the Portland Flower Show earlier this month on “Clematis: The Queen of the Flowering Vines,” and made growing them seem perfectly easy.
The four keys — all beginning with “P” so you can remember them — are proper plant selection, placement, planting and pruning.
Plant selection has two requirements. First, you have to know what zone you are in, and not plant clematis that grow only in warmer climates.
Second, a lot of the vines that people think of as clematis — the early-blooming, large-flower clematis — are prone to clematis wilt.
“There are resistant varieties,” Tibbetts told the crowd of about 50 at the flower show. “Plant the resistant varieties.”
Tibbetts’ company only sells resistant varieties, so if you see them there (hummingbirdfarm.net), they are resistant.
Tibbetts also has strict rules — she calls it boot camp — for planting clematis. First, find a location that gets four hours or more of sunlight each day. They can take more, but not less.
Then dig a hole that is about the size of a bushel basket, much larger than the pot your clematis will come in. Mix about 10 pounds of compost and a couple of handfuls of Bulbtone fertilizer with the soil you took out of the hole. Put this soil mixture back in the hole, fill the hole with water, and wait for it to drain out.
Plant the clematis in this soil mixture — which will seem like mud — about 2 to 3 inches deeper than the clematis was planted in the pot, and then water again.
“All of this is going to take you 15 to 20 minutes — after you have located your trowel and the Bulbtone,” Tibbetts said. “For a plant that will outlive us all, that is not a lot of time.”
Tibbetts has separate pruning rules for clematis that bloom in May and early June, and those that bloom in late June and later.
For the early bloomers, the rule is simple: Don’t bother. Mother Nature will kill a lot of the branches over the winter — in severe winters, right down to the ground. In the spring, just remove the dead wood. Nothing is simpler.
Plants that bloom in late June and later should be pruned in March — right about now — when there is no snow on the ground but before the vines begin to leaf out.
“Cut them right down to 6 to 12 inches,” Tibbetts said. “It really helps if you do it on a day that you are just a little bit irritated with the world.” You just go out and cut with vigor, getting rid of your frustrations along with the old clematis vines.
She said it doesn’t hurt the plant to do this pruning in the fall, but the vines are more brittle in spring and will break away from the structure that the clematis is climbing. In the fall, you have to unwind the clematis, because it does not snap as easily.
“And here is the deep, dark secret,” Tibbetts confided. “If life intervenes and you forget or don’t prune your clematis correctly, so what?”
The blooms might not be as great or out at the normal time, but the plant will live. Just don’t forget for three years running.
Tibbetts said Hummingbird Farm sells clematis in 7-inch pots. If you buy clematis in 4-inch pots, the roots are not large enough for planting in the garden. Put them in a larger pot and let them grow through the summer, and plant them in the fall.
Most clematis like to climb on something, although some are shorter and work in a perennial garden, and others will trail along a rock wall. A trellis or arbor always works, and you can put wire on a shed or house if you use spacers so the vines can grow between the wire and the house.
Tibbetts also likes to mix clematis with shrubs, but only with already established shrubs. If you plant them at the same time, the clematis will grow faster than the shrub and make the shrub suffer.
“They grow up especially well in lilacs,” she said. “You get color in May from the lilacs, and then in July, you get more color.”
Tibbetts listed about 50 different clematis that she sells, and she has even more on her website.
A few stood out for me. Ville-de-Lyon, which Tibbetts said has “55 miles-per-hour color, which means that if you have one bloom when you are driving by, you will notice it.” It grows 10 to 12 feet tall.
Stolwijk Gold is the only clematis with colored foliage — a good, strong yellow — and it has flowers that are nearly a true blue. Tangutica requires full sun and good drainage but grows 20 feet tall, and has thousands of smaller-than-average yellow flowers that face downward.
Hummingbird Farm is not yet selling plants for this year. But go to hummingbirdfarm.net and sign up for the email newsletter, and Tibbetts will tell you when you can start ordering.
Prices are $16.99 per clematis and $10.50 per box for shipping, and she can fit two clematis in a box. The phone number is 224-8220.
WINNERS of the Portland Flower Show student essay contest sponsored by the University of Maine extension were announced at the gala and awards celebration. Prizes of $50, $30 and $20 were awarded in each age category.
Winners in ages 6 to 9 were Naomi Zarin of Gray, first; Elizabeth Willette of Gorham, second; and Riley Vacchiano of Cornish, third. In ages 10 to 13, winners were Sophie Wink of Gray, first place; Helen Cunningham of Portland, second; and Amelia Searfoss of Pownal, third. In ages 14 to 18, winners were Kate Spies of Topsham, first; Emma Sapat of Falmouth, second; and Madeline Sanborn of West Baldwin, third.
Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth and can be contacted at 767-2297 or at: