March 18, 2012

Maine Gardener: Hope for the clematis-impaired

By TOM ATWELL

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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