With Spring bringing people out into the fresh air, it seems fitting to give a little air time to some of the garden’s most sociable inhabitants, the clematis.
They say there’s one for every month of the year, and they’re suited to all kinds of spots, whether out in the garden or in pots, from full sun to deep shade. They’ll climb over a fence, cover an ugly shed, scramble over the earth as ground cover, clamber fulsomely over a steel obelisk or festoon a rose arch with flair. In my opinion, what makes clematis stand apart from so many other climbers is the way they mingle and match, party and partner.
Combinations worth copying
Clematis are sociable plants within their own species, and they combine stunningly with so many perennials, trees and shrubs, especially the long flowering cultivars. Around the corner from where I live in southeast London, a neighbour has planted a climbing hydrangea petiolaris with a white clematis (I think it’s Marie Boisselot) against the side of the house. It’s a highlight of the school run in the summer term. I eye the fat clematis buds with anticipation, as the huge, simple star-shaped flowers are absolute perfection threaded through the lacy hydrangea blooms. This is a June-July combo that’s happiest in light shade – here an east-facing brick wall.
For spring, here’s a classic clematis pairing I first clocked in a pub garden in the south Shropshire hills. At The Castle Hotel in Bishops Castle, they’ve planted a pale pink Clematis montana to climb through a large apple tree. In April, the blushing froth of blossom is a heavenly backdrop for the simple, four-petalled mauve-pink clematis. Montana can be a little overbearing, reaching around 6m tall, but the sturdy boughs of an apple provide the ideal support, bringing the stature needed to compete with ease and grace. This one will work in full sun or part shade.
In my east-facing garden, I’ve recreated another favourite partnership spotted at a garden elsewhere: the rather ubiquitous, easy-going and glamorous Clematis Nelly Moser with Choisya Aztec Pearl. I planted the clematis on the shadier side of the shrub – always a good idea as then she’ll grow obligingly through the branches to reach the light, giving nice even coverage. When Nelly’s bold striped flowers unfurl, big as dinner plates and candy pink, the effect is transformative, the shrub’s clusters of perfumed blooms punching up to stratospheric heights. It’s that contrast of the lacy/frothy/clustered flowers of the host plant with the simple, structural clematis blooms that works so well.
A quick flick through the great Christopher Lloyd’s Colour for Adventurous Gardeners reveals a pretty handful of other clematis ideas. A column of rich purple Clematis ‘Jackmanii’ is an unapologetic backdrop to the dazzling orange uprights of red-hot pokers. Or the bottle brush flowers of Hebe ‘Watson’s Pink’ strung through with mauve-pink Clematis ‘Prince Charles’. Christopher Lloyd’s gardens at Great Dixter in Sussex are now overseen by his protégée Fergus Garrett, and I’m reliably informed he’s kept up the tradition of clematis love. When I think of great British gardens to emulate, I think first of Great Dixter.
How to grow them
There are nearly 300 different species of clematis, and the entry in my RHS A-Z of Garden Plants covers seven pages: plenty to choose from. The flowers range from a dainty 1cm to a frankly show-off 20. And they come in 10 different forms, including double, bell-shaped, star-shaped, tubular and tulip. With all that choice can come confusion, of course. If you’re new to clematis or have struggled with them in the past, I’d recommend trying one of the RHS Award of Garden Merit varieties. These have been trialled, tested and are the most likely to succeed, even with less than ideal conditions and care.
The two musts when growing clematis are a shaded root are and yearly pruning. If planting in the sun, keep the soil over their roots moist and shaded with stones, thick mulch, or other plants.
Next, make a note of the pruning group: it will be Group 1, 2 or 3 (sometimes A, B or C). Group 1, the early flowerers, means pruning out just dead or damaged stems. Group 2, probably the most common kind, are best pruned in early spring, as the buds are forming. Cut a third of stems to one or two buds from the base, another third to half their length and the rest leave as they are. Group 3 are simple: prune back to a couple of buds from the base in early spring.
This year I have three new clematis planted out in my garden. One is Christopher Lloyd’s ‘Prince Charles’. Another is a deep-purple bell-shaped variety called Rooguchi, which I’ve popped at the base of my Bathsheba rose. It’s not too rampant and hopefully will recreate the rich apricot/deep purple colour combination I enjoyed in vases last summer, the rose arranged with Clematis Gipsy Queen (see cover pic). So that’s one more thing to look forward to at home this summer.
Here’s to a sociable season, in the garden as well as out and about.
Written by: Francesca Clarke