For almost all of her almost eight decades, Jeanne Zimmerman has been gardening and for a good part of that time she has been growing – and loving – the elegance and hard-to-beat beauty of clematis flowers and vines. “The radiant colors, the long bloom time and the ease of growing them – here and in Minnesota where I learned to garden – make them the perfect garden plant,” Jeanne says warmly. “Besides, they so nicely cover any ugly fence.” From a farming family, and a long-standing member of the Chico Horticultural Society, Jeannie is a natural gardener and naturally generous in sharing her experience and knowledge. “I am no expert,” she is quick to say, while other experienced gardeners and plants people smilingly dismiss this modesty: She is an expert with her clematis, they nod. Photo: Clematis ‘Dr. Ruppel.’
In the not more than 400-square-foot backyard that Jeannie shares with her husband, who requested three redwoods planted in one corner as a reference to his great passion for trees, Jeanne has close to twenty different clematis growing – scrambling up fences, covering over arbors, encircling bird houses and arching their delicate tracery-work-like foliage and vine patterns against walls and heading for the sky. Photo: Jeanne Zimmerman pointing out the advantages of growing small to mid-sized clematis in pots.
There are generally two accepted ways to pronounce clematis. I was brought up saying CLEM-uh-tis. Others pronounce it clem-aah-tis (equal stress on all 3 syllables and a flat rather than short A in the middle). Photo: Clematis integrifolia with its distinctive blue bells.
Clematis are long-lived, versatile plants with gorgeous – sometimes fragrant – flowers that bloom “almost year-round” in Northern California. Western white clematis (Clematis ligusticifolia) and chaparral clematis aka virgin’s bower, or pipestem clematis (Clematis lasiantha) are both native to California, but most of the garden-variety plants are derived from Asian or European species. For horticultural purposes, the genus is generally divided into 3 groups based on their growing and pruning requirements, which are themselves based around whether the plants flower on old or new growth (or “wood”), and whether they flower early or late in the season. “But all the talk of of how and when to prune intimidates people, I think,” says Jeanne. “They are easy to fun and easy to grow, absolutely beautiful and adaptable. Don’t be intimidated. Start with a flower color you like and what desired height you’d like your plant to reach – because some clematis stay nice and small – and others will take over the house.”
For beginners, “I would start with the garden hybrids for North State gardens. They’re heat-tolerant, disease-free, and quick to establish,” says Jeannie. “They bloom from April to November at least and they mix well with other trees and shrubs, especially roses – with which they make wonderful companion plants.” Some of Jeanne’s favorites are Clematis patens ‘The President’ and the late, large flowered C. ‘Miniseelik,’ which “blooms in May through summer and fall. It is especially adaptable to a pot and can be cut back to 6 inches in the spring.” Photo: Clematis ‘Ville de Lyon.’
In terms of cultivation, Jeanne recommends planting your clematis in late-winter to early spring, in soil that has good drainage but will still retain moisture. “They like at least 6 hours of sun a day, but prefer to have their roots shaded. Here in the valley, they do prefer some afternoon shade if possible.” Jeanne feeds her plants a mixture of fish emulsion, blood and bone meal, which she digs in at planting along with compost or peat moss, and then reapplies fertilizer at least once a year when they are beginning to put on growth at the beginning of the season. While there are all kinds of complicated pruning instructions for the various types, Jeanne lightly prunes all of her plants early each spring – just after new growth appears and prunes down to the sturdiest of new growth.
Additionally, Jeanne’s growing techniques include: If you have very compacted soil that is difficult for you to dig, consider planting in pots. Jeanne has a handful of her nicest, shorter 6 – 10 foot specimens in large pots. “I likes how easy it is to work with the pots, I like the look of them and if I need to I can move them around the garden with a dolly,” she explains. She recommends that no matter where you plant them, she likes to plant her new plants at least 2 inches deeper in the soil than they were in the pots they came in. “This encourages multi-stem growth from the bottom up, which makes for a sturdier, fuller specimen.” Finally, she recommends buying your plants locally from a good nursery who are most likely to carry varieties that will do well in our climate. Otherwise, she has had good luck with on-line sources including gardenvines.com.
If you have trouble with moles, use cages around your plant’s root balls. If you have trouble with rabbits, protect your young plants with chicken wire cages around the new growth until they are established and rabbits are no longer interested. If you have mites or red spider issues, spray with Neem oil in the winter while the vine is dormant. Photo: While clematis are not generally considered deer resistant, the vine pictured here grows floriferously without full deer protection in the Paradise garden of Iris Springs
Remember to try your clematis as cut flowers. As a single flower, a group of them, or mixed with other flowers, they provide a remarkable display. When using as a cut flower, cut your stem as long as possible, cut early in the morning if possible “when the carbohydrate content in the stalk is high,” explains Rosen, and give them fresh water every couple of days. Photo: Clematis are not only extremely hardy, with varieties hardy to zone 3, but they make sophisticated and elegant cut flowers. Jeanne likes to float her favorite blooms in water in a shallow bowl but they make dynamic additions to traditional bouquets and arrangements as well.
Northern California is home to an exceptional clematis display garden, The Mary Toomey Dedication Garden at Chalk Hill Clematis just outside of Healdsburg. They will be having their annual Open Garden day on Friday June 17th from 9 am to 3 pm. It is an outstanding collection and artfully designed clematis garden. For more information on that visit Chalk Hill Clematis. Photo: California native chaparral clematis.
If you have questions about growing clematis in the North State, Jeanne is happy to answer questions and she can be reached by email at: ZimJean@sbcglobal.net. Some additional resources for learning about clematis include:
Some good books – available in stock or by order from independent bookseller Lyon Books in Chico – include:
“A Celebration of Clematis,” by Kaye Heafey and Ron Morgan; Half-Full Press 2007
“Clematis for Small Spaces,” by Raymond Evison; Timber Press 2007
“An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Clematis,” by Mary Toomey and Everett Leeds; Timber Press 2001
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In a North State Garden is a weekly Northstate Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California. It is made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time. Podcasts of past shows are available here.