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The Queen of Vines; It might be difficult at first, but coddle a clematis and the plant will reward you with unparalleled beauty that can dominate a garden.; FOCUS ON CLEMATIS


I never met a clematis I didn't like.

Perhaps you too are easily smitten by masses of early spring blooming Clematis montana, looking like butterflies in flight. Or you're someone who swoons over the velvety, claret-colored 'Niobe.' And of course the classic, purple-blue 'Jackmanii' sprawling in abandon over a porch railing is to die for. Infatuation has not been a problem.

Getting the things to grow can be.

Yet clematis is widely touted as a plant for all seasons, and rightly so. Whether you desire a knock-your-socks-off display or a more delicate effect, there is a clematis for you.

"They're flying off the shelves," says Joel Gaydos, of Garland's Garden Center in Catonsville. "It's an eye-catching plant that can dominate a landscape."

There are clematis for full sun, dappled light or full shade. There are climbers and bush types, hybrids and natives, evergreens and those that die back in winter.

Colors run the gamut from palest white through all shades of red, rose, pink, purple, violet and even yellow. Flower forms include double, semidouble, singles, saucers, bells and stars, and sequential bloom times run from spring into the fall.

Among the most showy are the large flowered hybrids. Pink and white 'Nelly Moser,' radiant white 'Henryi,' and intensely carmine 'Ville de Lyon' are three tried and true standbys. Newer introductions include 'Royalty,' a spectacular double purple; 'Blue Light,' which resembles a cross between a water lily and a peony; and the rosy lilac 'Josephine,' so heavily doubled that in full bloom it assumes a pompon shape.

For the purist, there are small flowered and species clematis. Most of us are already familiar with sweet autumn clematis, C. maximowicziana, which clothes hedgerows, woodland edges and fences in fall with hundreds of tiny, effervescent white blossoms. Also among our native, Eastern clematis is C. crispa, with 1- to 2-inch-long Chinese temple bells of lavender, pink, blue or white, and the purple, reflex-belled C. viorna, also known as the leather flower for its leathery feel.

So what garden does not have room for a clematis or two to brighten a shady corner, happily romp up a trellis or through a climbing rose?

Put bluntly, clematis has the not-wholly-undeserved reputation of being difficult.

Yet the fault lies not with the flower, but with much of the information about clematis, which has been written by British authors and based on conditions in British gardens. Blazing hot summers, droughts, clay soil and the other assorted growing conditions we regularly face in the mid-Atlantic are seldom addressed.

Lately, however, more growers are discovering what it takes to be successful with clematis in this country. The answers are relatively simple, and the important points to remember are few.

Sue Austin, of Completely Clematis, a nursery in Ipswich, Mass., says good cultivars and better care instructions are contributing to the plant's popularity. "They're very showy, and once they're established, there's very little maintenance," she says.

One of the most daunting aspects for the novice is simply that it takes the plant two or three years to become established and to produce magnificent displays.

During this time, clematis does have to be coddled. This means that the generous planting space of 12 to 24 inches square initially allotted to it must not be encroached upon by other plants.

Second, the gardener must take care not to rip the plant out by mistake in the fall cleanup, after it has withered from the frost. It is especially helpful to mulch around the freshly planted clematis with slabs of stone. This is also beneficial because although clematis like to have their leaves and flowers in the sun, they prefer to have their feet kept cool and moist.

A couple of pieces of flagstone flanking the base will take care of this nicely, while at the same time keeping competing plants at bay and reminding the gardener what this scraggly little vine is until it grows up.

Pruning is the other bugaboo of gardeners. Most descriptions of clematis come with directions that refer to pruning classifications, Groups I, II and III. Naturally, by the time the gardener is actually facing the plant, shears in hand, the memory of these classifications and which one the plant originally belonged to has vanished.

The solution is not that complicated.

If it flowers in the spring, on old or second-year wood, pruning is optional, but should be done right after blooming is finished.

For large-flowered, early-summer-blooming hybrids, stems should be pruned down to the first or second bud in spring. For later summer and fall flowering clematis, which bloom on new wood grown in the same year, cut back hard to 1 or 2 feet to encourage branching and vigorous bloom.

During the first two years of growth, plants in all three groups should be pruned back to about 1 foot tall. This will stimulate a sturdy, multi-stemmed structure that will in turn produce a gratifying riot of clematis in following years.

Growing tips

* Buy and plant clematis as early in the spring (or fall) as possible, so the roots establish themselves before the blazing summer.

* Purchase container-grown plants only. Keep the soil intact around the root ball and disturb as little as possible when planting. Look for well-grown, 2-year-old plants, if possible.

* Prepare the soil deeply and allow at least a foot-square hole for each plant -- 2 feet is best. Add sand and lots of compost to heavy soil to ensure good drainage.

* Dig in lots of compost or fertilize monthly with an all-purpose 12-12-12 plant food.

* Clematis grow best in rich, humus-y soil with a cool root run. Protect the roots against the sun by planting on the north side of a shrub. Mulch in summer over moist ground or use a stone slab at the plant's base.

* Keep well watered.

* Place your plant 1 to 1 1/2 inches deeper than it was in the pot, so that if stems get damaged above ground, it can regrow from below.

* Leave the original support stake in place for at least the first year.

Sources for clematis

* Chalk Hill Nursery Box 1847 Healdsburg, Calif. 95448 703-433-8416

* Completely Clematis 217 Argilla Road Ipswich, Mass. 01938 978-356-3197

* Garland's Garden Center 1109 Ingleside Ave. Catonsville, Md. 21207 410-747-5151

* Park Seed 1 Parkton Ave. Greenwood, S.C. 29647-0001 800-845-3369

* Wayside Gardens 1 Garden Lane Hodges, S.C. 29695-0001 800-845-1124

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