Clematis is sure to become a favorite of any gardener who successfully grows it. The long vines and large, colorful flowers can be show-stopping and have a romantic air about them.
Unlike some other vines (morning glory, for example), clematis is well-behaved and not invasive. It won’t take over your garden but is still vigorous enough to cover arbors, trellises, and any unsightly walls or fences you want to hide.
Here’s more about the clematis vine, how to grow it in your garden, and how to prune and take care of it.
What Is a Clematis Vine?
Clematis (Clematis spp.) is a flowering vine that produces very large and beautifully colored flowers. It belongs to the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae) along with other garden flowers like ranunculus.
As a perennial, clematis can be either herbaceous or evergreen, depending on the variety. It can grow anywhere from 8 feet in one season to a mature length of 20-30 feet.
Most clematis can be grown in USDA hardiness zones 4-9. However, you can also find cultivars that can be successfully grown in the cold of zone 3 or the heat of zone 10.
The flowers of clematis are the most spectacular part. They range in size from 3-8 inches across and can be single, double, star-shaped, bell-like, tulip-shaped, or tubular. Colors fall in a range of pinks, purples, blues, reds, and white. Some varieties have fragrant blooms.
Clematis is a lovely, romantic vining plant that adds height and color to any garden. It can be a bit tricky to get started, but once your plants are happy, they’ll take off.
Though most gardeners prize clematis for its vining habit, there are varieties that have a shrub form and several that can be used as a groundcover.
As a bonus, many varieties of clematis attract butterflies and other pollinators.
Clematis can be a somewhat tricky plant to get started. Many gardeners complain of ending up with a few scraggly vines and sparse flowering. Pruning also seems complicated at first glance because different types of clematis need to be pruned in different ways.
However, by planting your clematis in the right spot and following a few simple steps, you’ll be able to grow healthy vines that are full of blooms.
It’s also easy to figure out what type of clematis you have by when it blooms. Once you know this, pruning is actually a relatively simple matter.
In fact, once your plants are established, they are very low maintenance. Clematis also makes an excellent plant for small gardens because it mainly uses vertical space rather than ground space.
Toxicity: Clematis is known to be moderately toxic to pets. It can cause symptoms like vomiting and diarrhea but isn’t fatal. The good news is that clematis has a very bitter taste, which usually keeps pets from eating a large amount.
Many varieties of clematis will attract butterflies, pollinators, and other beneficial insects. They aren’t usually bothered by large pests like deer due to their bitter taste.
Types and Cultivars of Clematis
Main Types of Clematis Vine
There are three main types of clematis, known as groups, which are categorized mainly by bloom time. It’s important to know what type you have because this will determine how you prune it later on.
You also may wish to get a mix of the three types so that you have an almost non-stop display of blooms throughout the season.
- Group 1– This is the earliest blooming group with flowers appearing in late winter or early to mid spring (usually March to June). Blooms form on old wood and only light pruning is required. The leaves can be either evergreen or deciduous.
- Group 2– This group has an in-between bloom time and tends to have cultivars with the largest flowers. Blooming happens in late spring and early summer (usually April to June), and plants may bloom again in late summer or early fall. Blooms form on both old and new wood and leaves are deciduous.
- Group 3– This is the latest blooming group with flowers appearing in mid to late summer and continuing until frost. The blooms form on new wood, and a hard pruning is needed at the end of the season. Leaves are deciduous.
There are great cultivars out there from all three groups. Some are large and can quickly fill in a space or cover a wall, while others are smaller and suitable for a container garden.
There are many different cultivars of clematis, which is one of the reasons it’s such a versatile perennial. It can be grown as a tall vine, a container plant, a shrub, and even a groundcover.
Here are some of the top choices:
- ‘Nelly Moser’– Blooms with large, 6-8 inch flowers that are striped pink and white. Grows 6-10 feet tall in part shade to full sun. (Group 2)
- ‘Jackmanii’– Has beautiful, 3-4 inch, deep purple flowers. Vines grow 8-12 feet tall in part shade to full sun. (Group 3)
- ‘Henryi’– Blooms with large (6-8 inch) white flowers that have pale purple edges. Vines grow 10-12 feet tall, and plants may rebloom. (Group 2)
- ‘Apple Blossom’– Blooms resemble apple blossoms, are a pretty pale pink to white, and have a vanilla-like fragrance. Vines are tall, growing up to 20-25 feet long. Hardy only to zones 7-9. (Group 1)
- ‘Sweet Summer Love’– Fragrant flowers are an eye-catching mix of purple and cranberry-red. Vines grow 10-15 feet tall in part sun to full sun. (Group 3)
- ‘Niobe’– Flowers are large (6 inches across) and a lovely shade of ruby-red. Vines grow 8-10 feet tall in part shade to full sun. (Group 2)
- ‘Patricia Ann Fretwell’– This is a unique cultivar with double pink blooms that are striped with a darker pink. Vines grow 8-10 feet tall in part sun to full sun. (Group 2)
- ‘Constance’– Beautiful deep pink blooms are abundant and bell-shaped. Vines grow 6-8 feet tall. (Group 1)
- ‘Cezanne’– Lovely large blue flowers and good fragrance. Grows only 3-4 feet long in part shade to full sun. Good for containers. (Group 2)
- ‘Diamond Ball’– This cultivar has very unique icy blue flowers that are spherical and resemble dahlias. Vines grow up to 6 feet tall in part shade to full sun. (Group 2)
- Clematis virginiana– Native variety from eastern North America. Blooms profusely with small, white, fragrant flowers. Very showy but can get aggressive. Grows 12-20 feet tall and very tolerant of shade. (Group 3)
If you want a showy plant in your garden, look no further than clematis. Blooms are often double and can be striped, ruffled, or both. Flowers are usually large and can get up to 8 inches across.
Tips for Selecting a Healthy Clematis
The easiest way to grow a clematis vine is to buy a plant from your local nursery or an online retailer. It can be grown from seed, but the seeds take up to 3 years to germinate, and you may not get flowers for 3-4 years or longer.
Buy your plant early in the spring. The quickest way to get your plants to flower is to buy clematis that are at least two years old. (Ask the nursery owner if you can’t tell on your own.)
Although it’s tempting to buy plants that already have a few flowers on them, it’s actually better to buy plants with lots of healthy foliage and no flowers. This helps your plants to focus on putting down roots (instead of supporting flowers) when you put them in the ground.
Look for clematis with vigorous growth and healthy-looking vines. You’ll be able to see what the flower color will be by looking at the picture on the label. Also, check on the mature size of the plant to make sure it will fit into the space where you want to put it.
How to Plant Your Clematis Vine
Once you’ve picked out your clematis, it’s time to get it in your garden. The biggest tip for success growing your plants is to put them in the right location. Clematis plants don’t like being moved, so plan carefully before planting.
Clematis is not a plant that likes to be moved from place to place, so try to get your planting location right on the first try. Planting it in the right spot is probably the single most important task for growing healthy plants.
When to Plant
The ideal planting time for clematis is in early spring after the danger of frost has passed. This allows them to get established before the hotter weather of summer comes.
Clematis can also be planted in the fall, although this is not always a good idea if you have severe winters. If your winters are milder, fall planting can be a good option.
Keep in mind that your plants probably won’t flower the first year. By getting them off to a good start in early spring, you’ll give them the best chance of flowering the following year.
Where to Plant + Ideal Growing Conditions
The main reason many gardeners struggle with clematis is that they don’t plant it in the right spot.
Most cultivars will bloom best if planted in full sun, although they will tolerate partial shade. A few varieties can take even more shade, but you’ll need to check on the light conditions for your specific cultivar.
The catch is that while the vines love sun on their leaves, they prefer their roots to be shaded, which can be a tricky condition to get right.
You have a few options for accomplishing this task. You can plant them in between low growing shrubs or other perennials that will give them some shade at the base without overshadowing them completely.
A clematis vine needs cool roots, but that doesn’t mean you want soggy soil. Wet is not the same thing as cool, and too much water will cause the vines to rot.
Or you can add a layer of mulch after planting to help the roots stay cool (more on this in the ‘care’ section).
Clematis will do best with well-drained and fairly fertile soil. Amend with lots of organic matter- like compost– before planting. They don’t like very acidic soil, so you may need to add lime if your soil is well on the acid side.
Finally, think about the mature size of your clematis before you plant. Make sure you give it plenty of room to bush out a bit and grow upwards.
A clematis vine gets planted a little bit differently than other plants.
To start with, be very gentle with your plants. They have vines, roots, and crowns that are easily broken. Damaging the roots can especially make it hard for your plants to grow successfully.
Water your plants thoroughly an hour or two before you put them in the ground. If you’re in a hurry, put the whole pot in a large bucket of water and let it soak for about 15-20 minutes.
Next, dig a hole that is about twice as deep and wide as the root ball of your plant. Add a good amount of compost to the hole and a phosphate-heavy fertilizer if you wish.
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While you would normally plant so that the top of the root ball is level with the soil, clematis needs to be planted a few inches deeper. You want the crown to be 3-5 inches below the surface, so adjust the soil in your hole until it works out this way.
You can then gently tip your plant out of its pot and place it in the hole. Fill all around it with soil and firm it in with your hands. It may feel strange to be burying a few of the bottom leaves beneath soil, but that’s exactly what you should do.
Water your plants deeply and you’re all set!
After planting your new clematis, make sure you keep them well watered as they get established. A good rule of thumb is to water it deeply once a week during the first growing season. In extremely hot, dry weather, you may need to water it more often.
To help keep the soil cool and moist, you can apply a good layer of mulch that’s several inches thick. Make sure you keep the mulch 4-5 inches away from the crown of your plants (where the vines emerge) to prevent them from rotting due to too much moisture.
Clematis can be heavy feeders and will do best with a top dressing of compost at the beginning of each season and a few applications of fertilizer throughout the season.
Fertilizing is optional, but it will help your plants produce more abundant blooms. Do your main fertilizing before plants bloom, and stop adding fertilizer while they are flowering.
Use a balanced 10-10-10 fertilizer or a high phosphorus fertilizer (5-10-5). Apply it as a granular fertilizer at the beginning of the season or as a liquid plant feed about once a month until plants bloom.
Wherever you choose to plant your clematis vine, it will need some kind of support to climb up. Vines climb by wrapping their leaf stems around something nearby. This means you need to give them something ½ inch in diameter or less to grab hold of.
You can use a decorative trellis with thin pieces or let it grow up and over something like a wire fence.
You can also thread string or garden twine through larger support systems like arbors, walls, a fence, a pergola, or even a balcony. This gives the vines something small to grab onto, and it won’t be noticeable once the foliage bushes out.
Another option is to use invisible netting. It’s made of thin, whitish plastic that will practically disappear beneath the vines. You can use it to help your vines up a trellis or any other kind of support.
If you want a different effect, plant your clematis where they can grow up tall shrubs or small trees. The vines have delicate tendrils that won’t hurt the other plants at all.
Any type of clematis vine will need a support system to climb up. You can choose something inorganic, like a trellis or fencing, or make use of surrounding plants, like shrubs and small trees.
Some gardeners dread pruning, but it’s a needed maintenance task for clematis. Most of the time, you can do your work with hand pruners. Since pruning depends on which group your plants belong to, here’s a guide to each:
- Group 1 Pruning– Group 1 clematis blooms on old wood. Pruning is easy. Wait until your plants have finished flowering and give them a light prune to remove dead or damaged vines and to gently shape plants. You can tell a woody stem is dead if it doesn’t have any foliage or spent flowers on it.
- Group 2 Pruning– Group 2 is the most complicated to prune because it flowers on both old and new wood. You’ll want to do a light pruning in early spring to remove dead, damaged, or weak stems. Always cut back to just above a healthy set of buds.After the vines flower in the summer, you can trim them back to a healthy set of buds below the spent flowers. This encourages new growth and a second bloom time later on. You can also reshape or cut back your plants at this time, but don’t get rid of too much, or you won’t have flowers next year.
- Group 3 Pruning– Group 3 blooms on new wood and is very easy to prune. You can simply cut them all the way back to 1-2 feet above the soil in late winter or very early spring. They will regrow vigorously the next year and bloom on the new vines.
Pests and Problems
Clematis does not often suffer from pests or diseases, although there are a few that can potentially cause some damage.
Because it’s so bitter, deer and rabbits aren’t usually fond of snacking on clematis. However, if there’s nothing else to eat, deer may give it a try, so it’s best to protect your new plants in early spring.
Despite its delicate appearance, clematis is not usually bothered by pests or diseases. It can be affected by some problems, but they are usually easy to correct.
Slugs, snails, and aphids are the most likely culprits to eat through the leaves. Deter slugs and snails with crushed egg shells or bait traps. Aphids and other small leaf-feeding insects can be controlled with a natural insecticidal soap.
Clematis may be susceptible to certain fungal diseases if conditions are damp and humid. Space plants properly and make sure they have good drainage to prevent this.
There is a bacterial disease called clematis wilt that can affect your plants. Sanitizing your equipment (like pruners) before using them is important as is buying from a quality nursery. If your plants get infected, cut off affected vines immediately back to a healthy section. Destroy the infected material (don’t compost).
Adding Clematis to Your Garden
Clematis is a beautiful plant that works well in most gardens. If you do a combination of cultivars from each of the three groups, you’ll have blooms from early spring all the way to the first frost.
You can also use clematis as a cut flower, and it looks especially stunning when combined with hydrangea, rose, and peony flowers.
Now that you know how to plant and care for your clematis vine, you’ll be able to enjoy it for years to come! It’s a long-lived perennial and will keep getting better with age.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.