fear not! how to prune clematis, with dan long

clematis polish spirit in chamaecyparisONE OF MY FAVORITE lines ever in a garden book: vintage Christopher Lloyd, the late daring plantsman of Great Dixter in England, in his Clematis manual. “An unpruned Clematis looks like a disemboweled mattress—a painful sight,” he wrote. Indeed. Yet so many of us go into denial and paralysis mode when approaching our beloved vines during spring cleanup. “Now what was I supposed to do with this one?” we say, scratching our heads while not-so-accidentally turning away to some other task, and leaving the botanical sprung mattress innards just hanging there. Boing! I asked Dan Long of Brushwood Nursery, a.k.a. gardenvines.com, to help me (us!) get past our “pruning fears and misconceptions,” as he calls them. The story, plus pruning diagrams and a podcast full of more vine-growing tips.

vine growing, in a podcast

GROWING VINES, especially Clematis, was the subject of the latest edition of my weekly public-radio program, with Dan Long as guest. Rather than duplicate the pruning help in this story, we talked about where to site vines and how to support them; training vines up and over shrubs; and how even amateurs can create new Clematis hybrids. Listen anywhere, anytime: Locally, in my Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) region, “A Way to Garden” airs on Robin Hood Radio’s three stations on Monday about 8:30 AM Eastern, with a rerun Saturdays. It is available free on iTunes, the Stitcher app, or streaming from RobinHoodRadio.com or via its RSS feed. The March 11, 2013 show can be streamed here now. Robin Hood is the smallest NPR station in the nation; our garden show marks the start of its fourth year this month, and is syndicated via PRX.

the clematis-pruning q&a with dan long

Q. On the Brushwood website, and in other Clematis references, pruning instructions always refer back to three types, or groups. Can you explain?

A.  My first answer to anyone about Clematis pruning is: Don’t worry! It’s very hard to kill one by pruning it or neglecting it. That said, they will all benefit from regular care, and pruning should be a part of it.

The climbing varieties and species fall into three general categories. They should be listed on the tag or in the description as 1, 2 or 3 (sometimes A, B or C).

  • Type 1 bloom the earliest in spring and set their flower buds on old wood only. Examples are the alpina, montana and armandii species.
  • Type 2 can bloom on old and new wood and generally start flowering in late spring. Almost all of the traditional large-flowered hybrids like ‘Henryi’ and ‘Nelly Moser’ are in this group.
  • Type 3 bloom only on new wood. They start flowering in summer or even later. ‘Polish Spirit’ [top photo], tangutica [below] and ‘Duchess of Albany’ are examples.

clematis tanguticaQ. What’s Dan Long’s prescription for Clematis pruning simplified? What must I do, even if I’m not an expert; the absolute basics?

A. Don’t worry, really! As you say, too many people approach them with trepidation. If you don’t know the names of your Clematis so you can’t look them up, all you have to do is watch them. When do they bloom? They’ll tell you which group they’re in!

  • Type 1 only need to have stray or damaged stems cleaned out. It can be done any time but it’s suggested that it be done after flowering so you won’t lose some blooms. Occasional thinning, every few years, will help them perform well, too.
  • Type 2 have more diversity in their genetics but the easy answer is to prune them lightly in late winter or early spring when you see buds begin to swell. Cut just above fat buds. This can be done higher or lower on the vine.
  • Type 3 are easy! Not only are they hearty and generous but pruning them is simple, too. They can be cut nearly to the ground just before growth begins in spring. Some will have buds up on the stems but many will sprout right from the crown. [Note: I created an illustration from Dan's how-to; cut at the dotted red lines.--Margaret]

Q. I’ve let some of my vines scramble up and over shrubs, and even into a tree. Is the pruning for such use different (and by the way, are there some groups of Clematis I should never use this way)?

A. Clematis evolved to use shrubs and trees for support. Growing them in this natural way is beautiful and easy. Most have very light frames and won’t harm the host one bit. Since they hold on with just their petioles, they’re easy to pull down when pruning.

Think about the mature size of the Clematis and the strength of the host’s branches. You wouldn’t want to team a Hydrangea with a Clematis montana. it’s better to put small viticella hybrid on it like ‘Venosa Violacea’ [below].


Q. Are there advanced pruning techniques and ideas we need to know about, assuming we master the basics? Any master-class tips you dare to share?

A. There are literally thousands of hybrids in the world and their genetics are often complex. This can translate into opportunity! Consider where and when you want those gorgeous flowers. A perfect example is to prune a Type 2 Clematis as a Type 3. Do this to delay its heavy bloom until later in the season. Some Type 3’s can be pruned high instead of low.

It can depend on their parentage and your climate. It’s very useful for getting them up higher into their supports. Pruning can also be staggered along the length of the stems for flowers all along the vine.

Try growing several Clematis together, too. The color combinations and bloom times are myriad! The easy way to do this is to plant two of the same pruning type together so you don’t have to worry about which one gets pruned where and when. However, you can often mix them. One way is to grow a Type 3 up the legs of a mature Type 1 to fill in and provide another season of bloom in the same space.

March 11, 2013


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