fear not! how to prune clematis, with dan long

ONE 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 to help me (us!) get past our “pruning fears and misconceptions,” as he calls them.

The how-to pruning story is below in Q&A format, plus pruning diagrams … and a podcast full of more vine-growing tips beyond the subject of pruning.

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.

more on vine growing, in a podcast

GROWING VINES, especially Clematis, was the subject of the March 11, 2013 edition of my weekly public-radio program, with Dan Long as guest. Rather than duplicate the pruning help in the Q&A story above, 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 using the player below.


prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the March 11, 2013 show right here. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

  1. Bob says:

    Loved today’s radio show! Every single year tell myself I need to add more clematis to the garden, truthfully it’s usually as you remind us to think ‘up’ and add more clematis to our gardens. As I was reading this post, I kept flipping back and forth to the Brushwood site to check out plant profiles and bounced around to the roses and the passifloras and the lonicera and . . . Beautiful site, beautiful plants, and the bonus offer at the end of your post was icing on the cake! So yes, maybe this is the year to make a big move and plant ‘up’! Great info! Thanks for sharing!

  2. ann says:

    Clematis seem difficult to type as long since forgot variety name and have planted a few to take place of one who have given up and can’t identify the remaining so never know what to prune until new growth appears. thanks so much for this information.

  3. Terryk says:

    Oh how I wish Dan would make that beautfil tangutica available again. I keep searching his sight in hopes that it will be available. I came to one of your late summer garden events and confirmed my love of it after seeing it featured on your blog.

  4. Liz S says:

    I enjoyed the pod cast on Clematis and the information on A Way to Garden. My question is about clematis wilt. My flowers always start off beautiful and later I try to prune out the wilted vines before it spreads. Do you have any advice for me on how to prevent wilt? Thanks

  5. Thanks so much for this Clematis tutorial Margaret! By studying the pruning illustrations and looking at the Brushwood site, I now not only know the names of my two Clematis plants, both sorely in need of pruning, but how and when to prune. Thank you again!

    1. margaret says:

      You are welcome, Nan. I went out y’day and had a good stare at mine, too. Most I know — but there are a couple I just couldn’t ever quite remember and guessed when to prune and how. No longer!

  6. Susan says:

    Thank you for the info about pruning my clematis! Mine are a big old mess and I think both the clematis and I will both feel better after a good pruning!

    1. margaret says:

      You’re welcome, Susan, and nice to see you. And yes, here too — we are both looking a little worse for winter wear!

  7. Vicki Brown says:

    I live in Nova Scota…cold but yes warm summers sometimes hot…wet springs. I’ve had a Clamatis for at least 20 years and it only ever had 1 bloom!! Beautiful leaves and stands tall, but hasn’t bloomed since that one years ago! Any suggestions other then putting it to its’ death?

  8. Jeff says:

    Thanks for this post. This is so clear and helpful. I’ve had autumn clematis for years and am usually late to get these pruned before the new growth takes over the dead growth. Last year, I planted a jackmanii clematis. I haven’t had much luck with the summer varieties but have hope for this one. Will go out and prune this weekend.

    -Jeff, hamptonsgarden.com

    1. margaret says:

      Nice to see you, Jeff, and glad that Dan’s advice is helpful; I know I have learned a lot from him over the years. See you again soon, I hope.

  9. myrna says:

    I cut my clematis down at the end of Fall every year. It grows beautifully and flowers twice in late summer and again in mid Fall. Is this ok?

  10. bookboxer says:

    Thanks for this info, Margaret. We will be moving soon and need to start a garden from scratch … sounds like clematis should be in the mix!

  11. Anne Allbeury-Hock says:

    Hi Margaret…..Re clematis….Is the autumn white clem in the #3 group? Presently, it is climbing up a tree and drain pipe with lots of dead material near the bottom with green….all year…near the top and blowing around in the wind! Is it time to prune
    out the dead material? My other clems do really well with little or no pruning. I white one which is really huge pulled down a trellis! Best from Anne in Maryland.

  12. Lynda says:

    I have learned that Clematis are very forgiving. Mine was languishing out by the mailbox, and it simply would not perform. One day my husband mowed mine down to the ground (!!!) and now it is growing like a weed! BTW, I do not recommend pruning by lawnmower. ‘-)

  13. mikeinportc says:

    Terryk, C. tangutica grows easily from seed. If there any where you are, just collect the seed.That’s where I first encountered it. Someone gave me seeds, and one of the last blooms of the season, to confirm that I actually wanted it. Clematis seed need to be sown right away, although C.tangutica is a little more forgiving. Even the ones I stored in the freezer, over winter, came up reasonably well.

    Ann, if you don’t want to just prune it and wait, as mentioned above, if you let the clematis go for a season, you’ll be able to tell what type it is. If it’s a big billow of blooms on top, and around the outside, next year, with little to nothing elsewhere, it’s a Type 3 . You’ve probably seen that. . Often, it’s the big purple “light bulb” of C. ‘Jackmanii’. ;) If the first flush of blooms come off the old wood , throughout the plant, then it’s Type 2.

    Vicki , some questions :
    Is it getting enough light? Not enough sun, and the plant grows, but gets few to no blossoms.
    What is it? Is it cold hardy enough? Some, such as C. florida ‘Sieboldii’ might not work there. I don’t know of any, but one that requires more heat?( Margaret?
    Pruning? If it’s a Type1, or Type 2, heavily pruned in fall, &/or early spring, then again later, it might not get any blooms. I have seen that – the Mad Pruner ( usually the spouse of the person in question ;) who frequently trims it to “keep it neat”, just before the flower buds would have appeared.

    How about the site? Open, exposed, windy, dry, all by itself? Clematis do best with their roots shaded by other plants. I’d expect that even a struggling clematis in that situation ,would throw out a few blossoms, but if it’s extreme enough, maybe not.

  14. Kathy Sturr of the Violet Fern says:

    This post couldn’t have come at a better time for me as I have been contemplating a little clematis pruning. That’s it! I am going to summon the courage to prune my Comtesse de Bouchaud clematis this year. I should have last year. One warm day, hopefully soon.

  15. Lorie says:

    Now that’s what someone should have done for all of us years ago!!! How short, sweet and with diagrams for the right-brained amoug us. Thanks much.

  16. There has been lots on Clematis sites this year and all still confusing. Today I prunned one and just hoped it was a good prune! Then tonight your post on Clematis was simply outstanding and most informative! I feel much more confident and comfortable about future prunnings! Thank You! Thank You!

  17. mindy says:

    Years ago, in my conversation with Donahue’s, an enormous clem wholesaler, I was told that cutting them all down to near the ground in late winter/e.spring – was a fine practice, and an excellent rejuvinating move. Looks like #1 group should not be included in that dictum, but how do you feel about doing it to #2 and 3s?

  18. Karen says:

    Thanks for this great article. I have learned a lot and will go out very soon and do my pruning!! Can’t wait until they are all blooming again. I think the problem is that we don’t want to do it wrong, and so we wait and they start to bud and we just leave them.
    Most of the time it works out ok, but learning from the pro, is the best direction.
    Thank you. Now if it would just stop with the snow flakes!

  19. Laura says:

    I’m afraid that I never think to prune until it’s too late. I think about it when they are flowering, but then forget later which ones flowered when. I also put different types on the same trellis. So I just follow the ‘cut the dead out’ rule.

  20. Terryk says:

    I had been on vacation and missed your comments about new crop of tangutica. I will look up the one you suggested also. Happy Spring and Happy Easter too.

  21. Louisec says:

    When I first started growing clems, I could not remember the pruning practices for the different groups, so I came up with a little poem to help me:
    1, for the pruners, means no, nada, none
    2, for the pruners, means only cut some
    3, for the pruners, means lots to be done

    Thanks for the informative conversation with Dan. I have ordered from his site many times and can attest to the great quality and shipping of his plants at a reasonable price.

    1. margaret says:

      Love your poem, Louisec. Sweet. Just had at it with my clematis here…mostly Type 3’s so the piles of debris were vast!

  22. Joetta Fort says:

    I don’t know the name of my clematis, and I’ve never pruned it. However, my 3 year old grandson ‘pruned’ the dry, brittle stems this winter with a baseball bat. So, I’m about to find out if that kind of pruning is beneficial, or not.

    1. margaret says:

      Well, Joetta, that’s one way to handle pruning. (Ouch!) Frankly, I have often not been able to recall which was which and just cut them all way down, and it works. Later blooms, of course, but no fatalities.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.