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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 longtime gardening friend and occasional A Way to Garden sponsor, to help me (us!) get past our “pruning fears and misconceptions,” as he calls them.

The story is below, 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]

Clematis-pruning-pinterest
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].

venosa-violacea-detail

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. Tami ohama says:

    Hi

    I want to plant clematis agaisnt my house. I am going to use a trellis for them climb on but somebody told me that the trellis has to be about inch and a half away from the house not flat against the house. Is this true?

    Thank you in advance

    1. margaret says:

      For the sake of your house paint/siding, and the sake of good air circulation in general, and so the plant has room to leaf out and so on, yes, not flat on the house.

  2. Kym says:

    I have a very full clematis that grows up a trellis on the side of my house. I have never trimmed it. Its huge and beautiful never had any problems. This winter was really bad and the trellis fell down on top of the plant and some of the larger brown stalks have broke at the ground and I don’t see much budding on the trellis part. what do I do? I do have a few new sprouts coming up. should I put it back up. clean out all the broken stuff and hope for the best? or cut it all down and start fresh? I am so sad about this! I can send you picture if you would like? Thank You for your time and help!! Much appreciated Kym

    1. margaret says:

      I always let the plant tell me where the life is – whether it will sprout at the base only, or whether some of the older wood can be saved, too. Sounds like this one has life from the base, so maybe best to cut it back and let it regrow rather than have a tangled mess. I have done that with many clematis over the years when they are just too much of a tangle, and no losses so far!

  3. Beth Brodie says:

    My clematis was here when I arrived at my new house and looks as though it has never been pruned. It rambles up on a trellis and blooms averagely well in late spring, but the bottom 3 ft is a mess of unsightly wood. Because the lower half is in a somewhat shady spot, I have been reticent to trim it down to the ground for fear the new shoots might not get enough sunlight. Suggestions?

    1. margaret says:

      I would hack it to near the ground in late winter/earliest spring, and let it regrow from the base. It will send up lots of new green shoots, I bet. I have never cut one to the ground once it’s already leafed out, so not sure if that’s a good idea right this minute.

  4. Geralyn says:

    I am moving and want to take my established clematis with me. I have managed to dig it up with the trellis I used – but it is a tangled mess. Should I just put the root ball in it’s new home
    and leave the mess until fall to trim back – or is it ok to trim it back sooner? Will it flower a second time?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Geralyn. I don’t know which one it is, so whether it will flower more later, can’t say. Probably not. I usually trim things back when I move them this late in the spring (almost summer!) so they settle in better. Probably good to get rid of at least some of the topgrowth now.

  5. Michele says:

    Margaret,

    I have a 3 yr old Jamanii Clematis that has never been pruned cuz I wasn’t to sure how to go about it. After reading advise here and other sites i now feel I know what to do. My question is when pruning, does it have to be late winter/ early spring or can I do this in the fall?

    1. margaret says:

      I don’t know what zone you are in (I’m 5B, in the Northeast) but I don’t like to cut back woody plants in late summer or fall, and potentially prompt them to push new (tender) growth just as winter dormancy approaches. I’d wait, unless some stems are already brittle and dead and you want to thin those out.

  6. Diane Taylor says:

    I have a Nellie Moser clematis that was doing well. It’s over 5 years old. But, I think its dying because I killed some weeds around it with vinegar and salt. It has turned almost all brown and looks awful! I sprinkled lime around it. Will that help? Should I prune all the dead looking branches now? (August 1, 2015)

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Diane. If it got splashed with the herbicide and got a dose of salt, it (and other things nearby) may be goners. But sometimes just the current foliage dies off (contact herbicide=vinegar) so cut it back and water well, regularly, and wait and see. You might want to read this important article before using any more home remedies.

  7. Doug says:

    I planted two Hagley Hybrids last spring and they are the pruning type 3. I want to know if it necessary to prune them each year? I have planted them around a garden seat with lattice on each side. It is my hopes that they will get full and vine up and over the top of the garden bench but, will pruning make them fuller?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Doug. I thought the Hagley Hybrid clematis is a compact variety that only reaches about 6 feet high, maybe 8 max? So I’m not sure if it will cover your entire structure as you mention, no matter how you prune. I think you’ll have a tangly mess if you don’t cut it back to like 8 inches in earliest spring/late winter, so I’d do that and it will quickly re-grow.

  8. Barbara Turpin says:

    i tidied my montana clematis in november its really thick and is on a fence it flowers two to three time s a year and is beautiful and my partner always tidies all the overhanging trailers now in december the leaves have gone all yellow have i killed it as it s the first time that Ive done it as im on my own now I did it as he did I watched several times

  9. ellen joy says:

    I have always felt uneasy about pruning, but do it anyway—really not knowing what I’m doing! And so far, no terrible disasters. A few days ago I cut all of my roses back to about a foot off the ground and I’m waiting to see how they will react. They had been cut back here and there over the years and were looking pretty unkempt. The worst that can happen is nothing: no blooms, no growth, no roses. If that happens I will replace them and really learn the correct way to prune them. I am recently semi-retired and have more time to stop and smell the roses and learn how to prune them:)

    1. Claudia B. says:

      I don’t know where you are, but now is a great time to clean out roses. We cut them back to just above a bud and clear out any dead canes. I’m sure they’ll do wonderfully.

  10. Claudia B. says:

    One of my clients has/had a gorgeous blue-flowering clematis that was stunning last July. At some point, one of the landscape crew members cut it back to the ground (!!!!) possibly after it flowered. I’ve not yet seen any new growth from the base, but it’s early season and we’re in Zone 5 near Lake Michigan.

    Do you think it has a chance, or should I just get a new one for her asap?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Claudia. Hard to say, but I bet you’ll know soon whether it’s full of life still or not. I’m in Zone 5, too, and only just now seeing the little buds on the lower stems of some of my Clematis start to swell, abut no signs of new shoots from beneath the soil quite yet. Keep an eye out for another week or two or three, I think.

  11. Audrey Dempsey says:

    Re Clematis. I had great success with Sweet Autumn Clematis at my old house. However, three of them have died and not come back here at the new house–3 different places. What could be wrong? Any suggestions? Should I writing to website or comment site?

  12. jc says:

    Hi, I have my clematis (1st year trying it), growing on a standalone obelisk form in my garden which is about 5 ft high. Is this too short for it to survive? Do I just keep it pruned back to restrain its growth since it will have no where else to roam?

    Thanks.

    1. margaret says:

      Do you know the variety? If it’s a small clematis that will be fine…if it’s a variety that gets beyond about 8 feet at maturity, I’d get a bigger support for next year. With vines part of the trick is matching the exact variety to the scale of the available support.

  13. Toni says:

    I have cut old dead growth of jackmanni, but in doing so, accidently cut off new long growth.
    What can I do with this new growth. It is now Sept. 7th! Waiting to hear! I think URGENTLY!
    Toni

    1. margaret says:

      Sorry, Toni, to miss your comment earlier. Just let the cutback plant that’s still in the ground re-grow at its own pace, and discard the trimmings (which I am sure you have already).

  14. Mia says:

    We planted a yellow clematis with the small lantern shaped blooms. It really took off and covered the trellis it was grown on and looked great this summer. The blooms are all the white fuzzies now and the leaves are turning yellow. My question is, when and if and how I should prune? It is not attractive as is but I hesitate to begin cutting it without knowing if what I cut will come back or if I will ruin the plant. Any advice is appreciated. Thanks.

    1. margaret says:

      I like to cut them back in late winter/early spring, but I confess I have hacked them in fall as well, though not quite as hard.

  15. George Merryman says:

    I have two types of Clematis. Can you tell me what pruning type(s) they are in? I don’t see my types listed on your webpage where you discuss pruning types. I have Jackmanii and Baltyk Clematis.

    Thanks for any help you can provide.

    1. Carla Jernigan says:

      We had flooding rain in Raleigh and my Jackmanii looks totally dead. We had a heat wave in March and April and it bloomed 6 buds and after the flood the one stem it has turned dark brown and the blooms fell off. It is a young vine I put in last fall so this was it’s first growing season. Do you think it will come back next Spring?

      1. margaret says:

        No real way to predict, Carla, but I always give the root system of a felled plant a chance to show me what it wants to do — die, or resurrect! So don’t do anything but water it again when the soil is dry, and watch.

  16. Debbie Grant says:

    Thank you! That is the most clear explanation of clematis types and proper pruning techniques I have ever read. Your articles are for both the experienced and beginners alike. You don’t dumb it down, you just clearly explain things well. I look forward avidly to every new missive.

  17. Cindy Mansolino says:

    My Clematis were glorious this spring and now I have those little pods that look like balls. Should those be trimmed off?

    1. margaret says:

      I like to leave the seedheads (well, seed will eventually form). They are sometimes showy in their own right in certain varieties, and birds may pick over them to eat the seed.

  18. Rona says:

    Hi Clematis Lovers!

    I am a professional gardener, and for what it’s worth I too struggle to understand the mysteries of clematis! One client owns a Sweet Autumn? and a Jackamanni? and they insist on cutting them down to two feet in the fall….I won’t do it, they do it anyway because both are against the house and they fear insects infiltrating the brick work. Well they both thrive, it’s amazing.
    Another client mostly killed all their clematis by following the example of these people, their friends. Anyway….
    I have another client who bulks at cutting her large blooming late spring clematis. They are younger plants and she is concerned. They are not performing very well but they are up in the trellis now and she is afraid to cut them into the shade of their roots. I will recommend pruning in early spring based on the info I have found here.
    We are in zone 5-6.
    Any help towards understanding is appreciated.

  19. My clematis has been fighting a fungus for a couple of years. I’ve been treating it and the soil with a fungicide and cut it to ground level and it seems to do okay. Is there any possibility that it will ever be rid of this fungus? Where does it come from?

  20. Sharon H. says:

    I have a Niobe clematis and a Jackman clematis, and I’m never quite sure how to prune them. I wait til there are buds, because before that, it all looks dead! I’ll cut off what I think is a dead branch, and then find a bud on it! Argh! The Niobe looks like a tangled mess! But it always blooms so beautifully! Love, love, love the deep, rich color of the Niobe!

  21. Paul K says:

    I have some Sweet Autumn Clematis that were planted early last year and did very well in the Fall. I want to be sure I prune them properly. The plants’ tags say “Cut back in early spring to just above the base of last year’s stems.” But I don’t quite understand what that means.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Paul. It grows rampantly and blooms late season on the growth first created this year — so you can prune as hard as you like. Usually people right around now look near the base for what appear to be some buds (swollen nubs on the lower shoots) and prune right above those. Basically you’ll probably be cutting the whole plant down to maybe a foot or so in that process, not more than 2 feet.

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