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. Anita says:

    Hi I have a very overgrown and out of control clematis left by the previous tenant. In the high winds we experienced during February in the UK the weight of the clematis has pulled the fence over. I have secured the fence but need to cut this clematis down so I can replace the fence post. It has just finished flowering and its in class 2. I watched it flower last year and its one that flowers early spring April – May then thats it. To get it back into control can I now cut it right back to nearly ground level its now nearly June or will it kill it ?

  2. joan mackenzie says:

    I have a Clematis I bought several years back — very tiny, small leaves — it grows up an obelisk but never blooms — not even a bud – ??? What to do?

  3. Lou Ellen says:

    I have two clematis that each fall I cut back and they comeback better each year. How can I send you pictures of these gorgeous plants??

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