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Gardening : Clematis Love to Climb, Do Well in Southland


It's one of those plants we can't grow here, or so some say. Others are discovering that clematis do just fine, thank you.


This showy vine, beloved back east and in the British Isles, may not cover a cottage, as they sometimes do in England, but perhaps that's just as well.

In Southern California, clematis are well-mannered vines, that produce more than their fair share of spectacular, usually flat-faced flowers, up to nine inches across, colored from pink and purple to a respectable blue.

Ann Gilboyne began growing them because "I didn't know any better. I grew them in Wisconsin, and after I moved, I grew them here," she said, not knowing that few gardeners did, at least as successfully as she now does.

So successfully, in fact, that she is growing them for the upcoming Baldwin Bonanza plant sale at the Los Angeles County Arboretum. This year the volunteers are putting it on, and get to pick the plants. Gilboyne chose her favorite, the clematis, and she will bring 100 plants to the sale.

Although they look small, she says they're "guaranteed to bloom this year." She's only growing kinds that have been successful for several years in her own garden.

She has grown the variety 'Nelly Moser' for 12 years in her Glendale garden, and her mother has grown it for almost as long in her coastal Laguna Niguel garden. It's not one of those eastern plants that grows inland where winters get chilly but not on the milder coast.

This particular variety is a favorite, with flowers about 8 inches across and each light pink petal having a darker stripe down the middle.

Not house gobblers, clematis are deciduous vines of a manageable size. The English author Christopher Lloyd writes of them as "an extra, the gilt on the gingerbread," in his recent book, "The Well-Chosen Garden."

"The fact to remember about them," he wrote, "is that they don't need a special place to themselves. And so, to find a place for a clematis requires no more effort than to find an established shrub on which a clematis is not growing. . . . You merely need to match the vigor of your shrub with the vigor of the clematis that is to run through and over it."

Which is exactly how, and where, to grow them in California--twining up something else.

In the Gilboyne garden, they climb bougainvilleas and climbing roses, honeysuckles and Costa Rican nightshade Solanum wendlandii . One scrambles up a copper beech, another grows on the mailbox.

You do not need to tack them to a wall, or train them on a trellis. Since they definitely have their off-season when dormant, growing clematis with something else also hides this shortcoming.

They grow unusually well with roses. Lloyd again: "A clematis with a rose is a particularly happy match because both plants are greedy and enjoy the good things in life."

Most clematis get to about six feet tall, though Gilboyne has a few that clamber up to 12 feet, one right to the top of the chimney.

In all, Gilboyne grows some 25 different kinds, but especially likes the bluest of the clematis, one named 'General Sikorski,' and one she calls the "bloomiest," because it flowers from April into December in her garden. Most don't bloom this long, becoming brown by November and going completely dormant until March.

When clematis go dormant, the leaves don't fall off of their own, and must be cut off (pulling is liable to break the vine), or you might try blasting them off with a spray of water, which is what Gilboyne does.

The Baldwin Bonanza sale is nicely timed for planting because this is the best season to do so. They promise to save a third of the plants for the public day, May 1, 9 a.m.-4 p.m., so members don't buy them all the day before (you could always join and get in a day early). But, should you arrive too late, clematis are increasingly available at nurseries and can be ordered from eastern catalogues such as Wayside Gardens (Hodges, S.C. 29695-0001).

Gilboyne says the secret to growing clematis is to pamper the roots. "Plant them deep, protect them, and shade them," she says.

Few plants are as finicky this way, the root system and crown being very sensitive. When planting, carefully tap them out of the pot and plant a couple of inches deeper than they were in the container ("Like a tomato," says Gilboyne).

Don't try to untangle the roots, and handle them gently.

Gilboyne even suggests leaving them in the nursery container and cutting off the bottom with a serrated knife, planting pot and all so the lip of the container is flush with the soil surface. The pot helps protect the fragile crown from feet, hoes, digging animals and careless commercial gardeners.

She plants them in a rich, amended soil, the only kind she seems to have in her garden.

Protect and shade the roots with stones or broken concrete. The old admonition "keep their heads in the sun and their feet in the shade" is absolutely true. They need sun to flower, but the roots must be kept cool. Gilboyne puts a small boulder on the south side of most vines.

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