I'm not sure if it's the floating cloud of star-shaped blooms, the sense of height they bring to the garden, childhood nostalgia or just a really good excuse to buy cool trellises, but I love clematis. Keeping up with their curlicue vining habits is among my favorite garden chores.


They open in waves, the first one arriving last week in a riot of pink and white next to the garage to give me something to smile about on the way to work. This week another variety opened its first bloom, the precursor of masses to come throughout the summer.


My love affair with clematis started small, with a Henryi now entering its 15th year -- the first perennial I bought as a new homeowner. Its white blossoms stand out against the porch at night and intertwine wantonly with the pink shrub rose that shades its roots. When a downed tree took out our back fence, it gave us the chance to construct one with three trellises built in: three more excuses for clematis plants.

I've had my share of successes and failures with clematis. Each spring I reconnoiter to see what's made it through the winter. Since they're often among the last plants to venture out, I've often been fooled into thinking I needed to buy a replacement, only to have the plant finally emerge when its understudy was purchased. That, in part, explains why my yard now has far more than those first four (well, that and my thing for trellises). This spring's tally showed 11 of 13 clematis plants made it through the winter.

It took me a few years to learn the real lesson of the adage about clematis liking "their heads in the sun and their feet in the shade." It's not so much that they want something planted near their roots, it's that their relatively shallow roots dry out quickly in full sun, and shade on the roots helps preserve moisture. Once I figured out their watering needs, I had a better survival rate regardless of what was paired in front of them. (They also don't like being in a puddle, so well-drained soil is a plus.)


But there are other perils: Rabbits have been known to chew on the woody stems of the well-established plants, so short railings now block access. Slugs, against which I yearly wage war, also like to munch on the tender stems of the clematis varieties that don't grow on old growth. A few years ago, clematis wilt set in on a few plants; it's generally not fatal, just ugly, but it can mean the plant has to rebound from the roots.


I confess I don't religiously follow the pruning instructions, partly because I never remember to note which kind grows on old growth. So long as I get masses of blooms and they don't get wilt, I don't argue with success. Clematis growers: What's your recipe for success? Do you prune regularly or let them run wild?

As for me, I've still got one empty trellis. I'm thinking it's time to break down and get the standard purple Jackmanii of my childhood. Can generations of grandmothers be wrong?