Episode 30 – How De-vine! Tips for Clematis and Composting

Ground Breaking Banter - Rick

On today’s show: vines, part deux! We put the spotlight on the much loved vine clematis. and here we go again with pronunciation…is it CLEM-uh-tis (British version) or cle-MAT-us (Midwesterners), or something else entirely?

One of the things that confuses people most about clematis is pruning. Not unlike the similarly confusing hydrangeas, it’s the whole “old wood new wood” conundrum to understand. Or is it? Most of the Proven Winners ColorChoice clematis – Diamond Ball, Happy Jack, Jolly Good, Pink Mink, Still Waters, Sweet Summer Love and Viva Polonia bloom on both old and new wood. This makes pruning easy – just cut down to 18-24″ above the ground in spring. But why prune clematis in the first place? We can answer that: if left unpruned, clematis vines become overloaded with decrepit stems that produce few flowers. More vigorous plants and varieties that are left unchecked bear most of the flowers high atop the plants and run the risk of tearing down their supporting structure or pulling themselves down under their own weight. Pruning clematis vines stimulates new growth, which increases the number of flowers, encourages flowers at a level where you can best enjoy them, and takes weight off the plant to keep it from toppling over. Pruning also helps to keep clematis vines healthy.
We have often been taught:

Group 1 vines flower in spring, on growth from the previous year. Prune these vines right after they finish blooming in spring.

Group 2 vines bloom in late spring or early summer, then again sporadically, on new shoots and old stems. Repeat bloomers The vines that bloom mostly on older stems have their heaviest flush of flowers in late spring, while those that bloom mostly on new shoots are more prolific in the latter part of summer.

Group 3 vines flower in late summer or in fall, on new growth produced earlier in the season. These are the easiest vines to prune. Just before the season’s growth begins, or as it is beginning, prune all stems back to strong buds within a foot or so of the ground. 

Rick added a Group 4 approach: the “do almost nothing” method can work with most clematis as long as you don’t mind an unmanageable vine. If you don’t know which “type” your clematis is, doing nothing is definitely the best approach.

Is it a myth that clematis are “lime lovers” – in other words, that they want alkaline/basic soil? Rick and Stacey agree don’t add the lime. Clematis are no different from the majority of the other cultivated plants in your garden in that they thrive in slightly acidic conditions. They prefer a pH level of 6.5, where the plants absorb the maximum nutrients from the soil. One of the world’s largest producers of clematis grows his plants in a medium with a pH level of 5.5, and they suffer no adverse effects.

Why: Proven Winners ColorChoice Shrubs are selected because they are easy to outgrow and outperform similar varieties already on the market. As such, when we had the opportunity to add clematis to the line, we knew they’d have to meet some very high standards to earn their spot. As with so many plants, finding great-looking varieties is as easy as falling off a log – finding great looking varieties that are also disease resistant, reliable, and easy to care for, though? That’s something else entirely. We had to search far and wide for clematis that would change the way people think about the genus, and give those who think they can’t grow clematis a renewed confidence and the will to try again. We found our mix of seven different clematis varieties in Poland and the Netherlands. I can only pick one for plants on trial, of course – we’ll get to the others in due time – and my pick for today is Pink Mink clematis.

I picked this one for two main reasons: one, it’s a bit different than what most people imagine when they think of clematis, and two, it’s exceptionally showy and easy to grow. Some clematis are on the smaller side and perfect for growing on a decorative trellis or obelisk, but Pink Mink is one of those clematis that wants to ramble. Left to reach its ultimate size, it will readily cover fences, pergolas, or whatever structure you train it on, transforming it into a wall of two-toned pink flowers for nearly the entire summer. The flowers are borne on long stems, and they are distinctively bell-shaped, so the look is truly stunning when it is in bloom. It has its main bloom in early summer, but flowers continue to appear through the entire season. This one is really perfect for covering large sections of fences, and will turn chain link fences into beautiful garden features during the summer.

Pink Mink is a small flowered clematis, which makes it more resistant to clematis wilt than large flowered varieties. That said, it’s crucially important that all clematis, even the resistant varieties, be planted in the right conditions to avoid clematis wilt and other issues weakening or killing them. That means well-drained soil, sun on the vines but shade on the roots, and good air circulation from all sides.

Clematis can be herbaceous or woody plants. Only woody clematis are found in Proven Winners ColorChoice Shrubs; Stand By Me is a herbaceous type which dies back to the ground each winter.

Who: Pink Mink clematis came to us from clematis breeder extraordinaire, Szczepan Marczynski, of Poland. Poland has a rich tradition of developing new clematis that came to the global forefront thanks to Brother Stefan Franczak. He was a Jesuit monk who became interested in clematis during a site renovation project at the church, and he soon began a huge collection of clematis varieties from around the world and started breeding them. When the iron curtain fell, trade of his plants to the rest of the world became much easier, and his first clematis, named in honor of Pope John Paul II, debuted at the 1982 Chelsea Flower Show in London. Brother Franczak, or Brother Stefan, as he is more commonly known, is behind the famous ‘Polish Spirit’ clematis, one of the world’s more popular varieties. Brother Stefan’s traditions are now being carried out by Dr. Szczepan Marczynski outside Warsaw, and we are pleased to bring his inventions to the US.

How to grow: Success with clematis is as simple as following the old adage, “feet in the shade, head in the sun.” In other words, plant it so that its roots are shaded, either by a nearby plant or with a good layer of mulch, but its vines are in the sun. Clematis have some of the strangest roots of anything you’ll ever see – they’re long, fleshy, and rope-like, and incredibly sensitive to breaking, overheating, and rotting, if there’s too much moisture in the soil. So the key to success is clearing the way for those roots to grow healthy and unhindered. It’s also important to understand that those thick, fleshy roots require a lot more time and energy to grow than the more familiar fibrous roots of most woody shrubs and vines, so patience is also a crucial part of enjoying clematis. Give them at least one full season to get established before having high expectations of the flowers; depending on growing conditions, it may take two or more. The larger your clematis plant is overall, the more time it will need to get established. 

We talked a bit about pruning in the first segment, and generally, clematis are divided into three groups for pruning. Pink Mink clematis would be a part of group three, which is pruned hard in early spring. Our recommendation is to cut the plant back to 18” tall – you can wait until you start to see the buds appearing so you can be sure you’re cutting above nice, healthy buds.

As we make this recommendation, perhaps you’re thinking, wait a minute: if you keep cutting the clematis back to 18” tall, how is it ever going to grow enough to cover anything? The answer is in the roots. They function as a kind of engine to fuel the growth, and the bigger that root system is, the more it can fuel growth. When you shorten your plant to just a few buds, all the energy goes into those buds, and they explode with growth, quickly covering your structure again. Plus, pruning your clematis properly ensures that the plant flowers from top to bottom – unpruned clematis are likely to only flower at the top.

Avoid high fertilization of your clematis. Actually, you shouldn’t really need to fertilize at all, and definitely do not use an acidifying fertilizer on it if you do. For newer plants, one application of a rose fertilizer in early spring can help get it established, but don’t plan on any kind of regular application of fertilizers.

If you’d like to add Pink Mink clematis – or any of the 320+ Proven Winners ColorChoice Shrubs – to your garden or landscape, you’ll find a list of local retailers here

Gardening Mail Bag - Stacey

Being proactive is the key to managing Japanese beetles. Once they start their trademark skeletonizing of a plant’s foliage, the plant sends out hormonal distress signals, which attracts even more pests. So preventing that initial damage is crucial. Rick uses neem oil or insecticidal soap, both of which are low-toxicity and low risk if applied properly and according to package directions. Rick starts spraying in late June and continues as needed. Hand-picking can also be quite effective at managing beetles – just crush them or, if you are squeamish, drop them into a bucket of soapy water. Working in the early morning is always a good strategy because they are slow and sleepy and easily grabbed; Rick also notes that geraniums have a similar effect on Japanese beetles, so they can be a good place to start getting rid of great gobs of them at one go.

Though there is definitely a science to successful composting, it’s not so scientific that you need to worry too much about specific amounts of greens, or fresh material, also known as nitrogens, and browns, dried material, also known as carbons. Ideally, you’ll build your pile out of a 2:1 ratio, or twice as many browns as greens. This creates the ideal conditions for decomposition. If you get it wrong, though, there’s no need to worry. Too much greens and it will be slimy, perhaps smelly, but this is easily remedied by adding some browns. If your pile contains too many browns, nothing will happen – it will pretty much just sit there, not decomposing at all, until you add some greens. Really, the hardest part of composting is maintaining a good supply of browns, as they are only abundant in fall when the leaves drop and in spring when people do a second leaf clean up and also cut back spent perennial stems and leaves. Our solution to this is to stockpile your browns in a separate bin or in leaf bags and every time your layer of green starts getting big, cover it with a nice layer of browns. Kept properly moist (a “just wrung out sponge” is the standard advice, though I’ve found compost develops more rapidly when it’s kept pretty moist), you’ll be well on your way to your first batch of compost. 

Any general purpose bagged potting mix will do. Yes, there are some out there with fancy formulations and ingredients, but all you really need in this case is a medium for the roots to grow in and to hold moisture for the roots to use. Bagged potting mixes are formulated especially to drain quickly, preventing disease and fostering healthy growth. Since you have quite a lot of plants to pot up, we suggest using whatever is most affordable, and of course, make sure your containers have good drainage as well. 

Do you have a question for us? We’re happy to help! E-mail us or use the contact tab above.

Branching News - Rick

  • Gardeners love to host get togethers and dinners – garden parties, if you will – especially as the season allows us to entertain outdoors on the deck, patio. But apparently, not everyone is equally enthusiastic about hosting dinners, as this survey of the top five things more stressful than hosting a dinner party shows
    • Catching a plane before the gate closes – 49% of respondents
    • Dropping a phone – 48% of respondents
    • Passing SATs – 44% of respondents
    • Leaving your phone at home – 43% of respondents
    • Spilling a drink on a white shirt – 43% of respondents
  • And here are the top five things dinner hosts stress over (because of course, they want everything to be absolutely radishing):
    • How much food to prepare – 41% of respondents
    • How clean their home is – 40% of respondents
    • Figuring out how long it will take to prepare or cook food – 40% of respondents
    • If guests will like the food – 39% of respondents
    • If they have enough food – 37% of respondents
  • As Washington, D.C.’s famous cherry trees come into bloom, they’re causing traffic jams
  • This Washington Post article talks about the phenomenon of “Gardeners Eyes:” how, over time, observing activity and interactions in the garden helps gardeners see the world differently, and to appreciate and assess your surroundings. We believe it!
  • The sound and disruption from pickleball, America’s fastest-growing sport, is driving some neighbors, tennis players, parents of young children, and others crazy. Homeowners groups and local residents in dozens of towns and cities have rallied to limit pickleball play and block the development of new courts. They are circulating petitions, filing lawsuits, and speaking out at council and town hall meetings to slow the audible spread of pickleball frenzy across the country. The number of people playing pickleball grew by 159% over three years to 8.9 million in 2022, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, a trade group. Rick concludes that “retirement planning” is not playing pickleball. 
  • There are chickens and roosters all over yards and even some roofs in one Phoenix neighborhood. Many residents in the area say they enjoy it, but a real estate agent says it could be impacting home values. For years, chickens and roosters have been roaming the neighborhood south of the Biltmore area, and they seem to be multiplying. The city of Phoenix says they have not received any recent complaints, but a realtor says selling there has been a challenge. If you take a drive through the neighborhood of 34th Street and Earll, you will find roosters, chickens and even peacocks all over people’s yards, on roofs, and even crossing the streets. “I’ve been here 50 years the chickens were here before me,” resident Andrew Trombetta said. He explains why he believes the birds are still in the area. “Before the homes were built there was four farms and they had the chickens and let them run loose and once the homes were built the chickens were still there,” he said.