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Clematis 101: Pruning Basics
To prune or not to prune?

I tend to be a conservative (sounds better than "lazy") gardener. That is, I'm liberal in the number and choices of plants in my garden (so liberal in fact that I should not be allowed within twenty feet of a nursery during the growing season because I cannot resist the urge to pick up just one more -- or ten or twenty -- of this or that knowing full well that there's neither the room nor the time to plant them all). But I am conservative in the amount of time I devote to manual labor in the garden.

I crave a garden overflowing with blooms. I feel just the opposite about the work that's necessary to achieve it.

So, I opt for The Easy Way Out. Each plant and I make a sort of gentleman's agreement. In return for my giving each a relatively decent start, each plant tries to perform its best. It's a bit of survival of the fittest and I can't calculate how much money I've spent on plants that eventually ended up in the compost pile.

Ah, but the ones that have survived... The ones that have survived make up for any monetary loss and I am so grateful to them.

When it comes to pruning, I usually start off with a bang. Gung ho. Full of energy and vigor. About halfway through the process, I find myself dragging and sometimes (I am ashamed to admit this) end up throwing myself down on the ground in an exhausted heap not having finished all the pruning there is to do.

Miraculously, and here is one of the wondrous things I've discovered about clematis, the plants survive and thrive with or without an annual trim! Now, granted they do look better if shaped a bit (don't we all look better when we occasionally cut our hair?), but what I find extremely comforting is that the plants will be OK if I have neglected to prune them every once in awhile. Over time, if the vines become too entangled and unwieldly, I just cut out the parts I don't want and swear off pruning for another few years.

When I first started growing clematis I found the whole matter of pruning quite intimidating. I scribbled pruning group numbers on plant tags and made little pruning schedules on my computer to try to keep straight. In spite of my best intentions though I would often do the right thing at the wrong time. The School of Pruning Hard Knocks has taught me a few things.

The first Pruning Maxim is: Less Is More. That is, it's better to leave the plant alone than to go in and chop it back to the ground in late winter or spring. Why? Because the worst that can happen if you do nothing is that those varieties which bloom on new growth may tend to get a little leggy. Those varieties that bloom on old wood will bloom as they are supposed to do. And it's the same with those that bloom on old and new wood. What have you got to lose? If you're not certain about which type of clematis you have, restraint is the order of the day. When in doubt: Don't.

The second Pruning Maxim is: If you want to advance beyond Doing Nothing, then know which pruning group or type your clematis belongs to. Group 1 (or I), Group 2 (or II), or Group 3 (III). In gardening catalogs, for instance, you might see a Roman numeral (I, II, or III) after the name of each clematis selection. Other than pruning suggestions, those numbers don't convey a whole lot of additional information.

In a nutshell, here're pruning rules for each Group:

GROUP 1 (I): These plants flower on old wood and early in the season. If you prune them in late winter/early spring, you're effectively robbing yourself of blooms. This is not a Good Idea. So sit back and relax or go fuss over something else. Once the flowering is finished, you can certainly go at the plant with your secateurs to tidy it up a bit or shape it. But don't prune the plant later than that -- it needs time to grow the wood that will produce next year's blooms.

GROUP 2 (II): These plants actually bloom twice -- a lovely bonus -- in early summer on the previous year's growth and then later in the summer on the current year's growth. So, wait until AFTER the first flowering before you remove any healthy wood and then be conservative in your pruning. Cut back those stems that have flowered to encourage new flowering wood to develop. Shape the plant. But don't give it a "buzz" cut.

GROUP 3 (III): Now, if it is early spring and the sap is rushing through your veins and the urge to get out there and prune is proving to be irresistible, it's plants in this group that will bring you certain satisfaction. Typically, they flower in mid-to-late summer on new growth which it is the aim of your pruning to encourage. What a happy marriage! So, cut back the stems to just above the first healthy buds, keeping in mind that the earlier you do this, the earlier the plant will bloom. The later in the spring you wait to prune, the later the bloom. You can really get fancy with a mature clematis in this group by staggering your pruning. That is, cut half the stems in early spring and the other half a few weeks later. What will happen? Well, in the best of all possible worlds you will achieve an extended period of bloom as different stems produce flowers at different times depending on when they were pruned.

The third pruning maxim is: feed the plant after it is pruned. A general purpose fertilizer will do with a dash of sulphate of potash to encourage flowers followed by a good drink of water.

The fourth pruning maxim is: dead wood is dead wood. There is no way on earth to resuscitate plant material that has died. It's a good idea to remove it. But, be sure the wood you're about to remove is dead. If you're not certain, leave it alone until the rest of the plant has leafed out.

Above all else, remain calm. Don't make a mountain out of a mole hill when it comes to pruning. Gardening is fun. For a small investment of our time we reap so much joy! Enjoy your clematis!

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