Thursday, May 24, 2012

Twining vines

Gardening is not just about putting flowers in garden beds. Gardening is multi-dimensional. Which is why after greedy gardeners think they've run out of space, they make some more space - up in the air.

Vines add another dimension to the garden - height. They clamber over arbors, up trellises, cling to walls and fences. They take up very little earth-space - just enough for their roots. You can build an arch over a pathway, or a pergola over a patio or deck - and cover it with blooms.

When we bought our house, the southwest-facing slope of our backyard was a baked, sere swath of dirt, where nothing grew. Double-blasted by the sun and the reflection off our windows, even weeds shriveled and died here.

One of our first house-guests was a colleague who knew a lot about how human beings adapt to natural habitats, and he said, "What you need here is a ramada!" With that always in mind, a few years later when we were able to create our garden, that's exactly what we built, with the help of other talented friends, craftsmen and garden designers. A level deck with a pergola and a graceful shade tree keep the blasting sun out of the house and offer a sheltered spot to sit and enjoy the garden. The pergola provided structure to support vines that could provide color and beauty throughout the year.

The most dramatic of these is the wisteria, which begins to bloom in early spring. By now, May, its blooms are over but its vigorous foliage keep the deck below cool and shady. And now, the next act begins.

There are almost 300 species of clematis in the world, and when British gardeners got ahold of them in the mid 19th century, they bred them and crossed them and introduced hundreds of varieties. The flowers are often large and showy - I remember as a child poring over the Wayside Gardens catalog admiring the huge, flat, starry blossoms of clematis with names like "Nelly Moser", "Mrs. Cholmondely", "Duchess of Edinburgh" and "Comtesse de Bouchard."

Thought many lust after clematis, for some reason gardeners hesitate to grow them. A devastating fungus called "clematis wilt" can wipe out a promising plant in an instant - and who wants to take on that heartache? Plus, recommendations for pruning clematis are complicated and present a challenge that puts off beginning gardeners.

For pruning purposes, experts divide clematis into three types of plants, and you'll see them labeled as "A", "B" or "C." The "A"s bloom early, on last season's wood. You cut the flowering stems back right away after flowering, so they can grow next year's growth, but you leave the old growth alone.  The "B"s bloom in June on shoots that grow from old growth, so you prune these carefully in February and March, in order to stimulate the flowering shoots.  The "C"s bloom completely on new growth, so these are the simplest - whack the whole plant down to three feet or so in late winter, and let it grow in the spring.

I have to confess I have lost track of which type my clematis is. When I bought it, I thought I was buying "Etoile Violette," but since it's a tender bi-color lavender instead of deep violet, it's clearly not what I thought.

Its delicate flowers spangle the leaves of a purple-leaved grapevine that twines up the pergola and into the branches of the jacaranda tree. The tree's showy purple flowers come in late June, and then when autumn comes, the grape leaves flame rich scarlet. Containers on the deck provide summer color, with a white David Austin rose called "Winchester Catherdral" and pink zonal geraniums.

It all sounds very well put together, doesn't it? Except I am a lazy, neglectful gardener, and I haven't done any pruning, and very little maintenance and care.

But isn't that the beauty of it? If it can look like this in my garden, just think what it can look like in yours!


Anonymous said...

How I love Clemantis. About 4 years ago, I carefully selected three plants that would bloom at different times of the season. These were planted to climb a structure in front of our little barn. The first year all was well, few flowers but I patiently waited for the next year. The next year the vines climbed vigorously, but before I could attach them to the structure completely a terrible storm broke them down. I now have three varieties that grow great, bloom a little and then die off from wilt early in the Summer. I add an annual vine to the mix, which fills the structure after the Clemantis die off, but it certainly is not the same.


Linda said...

Have you ever been to the Wisteria Festival in Sierra Madre? Home owners open their back yards to the public. While there is a festival down the main street.
Oh the things I miss about living is SO Calif bring back so many memories.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Clematis are popular around here, especially people in German Village with old iron fences.

Claudia from Idiot's Kitchen said...

Ah, you ony have to screw up pruning the clematis once to learn that lesson. When I lived in Minnesota, I never had to worry about pruning too much since the short season kept things in check. Thanks for teaching me about a ramada. I had no idea! Looks like a lovely spot for a nice glass of wine in the shade.

Anonymous said...

I'll work on clematis next.My wisteria finally took off a few years ago and is taking over our side porch, and I am so jazzed.

Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

I was trying to carefully weed my mother's raised flower & herb garden last week (on the very day you posted this, in fact!) and several times over, I sadly pulled a Clematis vine instead. What little bit I could save, we managed to trail back onto the trellis. (Some oregano and mint were also harmed in the process.) Perhaps the new owners will know what to do with the garden areas! Once we get it spruced up enough to sell, that is...