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Clematis – the queen of vines

Garden Muse

Thanks to the Friends of the Rogerson Clematis Collection, six private gardens and the collection will be open for a tour on May 29 (details below). You'll enjoy the colorful flowers on these alluring vines, see how gardeners combine clematis with companion plants and learn straight from the experts how to grow them well.

Layered up in fleece and rain gear in the face of hail, rain and wind, I'd been on a mission to get my own garden ready for the tour, so I was glad to take a break to visit two nearby host gardens. It was raining so hard the day I went to see Sally Geist that we looked out at clematis from many windows. As we sat in her living room, she showed me carefully handwritten lists of some 100 clematis in her garden. Favorites include rich purple 'Polish Spirit.'

'It grows and blooms no matter what you do,' she said. 'Gravetye Beauty is another one that's done well - it's dark red with a bell-shaped flower.'

She's also partial to 'Multi Blue,' a double clematis with voluptuous blue-violet blossoms.

'It's like a floozie,' she said.

The many faces of clematis are a gardener's candy store. Wide open single flowers, bell-shaped pendant blooms, double blossoms with abundant petals, in myriad colors - red, purple, lavender, pink, white, yellow, blue, burgundy, near-black - are enough to drive you crazy with craving.

Sally doesn't worry about training these vines.

'Any shrub can be a trellis - roses, anything that stands still. If you aren't out there, they do their own thing,' she says.

In Sally's garden, this works for the twining type of clematis, with clinging tendrils, but the shrubby integrifolia clematis that grow like perennials need a little more help. These non-climbing types tend to sprawl, and benefit from support.

To display them well, Sally takes advantage of her slope. She grows eight integrifolia clematis there, sending them up inside tomato cages and letting them cascade down the bank. Sally especially loves their blue flowers.

She also grows clematis in big pots, placing upside-down tomato cages inside them as frames. She tops each cage with a little clay pot for a quirky finial.

Three compost bins are her recipe for success.

'When I started using compost I had less disease, less insects,' she said. She also fertilizes with organic tomato or rose fertilizer.

Another key to growing clematis well, in Sally's experience, is to give them time to develop strong root systems before planting them out in the garden. 'Never put a tiny clematis in the ground,' she said. 'Buy it and grow it in a pot for a year. Feed it, water it, and let it form good roots.'

My next stop was Gail Austin's garden, where clematis adorn two long wooden fences, bursting into walls of color starting in spring. Wire grid fencing stapled to the wood encourages the vines to climb.

Posts topped by bird feeders and bird houses are also homes to clematis. Gail surrounds the posts with gridded wire to give them a leg up. An old plough, ornamental in winter when its companion clematis 'Josephine' has been cut back to a few feet, has now vanished behind a blanket of budding stems. This double clematis begins with a center of tightly packed petaloids - stamens that have turned into tiny petals - like a silken fist.

'It will open to a big fat flower,' Gail said. Hopefully by tour time, you will see 'Josephine' in all her splendor.

Thick buds adorn 'Vyvyan Pennell,' another double clematis with lavender, mauve and purple tints, which has climbed a post topped with a gazebo-shaped bird feeder.

Countless clematis grow in Gail's garden with lots of company - masses of daylilies (some bred by her), hostas, ferns, peonies, sedums. A canopy of Japanese maples and understory of flowering shrubs add texture and foliage color.

Gail first fell in love with clematis while living in Albuquerque.

'I saw a picture of one and the flower was just so amazing,' she said. 'I found one in a bare root box, took it home, babied it and killed it. I was so disappointed, but it never left my mind.'

After moving to Oregon in 1987 she bought 'Lady Gray' and 'Duchesse of Albany.'

'I have at least 100 now. I quit counting,' she said.

Looking around Gail's garden, gleaming with vitality on a May morning that fluctuated between wind, rain and sun, we both agreed that Portland was the best place on Earth to live and garden.


Coming events

• Friends of Rogerson Clematic Collection present Inviting Vines III, a tour of six private gardens in Southwest Portland and the Rogerson Clematis Collection at Luscher Farm in Lake Oswego, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., May 29. Tickets are $20 and may be purchased on line at www.RogersonClematisCollection.org or at Portland Nursery on Southeast Stark and 50th, Garden Fever on Northeast Fremont and 21st, Dennis' Seven Dees in Lake Oswego, Farmington Gardens in Beaverton or Joy Creek Nursery in Scappoose.