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Clematis: Icing on the cake

Garden Muse

We all love cake, but what good is it without the icing?

That's why we grow clematis, to paint another layer of color over the tops of shrubs, trees and pergolas. Purple, pink, white, red, even yellow - there's a clematis for every taste. Take your pick from saucer-sized flowers, bell-shaped beauties, wide open singles and flamboyant doubles.

If you don't have a lot of room, you can always plant a short variety in a container, with an obelisk inside the pot for it to climb.

How to Plant Them

During the years, I've learned to plant clematis with the crown a couple of inches below ground level, like tomato plant. This encourages more roots and stems to develop. I protect the base of the stems from roaming cats, dogs, or my own foot by surrounding the new plant with flat rocks, and/or low stakes. This is equivalent to a Keep Away sign.

Before I unpot each clematis, I decide where to plant it and how to support and train it-up a trellis, up a post surrounded by gridded wire, through the lower branches of a dense shrub, or onto a home-made teepee of thick branches. To improve drainage, I amend the soil with grit or gravel, and add a little compost and some slow-release fertilizer.

Now comes the trickiest part, for me: freeing a young plant from its container. Often clematis are grown in plastic pots with wooden stakes stapled to the rim. The clematis stems are secured to the stake with many soft plastic ties.

First I take a deep breath, and remind myself to be patient. Knocking the vine out of the pot is disastrous, as it will likely break the stems. Instead, I make a vertical cut all along one side of the pot . Next I snip the stake off the pot's rim, freeing the clematis, still tied to its stake, from the container.

I lay the pot gently on its side to prevent any stem breakage, then carefully slide out the staked plant. Last I remove the ties. The clematis is now free from its pot and stake. Gently sliding into the hole, I plant it, firm in the soil, and twine the stems onto a supporting trellis, grid, shrub, or teepee that's already in place.

Last of all, I whisper a little incantation, something like, Grow, baby grow!

A Tour to Inspire You

If you're ready for clematis fever, make sure to get tickets for the May 28th Inviting Vines Garden Tour (www.RogersonClematisCollection.org). Five remarkable gardens will inspire you to add some new favorites to your wish list. Two of the gardens will even sell clematis for instant gratification. Linda Beutler's Sellwood garden with over two hundred clematis shows just how far you can get carried away!

At the other end of the spectrum, JJ de Sousa grows only a dozen or so of these beautiful vines, proof that although the tour is clematis-centered, it's more than just about vines. When I spoke with her recently, she told me her garden has undergone recent changes. Once into lavender, she's now intrigued by sharp spiny plants like cactii and agaves.

As a garden designer, interior designer, and owner of the charming retail shop Digs (www.digs-pdx.com), JJ has a flair for style.

'My garden has two distinct personalities,' she said. 'The front is lush, green and shady, with hostas, ferns, Hakonechloa (Japanese forest grass), Bletilla (hardy orchid) and Cyprepedium (lady's slipper orchid). The back is hot and dry with olive trees, agaves, succulents and cactii.'

When it's really hot you can escape to the cool, shady front; when it's too cool you can warm up in the back yard. Also, while the front garden, with voluptuous greenery, has soft lines, the back is more contemporary-looking, with crisp clean lines.

JJ and her husband Jose love to entertain, but their small house cramped their style. Extending the living space into the garden freed them up.

'The garden more than doubles the square footage of our house,' JJ said. 'We have eight separate spaces in the garden where people can wander.' There's plenty of seating - an outdoor sectional seating fourteen, dining tables, a bench, and chaise lounges.

'You can sit with a group, or with just one other person,' she added. Last September they threw a birthday party with forty-eight guests, a celebration they could not have held inside their small house.


Coming Events

• Inviting Vines IV, a self-guided tour of five private gardens in Southeast Portland and the Rogerson Clematis Collection garden at Luscher Far in Lake Oswego, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., May 28. Tickets $20, may be purchased at (RogersonClematisCollection.org) or Dennis' Seven Dees Nursery, Garden Fever, Portland Nursery, Gardener's Choice or Digs, or at Luscher Farms (luscherfarm.org) on the day of the tour. For more information contact (RogersonClematisCollection.org).

• Elk Rock Spring Plant Sale Fundraiser, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., May 21 and May 22, plants propagated from the garden and provided by local nurseries, jewelry and garden art. Free and open to the public, at 11800 S.W. Military Lane, Portland 97219. For more information contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .