MyGardenSchool tutor Philippa Bensley could be regarded as the Queen of Climbers, but she is most certainly the Clematis queen and I know these are some of her favourite garden plants. We often argue about the value of climbers versus shrubs in a garden; she always wins and over the years I must admit I am convinced that these wonderful plants can add so much to a planting palette. The one thing she has taught me is to look beyond the more familiar varieties of a type of climber. You may think of clematis as those showy great flowers on rather scrawny plants, usually supported by unsuitable trellis. Forget about that image and open your eyes to some real early flowering gems. by Andy McIndoe
We hear from Climbers Expert Philippa Bensley:
The fact that many countries now experience tougher winters isn’t all bad news because I think it has made us all look again at the range of plants we grow and start to rediscover some forgotten gems. There are some really stunning climbers that have been a little overlooked in our constant search for evergreen exotic climbers and these are some of the prettiest climbers we have in the garden.
Which Clematis to Plant Where
Clematis usually bring to mind big, blowsy flower,s but two of the hardiest types are the early flowering species alpina and macropetala, commonly known as fairy clematis. This is because they have delicate, nodding flowers like fairy skirts in gorgeous, iridescent shades of pink, white and mauve.
Despite their delicate appearance they hail from very cold mountainous regions and so cope really well with our more wintery weather. They will stand temperatures down to minus 40 degrees centigrade! Hence they are very greatly valued in the coldest parts of Europe and the US where the large hybrids don’t perform as well.
They are very tough and hardy and given well drained, even quite poor soil, will be very happy in the garden. If you are lucky enough to have soil that you think is either too good or holds too much water then add a bag of coarse grit before planting. Mine grows quite contentedly in awful conditions in a tiny triangular bed cut out of the side of a patio.
They don’t even need complicated pruning schedules – just leave them to grow, giving an annual trim immediately after flowering but only if you are short on space.
They are quick to respond to changes in the weather and given a warm spell, even in the depths of winter, will produce some much appreciated blooms before the main season in mid spring. I usually underplant with other spring flowers to concentrate my colour and get more impact from it. Narcissi, hellebores and pulsatillas all make wonderful planting companions.
The two species are closely related and in many cases have cross bred with one another. Both come in single or double flowered forms; choose according to your preference as both types grow really well. Some of my favourites are:
‘Markham’s Pink’ is a really old variety but still a star. Its double dusky pink flowers are some of the darkest in this group. The great English gardener Gertrude Jekyll loved this variety.
‘Blue Dancer’ has elegant, soft blue petals which curve back on themselves, adding substance to an already very pretty flower.
‘Diamond Anniversary’ is a new addition to the range with creamy white double flowers flushed with a hint of pinkie mauve.
‘Jan Lindmark’ is one of the very earliest to flower and has distinctive flowers of deep mauve that are almost maroon in bud.
‘Constance’ was rated by the RHS as the best double pink in their trials recently because it was covered from top to toe with flowers making it an excellent choice for a pergola post.
‘Pamela Jackman’ is intense blue, which contrasts really well with the lime green foliage. It flowers consistently well.
Last but by no means least is Wessleton, raised by one of my plant heroes, Jim Fisk, it was named after his home village in Suffolk, England and has the bluest, largest, double flower of the macropetalas.
If you would like to learn more about clematis and a wide variety of wonderful climbers join Philippa on her course ‘How to use climbers and clematis in garden design. Courses start on line on the first Saturday of every month.
Climbers can add colour, extend the season of interest and add a new dimension to the planting in your garden