Do you know what the biggest myth of all is when it comes to growing clematis? It’s the urban legend: “Plant their heads in the sun and their feet in the shade”. Some of you may be saying to yourself “say it isn’t so” because you heard it from good authority such as your mother or grandmother or even the neighbor down street who knows everything about gardening! Others of you may have stumbled upon this old wives advice when you read a generic article about clematis on the Internet or by a journalist who is not very familiar with the genus, so they have dutifully included it in their article.
So, let me enlighten you about the facts and hopefully once and for all shed some illumination on where to plant the feet (don’t worry, the head will tag along) of your clematis. It really is quite simple…grow your clematis someplace you would most of your other ornamental perennials in the garden. Clematis love sun and they do “not” care if their roots are shaded. Think of caring for them as you would your roses. Is there anyone you know who goes around worrying about the feet of their roses? Just think about it; many clematis can grow in the shade, so common sense dictates that their heads wind up in the shade. Obviously this goes against the folklore that they must have their heads in the sun.
Over the years I have visited quite a few wholesale nurseries that grow clematis. The majority of them are growing clematis in full sun (i.e. their heads are in full sun) and so are the containers (i.e. their feet are in full sun). Of the nurseries I visited two were North American commercial clematis growers that were growing their clematis exclusively in hi-tech greenhouses. Their clematis were situated in filtered light which means that their heads were in partial light but, their feet were not shaded.
I also had the pleasure of visiting Chalkhill Clematis several years ago where although they grew their clematis for mail-order under shade cloth, a large amount of the clematis they sold for cut-flowers were being grown in direct sunlight. This meant there was absolutely no protection for their feet. So, what difference does this make to your clematis? If professional growers of clematis really thought that it was imperative to shade their roots (feet), it stands to reason that they would because this is how they make their livelihood.
At this point I still may not have convinced some of you who are true disciples, but I confess I too am guilty of believing this flawed myth in the very beginning. Like so many others I assumed it was right because I remember reading it several times. So, for the first year or two I dutifully tried to figure out ways to shade the roots of my clematis with other plants or even rocks. After a while, maybe because I did not have the space (or most likely the inclination anymore), I gave up on the “shading” cause. As luck would have it my clematis did not show any signs of duress (i.e. reduction in blooms).
Sometime in the late 1990’s I had three containers of clematis growing on my patio that I thought would look nicer with something trailing down over their sides. So, I planted some baccopa to the base of each plant, not to shade their roots, but to spruce up the pots. Over the next year I noticed my clematis began to look a little lackluster. One day while observing that they were more rapidly declining, I came to the realization that the only thing that I had done differently was add the blasted baccopa. Sure enough, upon further inspection, I unearthed a Medusa’s head of gnarly roots entangling and strangling my sweet clematis. The Queen had made the awful mistake of nearly slaying three innocent clematis. Once I discovered my royal blunder I quickly passed sentence and had the offenders beheaded (meaning I got out must trusty Felco #6 clippers and whacked off the baccopa’s heads that were in the sun and dug out their roots that were in the shade.) Yes, baccopa turns out to be a rather aggressive plant (okay a plant from Hell), but I have seen other gardeners growing something as timid as lobelia or alyssum with their clematis having a somewhat similar unhappy reaction to sharing their root space. My conclusion after this harrowing experience is that not only is not necessary to shade the roots, it could ultimately be extremely perilous to follow this antiquated axiom.
I hope after reading this that I have shed some much needed light on the truth (and their feet). I know it is hard to let go of ideas that you always have heard were true, but believe me, if your clematis could speak to you I know that they would thank you for abandoning this misguided myth!