Upholster your garden with Clematis pillows and more

A double bloom clematis

An unidentified double bloom clematis.

There’s nothing like appalling winter weather to make you think about upholstering every square inch of your home in softness. Nesting writ large. If you go that far–giant pillows scattered everywhere and you sunk up to your chin in layers of loopy afghans–consider that cozying up your garden next spring can be done much the same way. What lacy throws and overstuffed ottomans do to a room, those delicate twining Clematis vines with their tissue paper blooms can do to a large yard, patio or tiny urban garden–add downy depths of colour and texture. Here’s how.

GROW A GIANT PILLOW, WATCH THE NEIGHBOURS SWOON

Several months ago, I was going through a pile of old gardening books and found a guide published in 1975 by a British nursery specializing in Clematis. Amongst the lists of varieties and planting tips was this very cool idea for a large garden focal point. Vines are trained on a support to create a spectacular stand-alone dome of blooms:

“A cartwheel or iron hoop lying flat but lifted off the ground about a foot by means of stakes and covered with wire netting will [act as a support for clematis to] produce a cushion of flower[s]. With all the blooms looking upwards, this is an unusual and attractive sight.”

I’d have to agree. Can you imagine what several of these huge pillows would look like scattered across a lawn? (And why stop there? Add a few umbrella-shaped trellises covered in clematis vines for a complete Hanging Gardens of Babylon look.)

SMALL GARDENS CAN GET A SOFT TOUCH, TOO

GO VERTICAL: Blooming shrubs with a columnar habit make terrific space-saving solutions for small gardens. If only they were easy to find. But a clematis can do a fine job of subbing in for a tall, narrow shrub (see example, below left) while delivering extra soft and cushy texture–just what you want when you’re surrounded by tall buildings. Simply train a clematis or two up a narrow teepee or pyramid-shaped support. And don’t forget that many clematis have lovely shaped leaves and fabulous seed heads for an extra long season of interest.

GO HORIZONTAL: Use clematis like embroidery on a duvet, creating a stitchery of accent colours on a lush, low-growing bed (see example, below right). For best results, pick a plant with small flowers in a contrasting colour to the bedding plants. I love the effect of the bright blue-purple clematis blooms against the coppery Heuchera shown below. Make sure it’s a clematis that blooms on new growth only.

ADD LAYERS OF COLOUR AND TEXTURE

Clematis won’t damage the paint or mortar of a house as ivy can, preferring instead to cling to a support of wood or wire with delicate twining leaves. Nor will they pull down a structure, something for which wisteria, with its twining stems that can grow extremely thick and heavy, is infamous. In fact, being light of touch and weight makes clematis a remarkably versatile climber. So although a clematis or two (or three) climbing up a lattice attached to one side of your home is lovely, try these alternatives, too, keeping in mind that more is, well, way more.

  • GO BRIGHT AND BOLD: Teaming a clematis with a climbing rose is classic English-country-garden. Give this look a twist by choosing plants with clashing colours. I had a neighbour who grew a deep red climbing rose (like Amadeus™) with a deep purple clematis (try Jackmanii Superba Clematis). In the glare of the summer’s mid-day sun, the sight was enough to sear your eyeballs (in a good way), effectively preventing you from seeing the dilapidated garage the plants were clambering over.
  • DOUBLE THE BLOOMS: If you want maximum fire power from your blooms (and who doesn’t?) then pair early summer-blooming shrubs such as weigela or hydrangea with clematis that also blooms in early summer for a double whammy of colour and texture.
  • SOFTEN TREE TRUNKS: You can fill a tiny urban front garden with a small, multi-stemmed ornamental tree and call it a day but training a clematis up the trunks (pictured in photo below left) not only softens the look, the added leafiness creates a little more privacy and the clematis blooms can lengthen the interest of a spring-blooming tree.
  • WHEN IN DOUBT, BUY READY-MADE: If you’re worried about matching up clematis varieties, look for plants already potted up in pairs at your garden centre (as shown in photo below right). These plants have been chosen for compatibility (bloom time, amount of sun needed) so you don’t have to worry.

A white clematis in bloom trained over a metal arch.SOFTEN THE LINES BETWEEN PLANTS AND SEASONS

  • If you have an early spring blooming shrub next to a late season blooming shrub, use a summer blooming clematis to bridge the colour gap between the two.
  • Train a clematis up a shrub that looks less than ideal once it’s finished blooming. For instance, I find sand cherry looses its charm once its sprays of pale pink flowers have gone but its deep cabernet-coloured leaves are the perfect backdrop for a blush-toned clematis to shine.
  • Of course, any plants that bloom twice are a good thing and clematis are no exception. There is a remarkable assortment of clematis that bloom in early spring and then again in late summer. ‘Nelly Moser’, ‘Veronica’s Choice’ and ‘Countesse of Wessex’ all work well to bring a little spring back to a garden about to step into fall.

Here’s to dreaming up more ways to softening up the garden with clematis next spring.

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