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Understanding Clematis: Thorough Knowledge of Plants can Only be Gained by Planting

Maroushek gardens are contained within a single block of Hastings, Minnesota, just off Highway 61 in the back of the Dairy Queen. Lillian Maroushek has dug up every square inch of her yard to make room for plants.

“You work for men you’ll kill yourself,” she said pretty much out of the blue the first time we talked. I’d been asking her about clematis and somehow the conversation took a detour. It seems her late husband had definite ideas about work, especially as it related to the opposite sex. Any woman married to Mr. Maroushek would limit her daily activities to child-rearing, housekeeping, and things of that nature. She wouldn’t earn money or carry a checkbook. Gardening was allowed as long as it put food on the table.

“Oh, he was stubborn,” Lillian said. So was she. In his zeal to control the purse strings, Mr. Maroushek usually kept the purse closed. Lillian had to manage the house and family on just $20 a week. “I sewed every stitch of clothing I ever wore.” She started selling things out of her garden when the cupboard was bare and her husband was looking the other way. One day he found her taking a lesson in bookkeeping from a neighbor. “Did he throw a fit!”

Lillian went right on gardening and selling her plants and seeds right under her husband’s nose. “I’d go out to Oregon to visit my daughter and I’d come home with my camper full of plants.” In the Pacific Northwest, she cultivated some productive relationships. “We’d send seeds back and forth. I like to see if I can come up with something new.”

When Mr. Maroushek died a few years ago she plunged full bore into the garden business. Mike Heger, owner of Ambergate Gardens in Waconia, Minnesota, says she knows more about clematis than just about anybody. But Lillian says she’s kind of fed up with clematis. Such finicky plants. Not like hosta. She grows six hundred types of hosta. Of those she came up with new, she’s proudest of “Frosta Jane,” which has huge leaves trimmed in translucent white.

Lillian didn’t have to tell me that clematis is a finicky plant. Last year I planted two different types, thinking I’d buy more of the better performer the following spring. This degree of planning is not typical of me. I should have known it would backfire. I prepared the beds carefully, mixing in plenty of composted cow manure and peat moss, a smidgeon of lime, some bonemeal, and other wholesome things. One of the vines produced a few small white flowers (though it was sold to me as ‘Nelly Moser,’ which has a large pink flower with a reddish bar down the middle) in early June and nothing to speak of after that. The other plant looked as if it could expire at any moment, then coughed up a few lavender blooms (I’d expected this one to be white), and finally was put out of its misery by a family of chipmunks who was remodeling their burrow under the terrace. I’d pulled up some stones to plant the clematis so that it would climb a trellis attached to the garage. The chipmunks must have seen right away that the small opening would make a nice sun porch. The plant was severed cleanly at its base and within a few days, the vine had withered to a crisp golden brown.

Lillian laughed when I mentioned that the vine was called ‘Ramona’. “Not a good grower at all,” she sniffed. Lillian doesn’t like ‘Nelly Moser’ much either. With clematis, you have to plant what’s right for the territory. And that isn’t as simple as looking at a zone map. No one would sell you a clematis without mentioning it likes a cool root run and sun up top, but what time of day should the sun be shining, and for how long? It matters. You also have to know your own garden soil intimately–its pH balance, weight, texture, and temperature, and who’s living in it. (Lillian’s soil is chalky limestone because she lives near the Mississippi River bluffs.) A pair of clematis vines can look and act as differently as a pansy and a marigold, but in general, Lillian says, the smaller-flowered plants are tougher.

She speculated that my clematis faced a myriad of difficulties. The stone terrace facing south was probably too hot, even though I’d carefully mulched the roots. The sod pieces I was using for mulch were a natural habitat for slugs and other fungi as a result of all my watering. I might need more lime, but, on the other hand, the symptoms suggested a lack of iron (yellow leaves), which can be linked to low acidity. Or was it inadequate sulfur (purple hue to the foliage)? I’d definitely over-fertilized and my soil was too heavy. “It just rots them off,” Lillian said. “People make that mistake time and again. You shouldn’t fertilize until the vine is established.”

Experienced gardeners who avoid these neophyte mistakes have to worry about yet another enemy of clematis, about which the Engish garden writer Michael Sydney Tyler-Whittle wrote in 1965: “I understand there is an obscure disease named Clematis Wilt which has so far defied the scientists. They know next to nothing about its causes, origins, or nature: but they could learn a great deal if they made my garden into their research station because, whatever the disease might be, I have got it.” Tyler-Whittle moved on from clematis to a losing battle with another tricky climber, wisteria, and finally fell into the arms of the ever-reliable rose. He planted two or three at selected spots around the house, hoping “they would invade the bedroom with their powerful scent. They did. “But, to be candid, it was oppressive to lie there in a June cocktail of scents. . . . [T]he penetrating aroma of Guinee, Zephyrine Drouihn, and Madame Henri Guillot mixed quaintly with the smell of dust, naphthalene, and me”

Poor man. Give me a sickly clematis any day.

Lillian’s best bets: ‘Will Goodwin’ (the best blue); ‘Huldine’ (small pearlescent-white bloom); ‘Niobe’ (beautiful ruby-red flowers, almost black on opening); Macropetela (semi-double, pink, or blue nodding flowers); Paniculata or ‘Sweet Autumn’ (small cream-colored blooms, sweetly scented, fall bloomer, tough); Jackmanni (deep purple blooms, plant on the east side of the house); Integrifolia (3-4 ft. bush, blue with yellow centers); Texans ‘Duchess of Albany’ (pink, bell-shaped flowers); Viticella (nodding, purple, saucer-like blooms)

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