On one level early January is the nadir of the gardening year. Days are short, light levels low, temperatures chilly and everything seems deeply dormant. But look more closely and the signs are there that nature's pulse is already strengthening. The first snowdrops, aconites and crocus are opening, bulb leaves are spearing through the soil surface and buds are bursting on clematis and roses on south facing walls. It's a long way from spring but life is once more on the ascendant.
I have just spent a chilly but satisfying few hours pruning clematis on walls. This is made slightly more complicated because I like to grow different types on the same wall so that I have some flower for most of the year. However as they require pruning at different times, and in different ways, the fact that they are radically intertwined makes the job like a vegetative Rubiks Cube. The only ones to get the chop at this stage are those that flower on current year's growth, the Group 3 types such as Clematis viticella varieties or C. tangutica or orientalis. These are taken right back 6-12" from the ground. Once you get your eye in, the stems of each variety have a sufficiently different appearance to enable identification, so cutting out what you want is relatively easy if a bit time consuming. The next group won't get the chop until immediately after they have flowered during the spring. This is Group 1 and includes firm favourites like the vigorous varieties of C. montana that need a good hack every year to keep them within bounds and the more delicate C. alpina and macropetala varieties that need a more subtle approach tailored to their location.
Finally, the Group 2 types, the large flowered hybrids such as Nelly Moser. Pruning these can involve a combination of the preceding approaches depending on the plants vigour. Happy New Year and happy pruning! West Dean Gardens will reopen on February the 1st and will then be open daily from 10.30am to 4pm. Visit West Dean Gardens website for more information.