DIG IT! Magazine

Back to article

The Climbery - Mission Clematis

by Bee Mohn

The feeling one gets when pulling up to the rambling 1820s country home is a sense of a return to elegance. At The Climbery, hillsides cradle a bustling opulence, gardens seem to blend with the horizon, and a vertical depth adds drama to the panorama.

The Climbery, a private seven-acre garden in Columbia County, New York, has the second largest planted collection of Clematis in the world, according to Barbara Packer, property owner and the garden's designer.

The Climbery's 30 beds contain 5-6,000 vines of almost 600 Clematis varieties, plus trees, shrubs, perennials and a few annuals. The gardens bloom continuously through the summer with lots of early tree peonies, iris, peonies, lilies, and astilbe. What's immediately striking are the red cedar stakes - one for almost every vine - topped with homemade wooden feet and hands reaching skyward.

For a grand tour, begin at the fieldstone walls to the left of the house. Stone steps edged in coral bells rise through banked gardens while a line of Thuja marches across the top. Sculpture abounds.

Ribbons of grass frame the beds under black locust trees. A breeze spreads the garden around - scent, color, peaceful intoxication. Bird houses are everywhere. Just now, beds of astilbe come into bloom.

As one scans the landscape, the question becomes “Where to go next?" The hilltop beckons, with walls of firewood and the maze-like Samuel Karlow Memorial Garden, dedicated to Packer's father. Inside a red cedar fence, iris, box and barberry edge the beds. Wisteria on posts and pergola and lilac standards rise among the perennials, evergreens and clematis.

Packer got struck by the plant bug while a student at New York University, living in Greenwich Village. “A tweedy old lady asked me to plant sit her African violets. My father built me a set up with glass shelves and lights. I had hundreds of African violets."

Rose of Sharon play a role throughout The Climbery, forming clusters, lining drives, and edging beds. An unknown pink one blooms late in September. Down the hill, a line of Clematis integrifolia with nodding bright blue bell-shaped blooms grows shrubby and tall on stakes.

All of the gardens are lush, apparently uneaten by deer. Packer sees deer around the outskirts of the property, but says that none come in. Perhaps they don't like the taste of clematis, or they get adequate food from wild lands.

Walk around front to a small hillside with perennial beds with astilbe, lupines, and lilies, then down to five lotus ponds where a tin-covered wooden horse stands among the Nelumbo. Across the drive, it's a bulls market as a wooden Toro defends red petunias and blue delphinium.

Saunter down past an orchard of clematis to a lawn with benches - a shady place to rest where another cool breeze sifts through the trees on the banks of the Roeliff Jansen Kill, Columbia County's official southern border. Packer has riparian rights to the Kill and waters the gardens by means of two pumps and underground lines.

Near the back of the house, the garden becomes personal. A soft line of weeping larch and lilies leads to a boxwood garden, interspersed with sculpture. Around front toward the Potting Shed, the striped Anna Louise blooms in the sun.

To say she is devoted is an obvious understatement. The reason she started The Climbery, a not-for-profit foundation, is to promote the growth and interest of clematis. “We want people to grow it as regularly as they do roses," she says. “They are easy to grow, colorful, fragrant and versatile with lots of varieties. All I am is the missionary."ť

Clematis are universally grouped according to pruning requirements.
1 or A: small, early spring flowers that just get cleaned up and need no pruning
2 or B: large flowers that bloom after the little ones and again in fall. They flower on old and new wood. Subject to Clematis wilt and can be the most troublesome. Prune in late winter from the top down to the first set of living buds.
3 or C: easiest and most reliable. Cut them to the ground.

Barbara Packers Growing Tips
* Exposure - Clematis take almost any exposure. Some are recommended for bright sun but flower beautifully in shade, like Nelly Moser, and others do better in sun, such as Anna Louise.
* Small spaces - Even in a small garden you can have numerous clematis. You can plant them two feet apart because the roots go deep.
* Evergreen climbers - Use Group 3, so when trimming the evergreens, down come the clematis vines which need to be pruned to the ground anyway.
* Buying - Buy what you like. If the tag says Group 3 or C or "prune it to the ground," buy it. They're the easiest ones. Some stores have started to get Group 3. * Buy later in the season to find the best plants.
* Clematis like to be well-watered but don't like to rot.
* Plant a little deeper than the pot they come in.
* Mulch to keep moisture in.
* Stripes tend to fade in sun.
* Let them drape over rock walls.
* Use tomato cages, wooden stakes as supports.
* Tree trunk supports - use wire or plastic mesh

* Check out Buying and Growing Tips from a Clematis Nursery

The Climbery
201 Buckwheat Bridge Road, Livingston, NY
Hours: Monday thru Thursday 1 to 5 by appointment
Phone: 518-537-4141

Back to article

Copyright © 2004 DIG IT! Magazine. All rights reserved.