It’s January and woody leafless clematis are showing up in nurseries again. Don’t be fooled by the apparently lifeless sticks. The myriad colors and shapes of the clematis make it an ever more popular addition to modern gardens. And yet the clematis has a certain ... reputation. Hard to grow, many say. Actually, like many finicky beauties, the clematis insists on being treated JUST SO. Give her what she wants and she will reward you with up to 25 years of lovely blooms.

“The key to the clematis,” says David Bish, co-owner of Plant Oregon in Talent, “is having a cool root system. A lot of varieties will take full sun so long as the roots will be shaded.”

A full 4 inches of mulch is recommended, although the mulch should not be directly against the stems, which need air and light to stave off fungal infections. In winter, mulch protects the plants from frost. Other ways of shading the roots are covering the ground around the plant with flat paving stones or small rocks, or using ground cover plants with shallow roots that won’t interfere with the deep-rooted clematis. Hostas are perfect for this, as are artemisia, hardy geraniums, creeping phlox, coral bells and candytuft.

Although the roots need shade, the clematis plant needs at least six hours of full sun to thrive. Of course, there are exceptions — the large flowered red, blue or bi-colors fade in full sun. These are best planted with eastern exposure or in dappled shade.

Preparing the initial planting is also crucial. Clematis don’t like their roots disturbed, so they aren’t candidates for moving once planted. Although they need a lot of water, they don’t like wet feet. If you have clay soil prepare a large hole (18 inches to 2 feet in diameter) and fill it with good dirt — potting soil is actually best, with added compost and bone meal. The root crown should be just a little above grade.

“Most people’s problems start because they buy too young a plant,” says Esther Lee, customer service representative at the South Medford Grange Co-op. “Never buy anything younger than 2 years. You need well-developed roots when you start.”

Because they can grow from 8 to 20 feet long, the plants need support, although some people have success using them as ground cover. They are best, however, with trellises, arbors, walls or some sort of structure to climb. C. montana is the only variety that can compete successfully with tree roots and may be trained to twine up a tree. Some late flowering clematis may be trained up once flowering roses, giving the rose bush a second burst of beauty after its own blooms are finished.

The other crucial component to successfully growing clematis is knowing how and when to prune. Early-flowering clematis, late-flowering clematis and large flowered hybrids all have different requirements. It is imperative that you know the type to cut it properly, so record the information and keep it in a safe place.

“[Pruning] goes by when the plant produces buds and blooms,” says Tim Elbert, manager of Four Seasons Nursery. “Check with the nursery when you buy it and they should have instructions for you.”

Then there is feeding, lots of feeding. “You have to feed at least three to four times from spring to fall with slow release fertilizer,” Lee says. She says any all-purpose fertilizer will do, as long as it is not too high in nitrogen.

Good preparation, shaded roots, proper sun exposure, watering, fertilizing, pruning and support for your variety — remember all that and this finicky beauty will reward your intimate attention with blooms of unparalleled beauty. A beautiful belle, indeed.