Watch your garden awaken in May as luxuriant lilacs, pretty peonies and fantastic ferns all spring to life
May is a wonderful time in the life of a garden. Sunshine and temperatures become more dependable with the passing of the cold frosts, and plants in the garden are at various stages of waking up, in full foliage or starting to blossom. Deciduous trees are producing fresh green leaves, and beech hedges turn from rusty brown to apple green. The gold rush of summer is yet to come but this time of year is full of promise.
Lilacs will be in bloom soon and are prized for their wonderful fragrance. There are many varieties available, from the unusual such as ‘Primrose’, which has elegant pale yellow flowers, and the lovely ‘Katherine Havemeyer’, with fragrant double lavender-blue flowers that complement the heart-shaped leaves perfectly. Lilacs can grow quite large but, for smaller plots, Syringa microphylla ‘Superba’ is a good compact choice. All will attract bees and butterflies to their delicious nectar.
Dicentras bring an unusual elegance to the flower border in the shape of their finely feathered leaves, which are joined by horizontal flower stems decorated with heart-shaped flowers along their length. Dicentra formosa ‘Bacchanal’ has strong ground-covering foliage and deep-burgundy flowers while Dicentra spectabilis ‘Alba’ is a more robust form with pure-white flowers that go on till midsummer.
For strong foliage, the euphorbia family is outstanding in May. Euphorbia mellifera is an evergreen dome-shaped shrub, and one of my favourites, with bold leaf rosettes and, at this time of year, delicious honey-scented flowers. The felt-like foliage of Euphorbia characias ‘Wulfenii’ has been joined by its luminous yellow flowers — making it one of the most dramatic plants of late spring and early summer — and the Euphorbia polychroma covers the ground in a golden carpet.
Another foliage classic is Melianthus major, a plant that has become a lot more popular mainly because of its brilliant jagged leaves that look like they have been cut out with pinking shears. If you rub the leaves, they will produce a surprising peanut flavour.
The ferns are starting to unfurl their new fronds, and the hostas will soon be swirling up through the earth in their various colour variations and leaf shapes. Polystichum setiferum and Dryopteris affinis are two ferns that blend beautifully into a flower border.
Viburnums with the large white pom-pom flowers are great focal points. Viburnum × carlcephalum and Viburnum macrocephalum have open branching habits and fantastically creamy-white flowers, true garden divas. Viburnum plicatum ‘Mariesii’ grows in a completely differently way, in arching layers with flattened saucer-shaped flowers in pure white.
The leaves of the herbaceous peonies are now unfolding and changing from a deep red to green, along with the promise of their exciting large flowers. Paeonia ‘Duchesse de Nemours’ and Paeonia ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ are classic pastel-coloured examples, and Paeonia officinalis ‘Crimson Globe’ is a deep red.
I’m planting up a garden at the moment and am using some Itoh peonies. These are special types of peony — a cross between a herbaceous and a tree peony, combining the best of both. They’re expensive so a bit of an investment, but I think worthwhile for their big, dramatic blossoms, which flower for longer than the herbaceous ones.
‘Bartzella’ is a beautiful variety with big, ruffled lemony-yellow flowers with a flash of pink around the central yellow stamens. Plant in fertile, free-draining soil in full sunshine or a little shade in a sheltered position. Also stunning is ‘Cora Louise’, which has big, pure-white silky petals with an intense magenta flare around the golden stamens. Itoh peonies will take a few years to settle in and flower profusely but when they do, you’ll be overjoyed.
The Chilean firebush is an eye-catching shrub or small evergreen tree and this month is covered in long, bright red, tubular flowers, which make it stand out from the crowd of pretty pastel cherries and magnolias. It’s borderline hardy so will perform best in milder parts of the country. For best results, plant in a sunny, sheltered area to avoid cold, drying winds. Its preference is for acidic soil but it will also grow on neutral.
Do you have any tips on how to stop my new puppy digging up my plants and generally causing a mess? — Amy
New puppies can be a challenge for gardeners, and patience is required. My dog dug up everything I planted, as she was drawn to buried organic matter such as well-rotted farmyard manure. It was deeply frustrating seeing wonderful specimens or even drifts of new herbaceous perennials scattered on the lawn because Roxie felt there was as much fun in shaking the compost out of their root balls as digging them up.
The solutions I tried included scattering pepper dust (available from garden centres) during dry periods and sticking in short bamboo canes at dramatic angles (to deter her from sticking her head into newly planted borders). Both of these worked to a degree but the best solution was to stop using organic matter as feed while she was in her first year.
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