The Garden In May
If you will forgive me for yet one more alliteration, here we are ready and willing to welcome in magnificent May! Regarded by many gardeners as one of the best months, if not the best, May is both full of spring’s freshness of leaf and flower as well as holding all the promise of the gardening summer to come. I can’t think of a better month to end our twelve month journey during the pandemic looking at plants catching the eye in our West Wales garden.
However, before I wax lyrical about the joys of May, what about the wonderful April which we have just enjoyed? It certainly didn’t disappoint with its dry, sunny weather following three very wet and cloudy months and the plants responded by producing some lovely sights. The Cherries were as good as I had hoped with Prunus ‘The Bride’ still with a little flower right up to the end of the month and P. ‘Royal Burgundy’ with its young burgundy-pink foliage and lighter pink flowers ready to welcome in the new month. Our two Malus trees are also showing their red-pink buds which will soon open to pink-white flowers as we enter May. The Magnolia stellata has also been in flower for the second half of April and although it is only three feet (1 metre) high and wide by the time it has finished it will have had over thirty of its beautiful, white, star-like flowers which are even more impressive as most come before the leaves appear. The new leaves on all the Japanese Maples (Acer) have been really bright and colourful and I never cease to be amazed at the variety of spring colour they provide.
Prunus ‘The Bride’ in mid-April Magnolia stellata
Just two of our very different Acers (Japanese Maples)
The rest of the plants I mentioned in the April garden have also performed well but a few have really stood out. The Honesty (Lunaria annua) have been, and still are as I write this at the end of the month, bringing great blocks of colour and has surprised us this year by having more white flowers than the more usual pink-purple ones. Next year, of course, it could well be the other way round and this element of uncertainty is one of the many joys of gardening. Another plant which has literally shone in the April garden has been the Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris) in the pond. As I write I can count over a hundred flowers on just the one plant which the bees have been enjoying as much as we have. Each flower is over an inch (2.5 cms) across and has five or six yellow outer petals and slightly darker orange-yellow centres. The other lovely surprise package has been Viola sororia ‘Freckles’ with its many, fragrant, pale blue, purple flecked flowers which in some ways look like simple versions of orchid flowers.
Honesty (Lunaria annua) in a bed which was only replanted last spring
Caltha palustris Viola sororia ‘Freckles’
It is often these unexpected, almost forgotten plants which stop you in your tracks and really insist that you admire them. I have certainly looked much more closely at plants and other forms of wildlife in the last twelve months and have felt much better for it. As I write this a mouse, a Wood Mouse I think, has just popped out of a hole on the edge of the patio and enjoyed a good meal under the bird feeders! We have also been enjoying the company of a pair of Robins that are nesting in a box hidden in a dense conifer. It is impossible to move around the garden or do any work without being accompanied by one of the birds hoping for an opportune meal. We have also begun to see some evidence (droppings!) of visits from at least one hedgehog which is always a very welcome sight as is the early evening appearance of two bats working their way along the hedge-line near the house.
Right enough about April and wildlife, what about the delights that May has to offer? As for the trees the Silver Birch (Betula pendula) has its small, bright green, young leaves, the Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) is full of flower buds which will open in June, The Goat Willow (Salix) which the birds love has its light green leaves and male catkins and the Katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) with its reddish, heart-shaped young leaves are all adding their own beauty to the flower power of the Crab Apples. We also have a small twisted form of Robinia, R. ‘Lace Lady’ which has an interesting form and structure all year but in May the bare stems begin to show breaking buds which will develop later into ringlet-like, pendulous and twisted pinnate leaves like those on the Rowan.
Cercidiphyllum japonicum Robinia ‘Lace Lady’
On the shrub front the fragrant flowers on our Viburnum, V. x burkwoodii ‘Compact Beauty’ are already present as the month begins. Other shrubs are showing promise of flower to come and the star, I think, this year will be our Lilac, Syringa vulgaris ‘Rhum von Horstenstein’, which has only been in the ground for about four years and is still less than five feet (1.5 metres) high but has well over fifty of its dark lilac-red, very fragrant flower spikes developing nicely. Our other Lilacs, S. meyeri ‘Palibin’ which will also be in flower in May are much smaller shrubs with small leaves and many spikes of lavender- pink, fragrant flowers. I have always thought of this shrub as a dwarf form of Lilac but perhaps it is just slow growing as there is a very large specimen or possibly a group of plants near the shop and plant sales area at Aberglasney which never ceases to stop me in my tracks whenever it is in bloom. For foliage colour in May it is hard to beat the dark red-purple, dissected leaves of Sambucus niger ‘Black Lace’ (Elder) which will be followed in the summer by its flat flower heads made up of many small, white-pink flowers. At this point you are probably beginning to wonder why I haven’t yet mentioned Rhododendrons which are usually full of flower in May. The flowers are truly spectacular and the Rhododendron genus contains a huge range of plants from dwarf shrubs only a few inches high to the tree-like shrubs which can be seen in many of the country’s larger gardens which have an acid soil such as Bodnant and Aberglasney. However, for me the rather sombre, evergreen foliage is not that attractive and I need a bit more from a shrub. I do grow evergreen Azaleas in pots of ericaceous (lime free) compost though and ours are full of their pink flower buds as we start the month of May.
Viburnum x burkwoodii ‘Compact Beauty’ Syringa vulgaris ‘Rhum von Horstenstein’
Other flower colour in May will come from some of the climbing plants. I mentioned Clematis montana last month as I thought it would be out in April but it has fooled me once again and it is going to burst forth in May instead! Clematis alpina ‘Constance’ on the other hand did start to flower in April with its magenta-pink four outer petals and four inner petals with a yellow centre which will develop into a fluffy seed head once the flowers finish sometime in May. As for our other Clematis plants we will have to wait a little longer for their flowers but as always it will be well worth the wait. One other climber which is showing flower buds at the end of April is the ever reliable and attractive, but I think much under-valued, climbing Hydrangea, H. petolaris. This is a deciduous plant although there is an evergreen ‘version’, H. seemanii, and has beautiful, cinnamon-coloured stems, bright green, almost heart-shaped leaves and flat heads of white flowers. It climbs by attaching short aerial roots to walls and fences but does them no damage. It is sometimes a little slow to get going but once established it is an excellent plant and is particularly good on shady walls and fences which are not suitable for other climbers such as Clematis and Rose. This brings me neatly on to the Roses which are going to save their first flush of flowers for June but in May their foliage is still a great delight partly because it is so fresh and unblemished by rust or blackspot! Our Rosa rugosa shrub roses have bright green leaves but many of the other roses have more colourful young growth in pinks, reds and purples.
Clematis alpina ‘Constance’ Hydrangea petiolaris
At ground level the spring flowers such as Honesty (Lunaria), Forget-me-not (Myosotis), Brunnera, Primula, Viola, Omphalodes and Helleborus will continue to perform but will be added to by a whole host of late spring/early summer flowers which will eventually take over from them. You know I am going to start with the hardy Geranium so I won’t disappoint you! At the end of April the first flowers are already on G. macrorrhizum which is a semi-evergreen perennial with scented, seven-lobed, hairy leaves which does really well in the shade so we tend to use it under trees and shrubs. All through May it will be full of flowers which are a great magnet for bees. Most plants have pink flowers but other cultivars have white or even crimson-purple flowers. Our other Geranium in flower at the beginning of May is G. phaeum (The Mourning Widow or Dusky Cranesbill) which despite its name is a really lovely late spring flower. Our plant is G. phaeum ‘Samboro’ with its dark, purple, rounded flowers held above green, five-lobed leaves with attractive purple blotches. There is also a white cultivar G. phaeum album. The rest of our Geraniums have all been making good leaf growth but will save their flowers for June and beyond. If you like Violas but find that they seed around rather too freely then try V. labradorica with its mauve-purple flowers above clumps of heart-shaped green-purple leaves.
Geranium phaeum ‘Samboro’ Viola labradorica
Other herbaceous perennials which are growing strongly at the end of April and already have some flower buds include Thalictrum and Aquilegia. Thalictrums are generally thought of as summer flowers but ours seem keen to contribute to the May garden. We grow the wonderfully named Thalictrum aquilegiifolium which has clouds of rosy-lilac flowers above clumps of dainty, finely-divided, light green foliage. Aquilegia (Columbine) on the other hand are more usual May flowers with their interestingly shaped leaves and bright flowers in virtually the whole colour range. Also producing their unusually shaped flowers in May are Epimediums (Bishop’s Hat). These are very good shade plants with leaves which are heart-shaped at the top but quite pointed at the base and flowers which hang from wiry stems in a large range of colours. Another late spring flowering plant is the Spring Pea (Lathyrus vernus ‘Alboroseus’) with its blush-pink clusters of pea flowers above attractive unfurling foliage. It is very hardy and long lived and likes most soils either in sun or shade.
Epimedium Lathyrus vernus ‘Alboroseus’
Unfortunately ‘long lived’ cannot be said of one of the most colourful of the May plants, the Tulip. Perhaps it is the Yorkshireman in me that makes me attracted to plants which come back reliably year after year but even I have to admit that a spring bed full of Tulips is a sight to behold. This is certainly true of the beds and borders in the walled garden at Aberglasney which we were finally able to visit again a few days ago. There are always interesting plants to admire there but the Tulip displays were certainly taking centre stage and will no doubt continue to do so well into May. I have mentioned the gardens at Aberglasney quite a few times over the last twelve months and I am delighted to be able to say that the head gardener, Joseph Atkin, has very kindly given me permission both to write about and to photograph the delights to be found throughout the gardens over the next twelve months and to present them in my monthly blogs. I think that you will find that the range of plants is a little larger and more varied than I have been able to offer you from our garden! So I hope to introduce you to some new plants starting in June and to follow the gardening year through the months to come in one of our very best Welsh gardens.
Some of the Tulip displays at Aberglasney in mid-April and a few more photographs to whet your appetite for the blogs to come.
Part of the stunning Fritillaria meadow Tulips and the Rose arbour beyond
One of many wonderful Magnolias and one of the equally good Cherries
Before that there are some jobs which will need to be done in our own gardens and a full list as always is given in May 2019 blog archive. Try to make sure that though that one of your main tasks is to do more sitting, relaxing and admiring the garden than you have been able to so far this year and the better weather and longer days should help you to do this. One of our main jobs at the end of April and into May is to protect tender plants from low overnight temperatures. During the day we bring bedding plants and young vegetables which will eventually be grown outside out of the greenhouse to harden off outdoors and on mild nights we leave them there but if there is any chance of a cold night they go back into the greenhouse or are covered with some horticultural fleece. In our area once they have had a spell of at least a week of hardening off they are ready to plant out or pot up into their final containers after the middle of the month. In colder districts this may have to wait until nearer the end of the month or even into June. We were finally able to visit the Old Railway Line on the last Saturday of April and I am pleased to say that that it was busy but at the same time it felt very safe and well organised and as always was well stocked with everything beautifully displayed. Lots of tender bedding was available but as the signs on them say such plants do need to be treated with care at this time of year.
In our beds and borders we will be concentrating on preventing ‘weeds’ getting any kind of hold. You know the old saying that a weed is simply a plant in the wrong place which is true but you also know that there are definitely some plants which you don’t really want to see in your garden. Perennial ‘weeds’ such as Dandelion and Buttercup although very welcome in a wilder area need to be dug out of beds and borders and the roots disposed of rather than composted. Annual ‘weeds’ such as Bittercress, Speedwell and in our case seedlings which spring up from our own compost which clearly doesn’t get hot enough to kill off all the seeds are much easier to deal with by hoeing. Not long ago I was lucky enough to be given a stainless steel push-pull hoe which has a sharp blade at both the front and back edge. This easily chops off the tops of the seedlings which then shrivel in the sun. I find it a very therapeutic exercise unless of course I get a bit careless and decapitate a plant I like! I also find that hoeing also gives me a chance to have a close look at the plants for any early signs of pests and diseases which can then be dealt with before they get serious. I am pleased to say though that since we try to encourage wildlife into the garden as much as we can and we avoid the use of chemicals we rarely have any major problems and I just hope that saying this doesn’t come back to haunt me later in the season!
Plants are growing apace in May and some will need supporting so that they don’t get damaged by wind or rain or begin to smother neighbouring plants. We try to get our metal hoops and other forms of physical support in place as early as we can but there are always more to add in May as plants grow higher than you remember from the year before! Climbing plants such as Roses, Clematis and Sweet Peas will also need their extending growth tying into trellis or supporting wires. For roses we use flexible, soft, plastic ties which are longer lasting than twine and allow the stems to expand without damage whereas for softer growth twine is perfectly suitable. Just try to use the figure of eight method so that the stem is not pressed directly onto the hard support by putting the twine or plastic tie around the stem then crossing over the ends before tying onto the support.
I mentioned spring bulbs last month and in order for them to flower well next year we all need to do two things in May if you haven’t done them already. Firstly leave the dead headed flower stems and all the leaves on the plants until they go brown to continue to feed the bulbs for next year and help them to do so by adding some fertilizer and watering in if it is dry.
On the lawn we will continue to cut at least once a week but will make sure that we don’t cut so low that we ‘scalp’ the lawn which can lead to a yellowing of the grass and bare patches where weeds and moss can get established. We would normally have fed the lawn by now but this year April was so dry that we are little behind. We will add the granular fertilizer a day or so before rain is forecast hopefully sometime in the next couple of weeks.
In the vegetable beds and pots there are lots of young plants coming through and more to be planted out in the next few weeks. We have sugar snap peas, broad beans and new potatoes coming though in our new bed and lettuce plants in the runner bean area which will crop before the beans start to take over. I have sown a few runners inside but will do the main sowing direct into the ground in the first part of May. The same applies to French beans which will go into the third bed alongside spinach, chard and yet more lettuce. The task then is to keep the hoe going to remove unwanted plants which simply compete with your crops for water and nutrients and to keep the crops well-watered so that they continue to grow strongly and without check. The tomato plants are all doing well and those for the greenhouse will be planted into the growbags quite soon and the outdoor bush tomatoes will go into their final pots which will be kept in the greenhouse until it is safe for them to go outside. This also applies to the courgettes which are just beginning to germinate. Our mixed leaves in troughs in the back porch are all doing well and are already supplying us with tasty, fresh produce for salads and sandwiches. To keep the supply going I just take a trough which has come to the end of its productive life, remove the top inch or so of compost and roots, replace with new compost and re-sow. Germination usually takes less than a week and in three or four weeks it is producing enough growth to crop. We just remove a few leaves at a time from each plant which you can do several times before the trough needs to be re-sown.
The other main job in May and the following months is to water when and where necessary preferably, of course, with rainwater. This applies mainly to recently planted trees, shrubs, herbaceous perennials and bedding plants, plants in containers and fruit and vegetables. Just bear in mind that it is much more beneficial to the plants to have a good watering which gets the water down to the roots where it is needed say once a week for plants in the ground but more frequently in containers than to have a little water each day just splashed around and largely wasted through evaporation. Actually just watering the surface layer can harm the plant as it leads to shallow rooting rather than encouraging the roots to seek out water further down in the soil. Shallow rooting makes the plant less able to cope with dry spells in the future. It is also a good idea to water in the evenings to reduce the loss through evaporation. One final plea on watering, there is no need to waste water on lawns unless they are newly planted. Grass has a remarkable ability to recover from a dry period as we see every year in September as our sometimes rather brown summer lawns return to green in a matter of weeks. One simple way to reduce such browning without wasting water is to keep the grass a little longer than you might otherwise do.
Right that is plenty to be getting on with particularly after my advice to sit and relax in the garden as much as possible! This blog should be available at the beginning of the month as usual and before the end of the month a blog which lists all the blogs I have written over the last year will appear so that it will be possible to look back over past topics or useful for people coming to the blogs for the first time. Then in June the first of the monthly blogs based on the gardens at Aberglasney will appear. Until then keep well and enjoy your gardening.