May is here.

Whether you’re a gardener or merely a part-time forest-bather, those words have got to get your heart pumping.  This year I admit to feeling that we haven’t quite earned it (the winter being so mild), but I will accept the gift nonetheless.  It is my favorite month of the year, and ironically my busiest one.

garden center, greenhouse

Walking through the succulent house at Surreybrooke Gardens in Middletown, MD is like walking through a candy store.

It is easy to get caught up in our own gardens, obviously, but hopefully you’ve been looking around at plants outside your property boundaries – and not merely those at the garden centers.

I speak of the private and public gardens in your area – bearing in mind that a garden doesn’t have to be a labelled ‘a garden’ to actually be a garden.  I’ve seen some amazing hellstrips and been surprised by enough cool plant choices at truck stops not to get hung up on labels.

Case in point: I’m now the proud owner of a Hollywood juniper (Juniperus chinensis ‘Torulosa’) after seeing an anachronistic planting of them in North Carolina.  Perhaps they are ubiquitous in that state, but they certainly impressed me with their fascinating forms drawing a line between a Shell station and a Hardees.

Which brings me back to observing what you want in the landscape before you impulse-want it at the garden center.

Know before you go.

Candy stores are all well and good, but it’s smart to know how the sweets work upon your digestion before you buy them – i.e. what’s looking wonderful in your area, with your climate (and, perhaps most importantly, on your climate’s schedule.

If you’re already familiar with a genus (as I am with Juniperus), you can bend the rules a bit.

Timing is everything when it comes to planning out successive color and textures, and if you base your schedule on plant clocks started several months ago under the benevolent shelter of a greenhouse and a king’s ransom of propane, you may find that next year things are not as they may have seemed.

Several weeks ago, while helping a friend pick out some ferns and assorted pretties for her new partial shade garden, we came across a few flats of blue woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata) in full, glorious bloom sitting next to flats of bright yellow tête-à-tête daffodils.

One  big party of contrast and splendor ensued; and, horticultural eavesdropping being a wicked pleasure of mine, I listened and watched as a nearby couple remarked on how both were perennial, both bloomed in spring, and both looked fabulous together.  They hovered on the edge of a purchase – wouldn’t both look gorgeous near the front door next year, the two shoppers surmised.

Except they wouldn’t. Unless of course you belong to the tiny but elite crowd who finds that the spent, strappy stems of early tête-à-têtes somehow ramp up the blue of the later flowering phlox.

It was early April, and not only were the phlox early to the party, but the tête-à-têtes were late.  Though these two are great perennials (yes, yes, one is a bulb, please don’t email me), they weren’t destined for a future hook-up.

I gently intervened. Partly because I didn’t want to see them disappointed, partly because I enjoy the sound of my own voice so much.  Happily the story ended well for the retailers amongst you. They purchased the plants; but in a state of informed consent, fully aware of Nature’s timing next year.


monarda, canna, miscanthus

Figuring out how plants will work together in your own microclimate takes time. (The Pergola Garden in early June.)


Experience is everything – time to get some (or someone else’s).

To a novice gardener, this doesn’t feel like a fair game.  To some extent I agree – I often think how terrific it would be if there were large signs in front of the hormone-addled pompoms of March hydrangeas that warned the impulse shopper against planting this fully hardy shrub outside until May; but then, no one needs a sign to tell them that the speedo they’re buying in February shouldn’t be worn outside until June (or ever, as it happens).



We learn these things from experience, shame, and from observing the distinct lack of blooming hydrangeas in spring, or eye-bending speedos on this side of the Atlantic. To their credit, these shoppers were not completely without discernment: when he pointed to the hydrangea pompons as an option, she shook her head derisively.

unlikely garden pairings

Blooming witchhazels with echinacea and azaleas? Only at the Philadelphia Flower Show.

Home and garden shows can be equally disingenuous, particularly in late winter when we are happy to accept the unlikely pairing of peak-season ‘Red Rooster’ carex with ‘Pink Frost’ hellebores and scribble it down on the list as a can’t miss combo. And we have, all of us, been taken in by that oldie but goodie “Blooms from spring ‘till frost.” Again, experience must play a role here and to gain it takes time.

This is precisely why we visit other people’s gardens – to not only see what is blooming, but when it happens to be doing it.  Because we can’t grow everything at one time.

And, if we don’t have the ability to physically tour, we have the ability to virtually tour – though the latter can be fraught with click-bait pitfalls and clever close ups where you can’t quite see what else is going on (however honestly or dishonestly) around the subject.  Keep your eyes (quite literally) open.

Even if you are touring outside of your zone, it’s good to know that bloom pairings rarely deviate from zone to zone – i.e. the bleeding hearts will be blooming with the wood poppies in Pittsburgh just as they do in Richmond, and when they don’t you can usually put it down to weather related issues (that everyone around you is dealing with just as glumly and vociferously).

The more we know, the more we realize that we don’t know.  Touring other gardens is one of the most pleasurable ways of coming to that conclusion – and adding to our knowledge base at the same time.