May has symbolized rebirth and a definitive end to winter throughout the centuries. It is at once a vigorous month and a calming one, but we must calm our vigorous urges so we might see it.
Roses. Peonies. Iris. Philadelphus. Clematis. Rhodos. Allium….. For many gardeners, this is the month our garden is almost at its best. Ironically it is also the month that we are usually visiting other gardens and missing the miracles performed by our own. Of course, the challenge as a gardener is to move beyond May and face the other eleven months of the year (or at least the other nine).
Consider this as you begin thinking about new plants, and aim to extend your bloom season well into the fall! It’s easier than you think, but takes observation. Keep your eyes open as the season wears on and make notes of the plants you see blooming and generally being wonderful in other people’s gardens.
I look forward to May with breath held, for just as it will be one of the most beautiful months in my garden, it will always be my busiest. This year it is an extremely special and busy May as, mid-month I will be attending the Great Dixter May Symposium in the UK and spending a day at the Chelsea Flower Show.
This was a last minute decision to take advantage of a cancellation spot on this world famous intensive gardening week – and to my delight, Leslie Harris, friend and podcaster from Charlottesville, took the other available spot. I’ve been tracking these symposia for many years and find it hard to believe I’m finally going.
If you’re interested in hearing more about Dixter, the late garden writer Christopher Lloyd, and two giddy women, Leslie had me on her podcast Saturday to discuss what, exactly, we hope to get out of it. She also has some great show notes with links to books, articles, and even a Desert Island Disk episode featuring Christopher Lloyd which shouldn’t be missed by anyone who recognizes that there is more to gardening than just plants.
“I should have planted that!” for May’s garden
Carefully observing neighboring gardens month-to-month and putting in some of the wonderful things you see during the next planting season allows you to successfully increase your garden’s display season without having to experiment too much with timing. For the lusty month of May, how about….
Papaver somniferum – (Opium poppies) For many years, entranced by their silky petals and florist-worthy seed heads, I tried to grow opium poppies. A friend and I had a running dialogue about our failures with seeding it in early spring (as all the packets recommended). And then one day I read a snippet somewhere about throwing seed in the early to late fall along with larkspur. By early April the next year, tiny glaucous rosettes had formed, and in May – glorious blooms. I’ve been growing them ever since, allowing them to self-sow and adding a few packets for luck. Like many things in life, it’s all about timing.
Most packets of P. somniferum seed are sold under the very respectable name ‘breadseed poppy’ in what I can only assume is an attempt to circumvent any concerns your Great Aunt Edna might have about growing them. As the rest of the world seems determined to have a legal cannabis patch in their front garden at this point, it seems a bit pointless, but if you are having problems finding seeds, this may be why. Growing P. somniferum is something of a legal gray area. Seeds are legally sold, but can they be legally grown? As I have never grown them for anything other then pleasure (hmm….that argument may have some holes), and grown them in tiny quantities, I have never let it worry me.
P. somniferum hails from Asia Minor, and comes in an array of colors. The nodding flower buds eventually straighten and open to reveal petals from deepest red to plum purple to white. the petals may be arranged as singles or as doubles, and several named cultivars look more like an artificial pom-pom than a living flower.
I am a simple girl and love most deeply the simple single flowers. After the petals fade and fall, the seed heads remain, drying in place most decoratively, and soon, a light tap will prove them full of dried, tiny seeds.
Throw the seed in early to late fall, around the time they might fall naturally. There is no need to cover them – winter will do that for you. P. somniferum loves a finely raked rich soil, but often seeds happily in disturbed areas of lesser fertility.
In early spring, look carefully for tiny, gray-green rosettes. If you have a cluster of them in a small area, be ruthless and thin to one every six inches – avoiding this painful step will result in a crowded mess of stunted plants that may not bloom.
Bees are fascinated by these lovely annuals — grow them as a part of your pollinator garden!
Now back to the business of May…
- May 1st is the last frost date for planting tender vegetables and annuals in the Mid-Atlantic – though many often wait for Mother’s Day. It’s Tomato Time!!
- Still a great time to plant trees and shrubs. Do not let lingering rains convince you that they do not need to be regularly watered in their first season.
- Cut back and/or shape flowering shrubs that have bloomed, such as forsythia, quince, lilac, viburnum and spirea.
- Weed populations are stronger now and summer weeds have germinated. Try to get them out by the roots before they go to seed.
- Mulch newly planted veg beds with leaf mold or straw.
- Very soon it will be too late to plant cool season crops in the Mid-Atlantic. Check out this excellent planting guide from University of MD Extension service. You’ll find all the dates you need there.
- Now that the weather has warmed up, painting projects can confidently begin.
- Keep an eye out each morning for pests, so you can solve problems before they get to be insurmountable.
- Don’t cut those lawns too low – 3-4 inches is recommended to keep lawns healthy and weeds out.
- Got an area you’d rather not mow? Turn it into a grassy meadow instead, cutting one or two wide paths through it and mowing a perimeter strip to keep the neighbors happy. Keep the paths wide to keep hitchhiking ticks away from clothing. Does this mean the wildflowers will take over? A little perhaps, but unless you remove turf, seed and manage it, you are more likely to have a preponderance of tall grass. There’s still much to be observed however – cut those paths and experience something new!
- Start your tender container gardens now. Keep them watered.
- Enjoy those outside blooms by taking a few inside. Don’t worry, you’ll hardly notice their absence.
- Mosquito season starts NOW. Every few days, take a walk around and make sure water hasn’t pooled up in tarps, saucers, containers and holes in trees. The Asian tiger mosquito only needs a couple teaspoons over a few days to make your life miserable with her progeny. Mosquito dunks are one of the best ways of fighting these pests, and what I use in all my rain barrels.
- When moving out your winter refugees and beloved houseplants, make sure they are placed in a part-shade situation. Otherwise you will end up with scorched leaves and a stunted plant. As they adjust to temps and sunlight, you can move them to their homes for the season.
You can find a video about this on my Instagram TV feed, on my Vimeo channel , and linked at the bottom of this page. Or, you can read all about the process in Tropical Plants and How to Love Them. There are only a few rules to follow when using your houseplants outdoors, and following them carefully ensures a happy plant ready for a fall and winter indoors at the peak of health.
- Clean and organize your inside growing space (basement, garage, etc.) as things go out, so that plants can come in easily and efficiently in the fall.
- For those plants that spend their lives indoors (such a shame!) – this is a great time to re-pot them if they have grown pot-bound.
“The world is young to-day:
Forget the gods are old,
Forget the years of gold
When all the months were May.”
-Digby Mackworth Dolben
-from “A Song”