If there was any doubt that gardening is as much a state of mind as a cultivation of plants, I give you the merry month of May.
Except that I struggle to find May merry for reasons that are both tangible and harder to grasp. Perhaps you share these perceptions—or some of them.
April is joyful because it gives us the fresh, new face of spring after the emptiness of winter. But May is febrile; life erupts everywhere and at a pace that cannot be gauged or digested. When you race up to a distant stand of tall bearded iris, only to see that half the ornate blossoms have faded, you feel the floral treadmill is traveling too fast.
But like the flowers, I get ahead of myself.
Gardening is a three-ring circus. In the first ring, you maintain. That’s weeding, watering, feeding, pruning, harvesting. In the second ring, you plant. This is about attending to the future, implementing a planting design or making sure you have tomatoes in August. The third is to do with the present, the act of studying and enjoying what you have created.
In every circle in May, too many plates are aloft, spinning, slowing, wobbling, crashing. Let’s start with the weeds. I was tugging chickweed in early May, only to find the emergence of galinsoga. Chickweed is a weed of winter, galinsoga one of summer. Ships pass in the night. Weeds greet each other. All is now so vital that you can weed for an hour on a Saturday only to find a new eruption by Wednesday, no kidding.
This year has seen an explosion of a weed related to jack in the pulpit, a slender aroid that would be handsome on its own, but it appears in great numbers from underground bulbs. This is Pinellia ternata. You can pull a stem, but unless you dig out the underlying corm, another will soon replace it.
I am weeding to make sure the parsnip and beet seedlings are not overrun. Meanwhile, the tatsoi and arugula are bolting and must be pulled, last year’s banana plant is being resuscitated, and the tomato transplants are merely heeled in while they await their proper bed. I haven’t had time to finish digging and amending it—I’ve been too busy weeding and finding a home for two dozen lavender and thyme plants that have been sitting in their pots. During this frenzy, spring has happened.
You look up, and the grapevine you never got to cutting back is now in flower, the rosebuds are swelling, and the peonies are flopping in the rain.
In the garden, a wren, that consummate songbird of spring, is still parked on top of the birdhouse, chirping for a mate. And yet the ruby-throated hummingbird of summer has arrived, supping from the comfrey blossoms. This is the nub of the May problem; it is a confused month that at our latitude doesn’t know whether it’s chickweed or galinsoga, wren or hummingbird, spring or summer. This dichotomy is compounded for people (like me) who grew up in northern climes, where peonies flowered in early June, and roses, clematis and lavender started to bloom in late June. The natural order was more sequenced, less compressed.
It is reasonable to think the May maelstrom will worsen with climate change. What is the remedy for this state of things?
I’m learning to put down the weeding knife, stop worrying about the tomatoes and look around.
Perennials and woody plants that have leafed out will never have more perfect foliage. Plump with moisture and vitality, the leaves offer a thousand different versions of nature’s design for capturing the sun’s energy, all of them captivating. At this moment, they are untouched by the heat, pests and diseases that will surely come. Their colors are vibrant. The Japanese painted fern, for example, is glowing in surreal shades of silver and purple. In one corner of the garden, I have inherited someone else’s confection, a strange but effective mix of lily of the valley, lamium and golden creeping Jenny. By July, this medley will be a train wreck, but for now it sits as a riposte to the May moaner.
The sterling tree of the moment is the yellowwood, a medium-size shade tree with beechlike gray bark, a pleasing symmetric outline and panicles of delicate but showy white flowers that announce its leguminous clan. I noticed a splendid 25-foot specimen at the State Arboretum of Virginia the other day, and I’d forgotten how lovely this tree is, and how it deserves more use.
Rugosa roses bloom early in May but are not as popular as they were; they flower just once as a rule, and in the mid-Atlantic the compensating rose fruits or hips are never as outrageously large and decorative as in colder climates. But the single blossoms capture the essential simple power of the wild rose for me, not least because the fragrance is powerful enough to reach deep into one’s memory.
Catmint is such a useful and pretty perennial, now smothered in its violet blue flowers against gray-green foliage. The larger cultivars such as Six Hills Giant tend to splay a bit, especially in sodden springs, but there are more compact varieties particularly useful in small spaces. Cutting them back by a half or more after flowering will promote compact re-growth and often some fresh flowering.
Baptisia—or false indigo—a native perennial that functions more as a small shrub, is coming into flower now, before you are quite ready for it. Another legume, it produces lupinelike flowers in either blue, yellow, white and novelty shades, and stands as an anchoring presence with ornamental grasses and meadow flowers.
Most herbaceous peonies I have seen this month have collapsed with the rains; this is why you need to stake them in early April before the shoots are longer than a few inches. You can salvage the calamity by cutting the blooms for the vase. They pair nicely, I’ve found, with chive blossoms, another feature of the gardening year’s frenzied start.
Outdoor containers must be free-draining to prevent waterlogging and root rot. Do not place saucers under pots. Containers sitting on patios may not drain properly and should be elevated, using either purpose-made “feet” or bricks.