May is the green month , that time before colour kicks in through the perennial borders in July and August but for me May is best as I love the green leaf colour you get in May and May is also the month when the hostas and gunnera are really at their best .
A lot of gardeners regard May as a waiting period , a limbo in the garden’s growth before that huge burst of colour in June and July … not for me as flowers are not a priority , my gardening philosophy is more towards leaf and structure but don’t think I am against perennial flowers , I like flowers but they are not my first objective in a plant or a shrub and I never buy a tree or a shrub just for the sake of it’s flowers .
There are always exceptions of course and while I would never buy a cherry blossom tree for example gorgeous and all as they are in flower , blink and you’ve missed it as the flowers are there for two weeks … and then a nondescript tree for the remaining fifty weeks of the year but a tree I would always include is the Viburnum opulus better known as the snowball tree which is a show stopper in the garden when in flower but which also has a nice structure and leaf for the rest of the year … but the snowball shape flowers alone are worth having even for those three weeks of flowering .
I also love wisteria , my absolute favourite climbing plant , a mature wisteria in flower is one of the best sights in gardening , Chinese in origin but which has come to be regarded as quintessentially English over a doorway or draped on a pergola , the flowers are brief but stunning … no instant gratification here as there is a long bedding in period for wisteria after planting , five years at least but it is worth the wait and I would always go for the classic blue flowered wisteria , the white variety is nice too but blue is better in my opinion .
Another tree loved by gardeners especially in the UK is the hazelnut or Corylus both for the nuts but more often because it can be coppiced to the ground every five years and the resulting new branches grow straight and narrow and are used for staking in the garden which is a big British gardening tradition for perennials their long borders . We grow the blue leafed hazelnut here as the leaves are more blue than copper beech and bigger but for some reason perhaps because of it’s dual use for nuts and coppiced branches it is a very undervalued tree for garden impact and it hardly ever features on garden writers “ Ten best trees ” . All of the great British gardens have a “ nuttery ” tucked away somewhere , the most famous being at Sissinghurst and these are coppiced to the ground every few years but although we have the space and crucially the deer don’t eat hazelnut trees , we don’t coppice the hazelnut trees but enjoy and use them as single specimens in various areas throughout the garden .
Over the years I have come to love ferns especially along the walk beside the stream which is in dappled shaded light throughout the day and this coupled with waterside conditions has meant that ferns have colonised it . Victorians loved ferns and since then they have had a bad press and a reputation for being associated with dank damp areas which is far from the case in modern gardens and yes of course ferns love damp shady areas but they will also equally love sunny conditions although not full sun all day mind you . Most of our ferns are from spores that came in on the wind but in the past few years I have bought lots of named varieties at garden centres wherever I visit and I am always on the look out for exotic new additions . Ferns will take easily in dampish locations with some shade and have no predators that I know of and thankfully deer won’t go near them .
But ferns are not sexy and you won’t find garden writers describing their ten best ferns which is why they don’t feature much in people’s shopping lists of garden plants … for me I am fascinated by ferns but for years I have resisted the urge to buy a New Zealand Tree fern because they need cossetting in the winter frost … resisted until last week when I bought a small tree fern at Clonmel Garden Centre for the new water area and I will take a friend’s advice to pack the top of the fern with ash from the fire so fingers crossed !
All garden centres stock ferns but to get unusual ones especially the big architectural types is the trick and last week I bought some varieties new to me at Johnstown Garden Centre in Naas including a terrific fern called the sensitive fern , onoclea sesibilis , which I have had in a boggy area of the garden for a few years but have never managed to find it for sale again until now . It is called “ sensitive ” but only because a late frost can damage the leaves otherwise it is very hardy fern that dies back in winter and it spreads slowly when in damp ground in shade / partial shade with a beautiful leaf rather like common bracken but without the tough stems . It does really well , spreads if it likes the location and looks great beside a stream or a pond , a delicate plant in looks and a firm favourite with me , I bought three but of course when I got back here I regretted I hadn’t bought more and while up to now I didn’t want to spilt our established clump of the sensitive fern I will divide it next winter now that I have back ups in place .
Planting up a pot can be tricky and you need to consider it’s location , sun , shade or part shade , I like to buy pots for specific locations and with specific plants in mind . The easy option is to plonk an evergreen shrub in it like a viburnum tinus , variety Evelyn Price , which is compact growing , evergreen , undemanding and pretty much looks after itself and like car park planting you get what you pay for … reliable and DULL ! If the pot is large , a metre or so high , it can command a location without any plant and with pots like this I go for hostas and leave it empty over the winter or you can stick a few pansies in for winter colour .
This week I bought a nice pot . hand made in Greece , in the typical Cretan pithoi style … only problem is the pot should be at least a metre high but it is still a lovely delicate little thing with a tulip type top which means a hosta is not suitable as it will be a bugger to get out to divide in a years time and leaving it in is not an option as hostas soon outgrow their pots and will eventually break them if you can’t get it out .
So a delicate plant for a delicate pot and my go to gentle delicate perennial plant is the geranium nudosum which has a beautiful glaucus green leaf . This ground cover geranium is not a thug like the normal cranesbills which I also love like geranium Biokovo that is my go to geranium thug … nudosum dies back into the soil in winter and peeps out timidly in April when within days of appearing it has a huge growth spurt … you won’t find it for sale in the garden centres as it is not showy enough and you need to get it from another gardener but geranium nudosum will be perfect for the new pot which is in part shade in the front garden .
Now this is a pot !
Every year I plant up erigeron . called fleabane in the Middle Ages ( the reason is in the name !) and Clonmel Garden Centre lets me know when they arrive and you have to be quick as their fame is spreading and they walk off the shelves ! Erigeron is a terrific plant for gravel or the rockery where it forms a nice mound and flowers all Summer … it also self-seeds into cracks and between paving so once you plant it you are never without it and a swipe of the shears at the end of the season keeps it compact otherwise it can get a bit blowsy looking .
I love plants that have a no nonsense attitude and just get on with it , no special attention either needed or sought and erigeron and alchemis mollis also called granny’s bonnet are prime examples of this and should be in every garden , no pruning needed either after flowering , just brilliant plants . A few years ago I first saw wood anemones in bloom in a forest , dug up some bulbs and planted them here in an area under the weeping willow in the Front Garden , a shady wildish area as wild garlic and ground cover geraniums have colonised it … never saw them again and presumed they hadn’t taken and was rooting out some nettles in the area last week when lo and behold there was my wood anemones , a small colony of them in full bloom and I was delighted to see that this delicate little plant had found a home that suited it .
Now that Covid has become manageable the month of May means the Chelsea Flower Show which the BBC gives terrific coverage to with Monty Don and Joe Swift presenting highlights every night for it’s five days . Monty is of course marvellous totally without ego in his presentation style and while I can tolerate Joe Swift , just about , it is still all about Joe Swift and not the Chelsea Flower Show and apart from Monty Don all the other BBC presenters are the same … Rachel de Thame is great and down to earth and again no ego but Carol Klein and Toby Buckland are a real pain and while no doubt a real plants experts , they both try too hard to be full of bonhomie which to me is totally fake .
I am not saying the medal awards at Chelsea are predetermined but it is easier for the experienced gardeners to win rather than an outsider or someone with their first garden at Chelsea . The famous medal winners such as Chris Beardshaw ,Sarah Eberle and Andy Sturgeon who between them over the past fifteen or so years have won over 33 gold medals and over eleven best in show garden awards and these designers not only attract the wealthiest sponsors … a show garden can cost from 500,000 euros to a million to stage … so they can have better trees , hard landscaping etc. but also they are so experienced at Chelsea they know what the judges want in a gold medal winning garden and they deliver just that and for example both Beardshaw and Sturgeon got full marks and gold medals for their garden this year at Chelsea .
All the designers say that they design for themselves but I am sure they are influenced in their design by what they know the judges will award points for .
The judges set out four categories with a total of 36 points up for grabs and they are looking for absolute perfection especially in the award of a gold medal .The criteria they are looking for starts with the garden’s initial written brief for selection at Chelsea then covers design . concept , originality , layout , construction and planting and you have 19 days to build the garden in the Chelsea grounds and then the garden is allocated either excellent ( four points ) , very good ( three points ) , good ( two points ) , poor ( one point ) across the categories so to get maximum points of 36 you really need to have the experience to give the judges what they are looking for and everything has to go right for you on the day , the plants have to be in bloom with absolutely no room for the slightest chip off a rock or a paving stone .
Is it a fix for the gold medals , no definitely not , British upper class sense of honour would not allow that but it is pretty incestuous at that top level !
The BIG theme this year at Chelsea was rewilding and the Best in Show was won by Lulu Urquhart and Adam Hunt with their garden called “ A Rewilding Britain Landscape ” complete with upmarket Cotswold type casual and fake untidiness and a large dam with beavers … naturally the beavers didn’t make it to Chelsea , next year there will probably be robot beavers at Chelsea … the level of perfection required at Chelsea is such that the designers built the beaver dam out of sticks collected from real beaver dams , no cutting with saws either , the sticks had to have been cut up by the beavers with the marks of their teeth visible for the judges to see … yes I know pretentious or what and even with all that level of preparation the garden comes across as messy … to be honest you wouldn’t give it a tin medal at the Clonmel Flower Show and in fairness Monty Don asked the question when introducing it “ can it be classed as a garden ” … enough said and for me it is a garden for the Woke generation of rewilders !
In case you missed it , the Abba new avatar show opened in London on May 22nd and will run daily for four years so you can forget your Led Zepplin and Beatles records I am sticking with my 1982 copy of Abba Gold !
Abba said it best … Rewilding That’s the name of the Game !
Colour in the May Garden
And while I am often saying that I am not really into flowers in the garden I planted these alliums and iris siberica in the Front Garden last October and they have made a fine show .