May is my favourite month in the garden , everything is fresh , green , the growth is spectacular, the hedges are full of whitethorn in full bloom and the whole summer is ahead !
The Euphorbia wulfeni along with hostas are the stars of the May Garden and as striking architectural plants are hard to beat in UK and Irish gardens as our damp changeable climate suits them .
Unlike hostas that are plagued by snails the euphorbia has no pets or animals that eat it probably because if you cut or bite a euphorbia it exudes an acid that stings … the gardener that breeds a hosta that stings will make a fortune !
I have lined the avenue on the west facing side of the house with euphorbia wulfeni all grown from self seeded pieces and along the route I have four large pots dedicated to hostas and they go very well with each other … people have often asked why so many euphorbias and why not spread a more mixed perennial bed ? Simple really as there is no soil there just a covering of gravel which would not have the depth to dig in a normal perennial but this is perfect ground for euphorbias who actually prefer poor and stoney ground.
One of my favourite hostas is Gold Standard , relatively new to me as I have only been growing it for six years … a variegated hosta first bred in the US in 1976 where it cost a sensational 85 dollars a pot back then but of course now the price is the same as for a normal hosta , 10 euros . Normally I am not a great fan of variegation but Gold Standard is a beauty and if you give it what it needs it is a glorious plant … like any hosta it needs room to expand , prefers and needs some shade during the day and not be allowed get too dry .
I grow Gold Standard in my largest pot which I reserve just for it which means there is nothing showing in the pot for six months of the year and to carry this off the pot needs to be spectacular in it’s own right . In total I have nine large pots that I reserve solely for hostas and in these I use only four varieties …all the large leafed type , Elegans , Francis Williams , June and Gold Standard … in fact come to think of it these are the only hostas I grow and a hosta in full leaf is one of the joys of any garden .
I always advise against growing flowering trees especially cherry trees as their flowering period is a short two weeks and then you are left looking at a drab looking tree for the other fifty weeks of the year however in the May garden I break these rules for two specimens .
I am talking about wisteria and viburnum opulus both of which barely last three weeks in bloom and not only do I break the rules I keep planting these two beauties throughout the garden year on year as in the UK and Irish gardens they have come to represent the quintessential May display .
Both are slow growers and will take up to six years to produce a worthwhile bloom but once established you have a plant that will only get better year after year and although flowering for only three weeks it is a price I am willing to pay as there is nothing like a wisteria and snowball tree blossom .
My demand from shrubs and trees is that they look good for at least six months of the spring / summer and then have nice bark to display in the winter months … a shrub that ticks that box is Rhus Cotinus , known as the Smoke Tree and the variety you need is “ Grace ” , a real Top Five shrub .
Grace is like a bad girl that doesen’t know her place , who does not allow any confines put on her and likes to sprawl and spread her branches across and through her neighbours so if you are a tidy gardener with a small space then Grace is not for you and you should go for the more compact variety called coggygria which is better behaved .
Actually Grace is hard to find in the garden centres as when small the coggygria variety displays better and has more structure on it so it appeals more to garden buyers but Grace is your best girl for the sheer spectacular colour and size of leaf but be warned it takes a few years for Grace to take off . I never put any shape restrictions on Grace and rarely prune it and the shrub romps away here although there is one specimen of Grace that through my own fault I planted too close to the three iron flower structures and I have to cut it back every few years because much as I love the shrub I love those iron structures also !
Grace before pruning
Grace after pruning
If you are a formal type of gardener that likes order in your shrubberies then Grace is not for you as the shrub is miserable looking if cut into shape and you should go for the coggyria variety as this grows in a restrained neater fashion and won’t threaten to take over it’s neighbours .
I knew Rhus cotinus as difficult to grow in my Rosslare garden but here at Old Spa Road it was the first shrub Snezana fell in love with back in 2003 and I bought it against my better judgement … that first Grace is now a medium sized tree for the past twenty years … turned out to be a real case of what do I know !
Gunnera is a favourite large perennial of mine and probably my absolute favourite for it’s architectural impact with it’s huge metre wide leaves especially in damp shaded areas . There are no neutrals among gardeners where gunnera are concerned and you either love it or hate it and my experience has been with garden visitors over the years is that female gardeners do not like gunnera and consider it too wild and unmanageable .
I grow gunnera in large clumps right across the eight acres here in Old Spa Road , they don’t like to be planted in water logged positions but like to have access to water from a distance of about half a metre so their roots can extend out to the water … give them what they like and your will grow gigantic gunnera but be warned they scare the ladies !
May of course is the RHS Chelsea Flower month , the most famous garden show in the World garden calender where all areas and talking points of gardening come together .
The “ Woke ” movement has finally infected the UK gardening world with a huge division occurring between traditional gardeners and the Royal Horticultural Society who are sponsoring rewilding and natural gardening and who have declared war on grass lawns and have even defended slugs in the garden calling them “ garden visitors ” and I love their statement that slugs are misunderstood and that “ only nine of the 44 known species of slugs in the UK are actually likely to be eating our plants .”
Well I must have all nine of those buggers in our garden and they are definitely not welcome visitors here !
The RHS Chelsea Flower Show was on the last week in May and featured daily on the BBC . The RHS is an ultra conservative body made up of grandees and luvvies who all seem to sound and look like Jacob Rees Mogg and whose standard uniform at Chelsea is blazer and white slacks with a boating hat … most have gardeners to do the dirty work in their perfect borders … is my prejudice showing?!
I am sure the RHS committee hate to have real gardeners like Monty Don and Joe Swift hosting the BBC coverage and would prefer one of their own 85 year old fuddy duddies with fruity accents but the clever BBC know they would have only one or two viewers probably in Patagonia or Outer Mongolia so Monty and Joe remain .
Over the years the Chelsea Flower Show in my opinion with it’s show gardens has become totally out of touch with normality with gardens that suspend belief and which over the past few years has featured gardens and plants from places like Korea , Malaysia and Japan … all beautiful but we in our gardens could never grow these plants so what’s the point ?
Once Chelsea was the place you first saw exciting new varieties of geraniums , alliums and hostas but now the growers have hybridised the sh.t out of plants with exotic new names almost on a monthly basis .
The point is I suppose that Chelsea has become like Paris Fashion Week with celebrities swanning around being seen and photographed … not the real world though and Chelsea has to see what it has become and change tack or it will become irrelevant to the average gardener .
The RHS is bending over backwards to stay on trend and have gone all out on rewilding however revolution is in the air in the gardening world and battle lines are already forming up with a leading two page article in the UK Telegraph on May 20th with the headline “ Spades at dawn , why the culture wars are thriving in your garden ” .
The garden writer , James Bartholomew summed it up best for me when he was quoted in the article “ Chelsea now has all these ridiculous worthy virtue – signalling themes – the deaf , the blind , the people with no sense of smell- you’ve got to find some desperate thing . Why can’t we just have fantastic gardens , people want to see spectable and drama and if the RHS keep going in that direction and choosing weedy gardens over polished ones it is going to make what is a sensational part of British public life into something much more ordinary ”.
Bartholomew of course is not a member of the SS and his comments about the incapacitated is not meant in a derogatory manner merely to say have a sense of proportion and have less of the virtue signalling themes … of course all our gardens are welcoming to those unfortunate people affected by less mobility or whose facilities are impaired and we are delighted if the ambience helps but gardening is more than that .
The article states “ each week on Gardener’s World and Gardener’s Question Time presenters grapple to reconcile the interventionist nature of their pursuit with the pressures to let things be . Even the most mundane acts in the garden , watering , mowing , digging , fertilising , weeding , controlling pests – now comes with environmental , political and cultural baggage . The Royal Horticultural Society ( the RHS ) as the de facto adjudicator of gardening now finds itself in the unenviable position of how to balance environmental concerns with the more traditional demands of it’s members ”.
Ursula Buchan , a well respected UK garden writer , whose books I collect , is quoted as saying “ as important as sustainability and biodiversity are there is no point in making a garden unless you control some aspects of it ” and goes on to say “ gardens are not pieces of uncultivated landscape , they’re highly artificial and anybody who says we have to embrace weeds has to understand that garden soil is often enriched and there are eight to ten native plants that will take over if not kept under control, bindweed , dandelion , dock , hogweed ,ground elder … if you don’t mind that , that’s fine but most people don’t join the RHS to have brambles in their gardens ”.
The Telegraph Gardening Section described Chelsea this year as “ Recycling , Rewilding , Renewal , this is Chelsea 2023 ” .
The gardens on show at Chelsea this year were disappointing to say the least and apart from Sarah Price’s garden called Nurture Landscapes Garden that won a gold medal the rest were forgettable including one from South Korea that also got a gold medal …as far as most people could see this was just a small artificial hill covered in S. Korean weeds and wild flowers and I can imagine the Chelsea judges could not make head nor tail of it as neither could Monty Don in his TV commentary and the old luvvies judging probably decided well they have come all the way from South Korea and I don’t know WTF it is about but neither will the public and it could be genius so lets give it a gold !
Although I have turned an area here in our garden into a small meadow with paths mown through it this was purely as a last ditch effort to make something of an area which is very wet and where every other planting scheme had failed … I still hold to my theory that the new so called rewilding is just about lazy gardeners who can’t be arsed into cutting the lawn !
I am actually pleased with how this “rewilding ” has worked out here , it took two years and it will be another two /three years before all the tall miscanthus grass and various native trees that I planted begin to fill out … it is a real pleasure to walk into or by this area now whereas before it had no shape or direction and I knew it .
May is also a good month for painting wooden garden furniture
A room outside , bringing the back garden into the house , May 2023
Enjoy the Summer !