May, the gardener's big month

By Tom Seymour | May 12, 2017
Photo by: Tom Seymour Queen of the prairie has feathery, sweet-smelling blooms.

May, the month we have waited all winter for, has finally arrived. By month’s end, it is usually safe to set out tender plants, including all of our vegetable varieties.

Most people plant on Memorial Day weekend, because that is considered the first date with no danger of frost. But bear this in mind. The Memorial Day we celebrate today does not always fall on the same date as the traditional Memorial Day. Often, the observed holiday is a week ahead of the traditional holiday. This year we are closer to the mark, with Memorial Day falling on Monday, May 29.

Anyway, it won’t hurt a thing if life gets in the way of planting and you must put it off for another week. Everything will grow just fine.

Early treats

Some perennial vegetables are already up and running in May. My favorite, asparagus, has already begun setting out new shoots. For me, nothing quite equals the taste of fresh-picked asparagus. To go out, cut some spears and bring them in and cook them immediately is one of life’s sweeter little pleasures.

My asparagus bed is considerably smaller than my previous one, and for a good reason. My current bed, being smaller, is far easier to weed and keep weeded, and that’s of vital importance, since asparagus cannot compete with weeds and an untended bed will languish and eventually put out nothing but tiny, worthless spears. So stay ahead of weeds in your asparagus and the reward will be commensurate with the effort. An asparagus bed should persist at least 20 years, if not longer, so it stands as a long-term investment.

And for those who wish to start an asparagus bed, now is the time. Garden centers, greenhouses and seed catalogs all offer asparagus roots. These come in one-year and two-year types. I recommend two-year roots because once set in the ground, they offer a one-year headstart on the other types.

Rhubarb, too, debuts in May. Once planted, rhubarb will last an extraordinarily long time, and all the plants want is a little top-dressing of compost or other organic fertilizer once in a while. It may even be possible to purchase rhubarb plants now and have some stalks big enough for cutting sometime in June.

And for those who love rhubarb but haven’t room to plant it, Japanese knotweed (that poor, maligned plant that everyone erroneously calls “bamboo”) makes an excellent rhubarb stand-in. Just snap off the tender spears and cook exactly as you would rhubarb. Japanese knotweed is plentiful enough and also scorned by most, so that it shouldn’t be a problem to get permission to harvest some spears for the table.

Perennial flowers

Garden clubs, extension groups and many others hold plant sales every May. This is a chance to find great deals on your favorite perennials. And make no mistake, that little plant in the 4-inch pot will grow to far larger proportions in the coming months, so don’t hesitate to buy smaller plants, because they will quickly catch up to their larger brethren.

We all have our favorite perennials, and so do I. These are plants that I relish and would not wish to go without. Here is my list of 10 favorite perennials:

Lemon balm

Monkshood

Perennial poppy

Garden phlox

Creeping phlox

Coreopsis

Soapwort (Saponaria, old maid’s pinks)

Sedum

Lady’s mantle

Queen of the prairie

Of the plants on my list, the only one that may be a little tricky is perennial poppy. I’ve found that by mulching well in fall, my poppy comes through the winter unscathed. That’s precious little effort for such a showy, happy plant.

The other plants are hardy as can be and once planted, only require a minimum of care. Of course I love all plants and want to make clear that the plants on this list are simply some of my favorites. However, the plants on my list encompass the spectrum of short, medium and tall plants, with creeping phlox as the shortest, lady’s mantle next, followed by sedum and lemon balm. Taller plants include soapwort, coreopsis, poppy, monkshood and the very tallest, queen of the prairie.

No-fault gardening

Except for some very invasive plants such as mint, horseradish, ajuga and some others, perennial gardening is pretty much no-fault. By that I mean it’s OK to plant something and see how it does. And if after maturing it doesn’t suit your needs, it’s OK to dig it up (fall may be the best time for this) and either transplant it to a better location or perhaps make a gift of it to another gardener.

In other words, perennial gardening can include a touch of the experimental, with a new plant here, another there. By all means, it’s OK to have an active, as in subject to change, garden rather than a static garden where each variety stays in place for decades. Formal garden beds are, of course, an exception to this rule.

To really get into this idea of an evolving flower garden, consider planting some showy vegetables among the flowers. One that comes immediately to mind, red Swiss chard, makes a stunning specimen plant. This year I even planted some garlic, not a perennial at all, among some flowers. Garlic scapes are certainly unique in shape and can add a welcome texture to any garden.

And while I realize we are discussing perennial plants, there’s no law that says we can’t mix in a few annuals, too. These are probably best reserved to shorter varieties for the very front of the perennial bed. Remember, the theme here is no-fault gardening. Perhaps some steeped-in-tradition gardener may eschew such thoughts, but would that really bother most readers? I doubt it.

Besides, there is a tradition of mix-and-match gardening, and it is called cottage gardening. So feel free to plant what you like, where you want it and when you want it. Your garden, while it may serve as a focal point for visitors and passers-by, is really all about you. And if it makes you happy, then that means it is serving its greatest purpose.

Tom’s tips

Mayflower, or trailing arbutus, is a shade-loving, vining groundcover that thrives in and among leaf litter in semi-shaded woodlands. In generations past, Mayday celebrants would go into the woods and pick Mayflowers.

The tube-shaped blossom has a sweet smell, well worth the effort needed to locate it. Look for roundish, russet-tinged leaves on the woodland floor. These are out before the canopy of deciduous trees comes on.

So for an old-time treat, try going into a nearby wood and making like the young folks of old by looking for sweet-smelling, ethereal Mayflowers.

Lady's mantle is a tough and hardy perennial. (Photo by: Tom Seymour)
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