Berkshire Garden Style • May ... hem. Mayhem!
Hooray it’s May! The temperatures are beginning to neutralize. The landscape is green and greening. Our tree leaves are tender and rapidly expanding. The earth is soft and warming. It’s time to mulch and plant! If I had my druthers, everything would be mulched in April and May would be all about prepping and primping and planting. The month of May in the Berkshires is vibrantly beautiful. And very intense. As a gardener, as a human. Our season is short - lots to set into place in a little window of time. May is also a time to think a lot about plants, how they play together, how to consider them in your planting design, how to prune and just to simply enjoy!
While we are not entirely clear of frost yet - Farmer’s Almanac says May 8th - there are many plants that are already putting on a beautiful show, and many more ready to plant. You’ve probably noticed, if you’ve driven around Berkshire County or took an evening stroll through any of the small towns and villages or even your local neighborhood, that color and bloom are abundant!
Spring felt like it came early this year with a relatively warm and dry early April. Last year in April my notes said “April 22nd, 2020, Richmond - snow on the ground! It has just fallen, melted quickly but it was wet! Things were not as leafed out last year”. This year we were getting into the gardens the first full week of April and before that already busy in the greenhouse with sowing and seedling care. A lot of what’s been happening in April felt like May already… the snow isn’t always gone by mid April in the hill towns and higher elevations… snow is not unusual but the one we had on April 16th felt weird because of the warming progression we’ve already had. Again snow on the 22nd of April this year! It felt so strange and bitter as the wind made for an even colder day!
The April blooms we enjoyed this season include Cornelian cherry, some witch hazel still hanging on and good old forsythia whose bloom - as my dad taught me - is the phenological indicator that it’s time to prune the roses. Conditions are favorable for rose pruning as the plant begins to actively grow it will heal quickly from the cuts that we give them.
And so May has arrived and voila - plant explosion! I am in love with the spring garden this year and want to plant bulbs, spring ephemerals, and early-blooming/flushing perennials by the ten-thousands!! Oh man, and the flowering trees!!! Cherry, plum, peach, pear, redbuds
Flowering trees and shrubs are my May favorites. We can see some wonderful May blooms: Magnolia in her grandeur, is most delightful when underplanted with a sea of cobalt blue Siberian squill (Scilla siberica); dare I call them the New England Bluebell? Many of the Magnolia flowers in the more northern locales or higher elevations were damaged by some cold snaps in April and look kind of like wet tea-stained tissues. Blooms are abundant on fruit trees, a haze of muted and bright colors from acrid acid green to crimson and powdery white to soft pink. The muscari we planted among the tulips last year are popping their sharp purple heads out between the tulip foliage. So pretty!
My favorite May perennials are primroses and I like to mark peonies with them. I plant the shallow rooted primroses right on top of the peony and it looks gorgeous when the peony foliage reaches up through the primroses. In the summer primroses will be summer dormant under the foliage of the peony; when we cut back the peony in the fall, the foliage of the primrose remains, marking the hidden peony. I read about this technique in a book by Christopher Llyod and worked it into the Viridissima way of doing things. If we plant our gardens with a little more complexity and interest in such a way we are rewarded ten-fold throughout the season, not just for a few months. Hellebores are another May favorite; they actually can come as early as March and may persist through June. While they may not be blooming in June, their colorful brachts may hold up and still read well in the garden or vase in mid-summer. They are little beacons of focus, another really good reason to have beautiful soil!
Not to forget other garden favorites - vegetables! A perennial vegetable (or a fruit if you’d like to think it that) I love at this time of year is Rhubarb. It’s a nice early leaf in the May garden, especially the ornamental - and inedible - Chinese Rhubarb. Either Rhubarb variety is a great plant to pair with early spring bloomers such as Hellebores, violas and/or primroses. My Chinese Rhubarb is paired with Golden Wood Millet (Milluem effusum ‘Aureum’) this spring, and I love it!
May marks the sweet transition to summer; temperatures warm, we begin our planting with earnestness and the energy required to carry us through the hotter months and busy season proves abundant. We can feel the excitement of this month as we poke our fingers into the potting soil, look up to glimpse the magnolias and enjoy the longer days which leave us even more time for enjoying the garden.