May is the best month to go to gardens boasting collections of rhododendrons and admire their many forms and flower colours.
Rhododendrons have suffered a fall in popularity over the last few years. Many people have been of the opinion that this was because they could not be accommodated in smaller gardens. However, if we look beyond the common hybrids there is a rhodo out there for everyone. Many of the species and cultivars have attractive foliage with either silver backed leaves or leaves marbled with brown hairy indumentum as well as attractive bark.
Azaleas, members of the rhododendron family, make excellent garden plants. Many cultivars are deciduous and have the added bonus of scented flowers and autumn colour. They come in a wide range of colours from the pure white of ‘Persil’ to pinks and the bright yellows of R. luteum.
Of course this is only my opinion and you are free to disregard it but in a family as large as rhododendron there is one out there for every size of garden that can provide the right conditions. Indeed rhodos are very accommodating, needing only moist acidic soil with good humus content and some shade. We all want our plants to perform for as long as possible but if we have an eye for the subtle, and the energy to seek out nurseries and growers growing more specialist plants and be adventurous enough to try them, then we can all enhance our gardens.
There are more things happening. One of the stars of these months are tulips which impart a touch of elegance to any garden. I like ‘Queen of the Night’ which has shiny satin black flowers or yellow ‘West Point’. If you prefer something more exciting try ‘Mickey Mouse’…I’ll leave you to imagine what it looks like! We all need to think of filling the gaps left by spring build displays. My pick would be dahlias. They come either as tubers, rooted cuttings or in pots. They will make 3-5 ft of flowering growth in a season. North of Birmingham, planting should be left until June or until all signs of frost has passed. Dahlias like plenty of organic matter so work some manure or compost and fertiliser (or all three) into the planting hole and bury the cutting or tuber just below the surface. My tip is to stake at the time of planting not later when you risk damaging roots or tubers.
Euphorbias are coming into their own, displaying acid green or yellow bracts. My own favourite is E. palustris which works well in damp soil and has good autumn colour before it dies back. We grow it next to the purple foliage of astilbes to provide succession and Maianthemum racemosa ( a mouth-full I know) but this false Solomon’s Seal has a scent to die for. There is a euphorbia for even more gardens than there are rhododendrons!
If you have long grass or borders with retentive soil you could do better than planting some Camassias in the autumn. These hardy bulbs are native to North America where they inhabit moist meadows and woodland edges. From a base of foliage long spikes of blue or white star shaped flowers are thrown up in May/June rising to approximately 2 feet.
Finally, my top tip for this time of year is to keep hoeing in fine weather, it will save a lot of work later!