Settling Into A Delightfully Relaxing May Garden

Iris, a true showstopper in any garden.

Spring can be a bit overwhelming, especially in the life of a gardener. Early season garden tasks can become prodigious even for the best of us. Then there is the pace we must keep to make sure our garden is perfect. There is never enough time for all those springtime chores. It is always hurry and rush.

As if this were not enough to throw you off your A game, spring has a tantalizingly wicked sense of humor. In March and April spring unfolds, no, explodes, with showmanship that even a ringmaster would struggle to match. Colors collide in an Alice in Wonderland-like kaleidoscope world where senses are skewed and time endlessly short. Some plants last days, some a week, but most are here and gone in what is one of the most fleetingly finicky yet urgently transitory seasons of them all. Snowdrops erupt, crocuses pop, and daffodils grow inches per day to keep pace in this wondrously competitive season. Azaleas bloom and fade at such an amazing clip, it’s a wonder they have any energy left after their electrifying display of color.

Sometimes after all this fuss it is easy to fall into the lowly doldrums of May. It is easy to want to take a gardener’s break, a holiday of sorts. You should not. But, if you’re not one for annuals and a true gardener’s gardener, May is the season when you can sit back and relax for a moment and bask in the enjoyment of May’s splendidly relaxing flowers.

The May Pacesetters
Here are a few of my favorite May showstoppers. I picked them for being hardy, unusual, reliable, and just plain pretty. Oh, and they know how to take their time while providing joyful gardening pleasure.

  • Iris: This is a maverick, an unstoppable plant with a flow so frilly it almost looks as if the plant and flower were accidentally thrown together. In our Capitol Hill gardens we can plant Dutch, German, and Siberian varieties and many of their hybrids. They like a mostly sunny spot with enough room to spread out. If you are planting the German type, make sure you plant it just at soil level with a bit of the rhizome exposed for best success. There is a native iris in our region called the flag iris, and it is a truly carefree plant. Be mindful, however, not to let it seed as it can be a bit invasive.
  • Foxglove: This biennial superstar of the shade is a joy with its wide, strapping leaves and long spike of bell-shaped flowers. It can be poisonous, so if you have pets who eat plants, plant something else. If you don’t, then find a nook in a shady spot in your garden and enjoy. If you let the seeds mature, you will have baby foxgloves that will bloom every other year for years to come.
  • Perennial Bachelor’s Button: Like a purple floating sea urchin in your garden, this plant will become a harbinger of May. Medium-green leaves shoot up spikes whose flowers seem to float in a sea-green ocean of lushness. Plant them in full sun and don’t overfertilize. They like a lean diet and will reward you with loads of plants to share with your plant-swap group.
  • Clematis: Worth the fuss! This plant looks like a dried-up vine in mid-March. Don’t throw it out. By mid-April the vine is magically reborn and by early May the eight-petal flower explodes and screams that May is here. Plant this vine in well-drained soil where its feet can be in the shade. Make sure the location allows the vine to grow up into the sun and you will be gifted each May with a jewel of the spring garden.
  • Species Azalea: These showstoppers bloom later than the traditional azalea. They are semi-deciduous in the winter and do not bloom as heavily as their counterparts, but it is so nice to see the yellows, oranges, and reds on their wand-like stems. They are a must-have for any collector. Grow in mostly shade and give them an acid fertilizer and you will have years of enjoyment from these uncommon gems.

A Task for May
I did say we were going to relax this month as our garden takes on a slower, more enviable pace. If the five plants in this column, or any of the May superstars you may stumble across in the local garden center, have got your creative garden juices flowing, get out and plant one of them before you take the time to smell the roses. After your planting is done, kick back and enjoy the May days, because before you know it the lilies and gladioli and dahlias that are the summer show troops will arrive with a whole new set of demands and urgency. Enjoy!

Derek Thomas, “The Garden Guy,” principal of Thomas Landscapes, is an accomplished garden designer whose works have appeared on HGTV’s “Curb Appeal” and the DIY Network. View his garden segments on YouTube. He has contributed garden segments to Fox 5 in Washington, DC, and is a contributor to the Smithsonian’s garden programs. He can be reached at or 301-642-5182. You can find and friend us on Facebook at Facebook/Thomas Landscapes. Follow us on Twitter @ThomasGardenGuy for great garden tips.