Arts & Leisure

Judith’s Garden: The merry month of May

A TIGER SWALLOWTAIL butterfly feasting on the nectar it finds in Judith’s Meyer Lilacs. Photo by Dick Conrad

The Merry Month of May
O the month of May, the merry month of May,
    So frolic, so gay, and so green, so green, so green!
O, and then did I unto my true love say:
    “Sweet Peg, thou shalt be my summer’s queen!”
Thomas Decker (1572-1632)
For me the beginning of May signals the midpoint through that wonderful season of renewal that we call “spring.”
And this year, as so often happens, April was a playful tease. First we had a continuous spell of hot dry weather when everyone rushed outdoors to get a head start on their gardens.
Then the mood dramatically changed. In mid-month the skies dropped several inches of chilly wet snow and nighttime temperatures plummeted to well-below freezing. And, intermittently, this wintery weather continued until the end of April.
But, despite all these indignities, even in my mountain garden, the earliest spring flowers mostly prevailed. First to come were hundreds of pure white Snowdrops, followed by the lovely blue Glory of the Snow (Chionodoxa).
These were followed by ever-widening patches of Bloodroot, an exquisite native plant with its own unique strategy of dealing with the vagaries of early spring. On sunny days each clear white flower opens wide, revealing a cluster of yellow pollen at its center; but, as soon as the weather turns bad, the flowers all close up tightly to protect their precious pollen.
And of course, everybody loves those cheery yellow daffodils, with their message of hope and revival for all winter-weary gardeners. A long time ago I planted hundreds of bulbs all around my garden, using a range of varieties with staggered bloom times. So now, while a few flowers of the early kinds may get squashed by the late April snows, I have lots of others that wait until May before blooming.
The Merry Month of May
For me, April’s flowers are like the prelude to a wonderful piece of music — setting the mood for May’s floral explosion.
By now at lower elevations, the first flowering trees — serviceberries and magnolias — have finished blooming. But up here in the mountains the serviceberries, both in my garden as well as those that grow wild along the roadsides, are blooming now. So, if you missed them in the valley, take a ride along one of the mountain roads to enjoy this special sign of spring.
May is also a perfect time to stroll along any of Vermont’s numerous forest roads (thus avoiding the hiking trails which are subject to erosion at this time of year). Look out across the forest floor and you will see hundreds of exquisite wild flowers — Dog’s Tooth Violets, Trillium and Spring Beauties to name a few, pushing their way through the brown leaf litter to reach the light.
Known as spring ephemerals these early bloomers also leaf out in May, before the forest canopy has filled in. This enables them to photosynthesize enough food to store in their roots to last a full year. Before long their tops die back, and they retreat to a life below ground, waiting until next spring when the magic repeats itself.
Spring Ephemerals in our Gardens
And we have spring ephemerals in our gardens too — especially daffodils and other garden bulbs. So be sure not to cut them back or mow them down until their leaves have turned yellow (signifying they have done their job and prepared the food to fuel next year’s flowers).
However daffodils have a tendency to overly multiply in our gardens. So, if you find you have too many in your lawn or flower beds, the end of May is the perfect time dig some up — the bulbs with the leaves — and relocate them to wilder parts of your property. I like to plant daffodils in the rough grass along the side of our road (which is mown annually by the town, but not until mid-summer). Here, long after I am gone, they will continue to smile on all who pass this way.
Another favorite spring ephemeral that blooms in my May garden is the native Virginia Bluebell (Mertensia virginica), with its delightful nodding clusters of clear blue flowers. Plant some among your hostas and ferns that will fill in as the bluebells fade. Although Virginia Bluebells will gradually spread themselves around, they never wear out their welcome in my garden.
Dainty Crab Apples
Crab apples are delightful small trees that create a year-round presence in our gardens. About 20 years ago now, to greet all comers, I planted the handsome Donald Wyman crab apple at the head of our driveway.
I also planted a trio of crab apples — two that would eventually grow to about 15-feet wide and a larger one towards the back — in the bed behind our gazebo. Now, as they have grown together, I have a partially shady area that is ideal for summer-flowering azaleas and shade loving perennials.
And each May these three small trees — completely covered in delicate pink flowers — are indeed a sight to behold.
Over the years, plant hybridizes have given us a multitude of named crab apples to choose from — ranging in height from miniature to good sized trees that mature around 25-feet high and wide, and with bloom colors from white to deep pink. Some also have purplish leaves that stand out in the garden all season long.
So rather than give you specific recommendations, I refer you to this incredibly useful listing.
Fragrant lilacs
Everyone loves lilacs. And the so-called Common Lilac (Syringa vulgaris), brought to New England by the early European settlers, certainly needs no introduction.
Flourishing around old Vermont farmsteads and in our towns and villages, every May the lovely purple flower heads of these large shrubs (they can grow up to 15-feet high) fill the air with their intoxicating fragrance.
However within the confines of a flower bed near the house, since common lilacs also put out lots of suckers — even quite far from the parent plant — they can become somewhat intrusive. So I prefer to plant them well away from the house, where they will benefit from good air circulation (helping to reduce problems with powdery mildew), and typically in groups of three or more together. For instance you can use them to create a screen from the road or between different parts of your garden, where, in addition to getting plenty of air, the lawn mower removes any wayward suckers, thus keeping everything in check.
With the help of selective breeding over the years, depending on the variety, the flowers of today’s common lilacs range in color from the deepest purple to pure white. Also some cultivars are noted for their intense fragrance while others are noticeably shorter than the usual ones you may have seen. So, before buying, check the on-line catalog of your favorite nursery and choose one or more varieties to fit your location.
In addition there are several other kinds of lilacs that make great additions to our gardens, and, since they flower a bit later, extend our lilac season by several weeks.
I am very partial to the Meyer Lilac (Syringa meyerii), found in 1909 by Frank Meyer growing in Beijing. They start blooming right after the common lilacs — and perfectly timed to attract the Tiger Swallowtail Butterflies that arrive to feast on their nectar.
And they also make better bed companions than the Common Lilacs, since they are much shorter, (typically growing to between four and five feet high) and do not put out suckers far from the parent plant. More than ten years ago I planted six Meyer Lilacs to create a low-growing hedge along the outer edge of one of my beds. Now every spring I eagerly await both their fragrant flowers and the beautiful butterflies that I know will soon arrive.
Next to flower is the so-called Miss Kim lilac, often assumed to be a dwarf type. Not so — although slow growing, eventually if left unpruned, Miss Kim will grow to about 10 feet high and wide. So choose a spot for her to allow for this long term size.
In my garden the lilac season finishes in mid-June, when the Late Lilacs put on quite a show. The late lilac in my garden, called Minuet, is covered with purple blooms that again are a magnet for the Swallowtail Butterflies.
The Late Lilacs all resulted from the breeding program by Isabella Preston, a very successful and prolific plant hybridist working in Ottawa around eighty years ago. Thus in her honor they are called Preston Lilacs.
With tumbled hair of swarms of bees,
And flower-robes dancing in the breeze,
With sweet, unsteady lotus-glances,
Intoxicated, Spring advances.
— From a Sanskrit poem.
Judith Irven and Dick Conrad live in Goshen where together they nurture a large garden.
Judith is a Vermont Certified Horticulturist and teaches Sustainable Home Landscaping for the Vermont Master Gardener program. You can subscribe to her blog about her Vermont gardening life at
Dick is a landscape and garden photographer; you can see more of his photographs at northcountryimpressions.

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