Gardening in May

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Golden oregano (right); I plan to spread mine around the garden this autumn

In this year of crazy, mixed-up weather, May seems to be the new April. I used to think that April was the very best month of the gardening year - beautiful weather (mild, sunny and no humidity), lesser need for constant watering, and perfect for doing all of what I regard as the most enjoyable tasks, such as moving plants around to improve the borders, splitting up herbaceous perennials, and planting spring annuals.

This year, April was nothing like that. It was hot - really hot at times - and I didn't dare transplant, plant out new specimens, or anything else for that matter. In any case, I was too busy watering, because of the ongoing lack of rain. However, May - which I used to previously regard as one of the bleakest, unappealing months of the year - has come up trumps and has given us some of our most enjoyable days for a long time in Sydney.

Crepe myrtle in autumn

Yes, the mornings and evenings have a chill, and we still have had no worthwhile rain, but the days in general (so far, and particularly the weekend we have just had) have been superb. Perfect blue skies and brilliant sunshine have highlighted the hues of the autumn-colouring trees that do well in Sydney (especially the plain Japanese maples, crepe myrtles and liquidambars, the latter best admired in someone else's garden) and which, despite the strange seasonal patterns, have still managed to put on a fab display this year.

Phlox paniculata Graf Zeppelin

I have finally been able to get into my borders and start ripping out plants I am fed up with, moving plants around that are in the wrong place, and planting out things that have been sitting in pots way too long. With the soil temperature still warm, this is an ideal time for planting, giving the plants time to settle in before winter. I have also now begun avoiding planting in spring, because it seems we get hot, dry weather much earlier than we used to, and newly planted things struggle to establish, in my experience. I've also begun dividing up herbaceous perennials that do well in Sydney, such as phlox and asters. They look like just mingy rosettes of moth-eaten leaves at the moment, but once spring arrives they will expand and flourish, and give a long period of flowers, a reminder of my cottage garden years, and blending in well with my semi-tropical stalwarts such as Salvia, Dahlia and Pentas.

Taking out plants has become more of a thing for me in recent times, as I now want bigger clumps of fewer types, to create a greater impact. Also, with too many plants crammed into a space, inevitably there are casualties that get smothered. I feel my trajectory is towards a simpler garden these days, repeating the plants that give colour over a long period with little effort required from me during the summer months when it is just way too hot to be in the garden. As I ripped out a few plants yesterday, I could almost hear the sighs of relief from nearby specimens that had been overshadowed by these pushy plants that had more negatives than positives going for them.

Pentas lanceolata

I also removed some shrubby perennials that had got too old and woody after a few years, such as Pentas and Artemisia. Cuttings were taken and they will be planted elsewhere once these have struck. We often forget that many of these plants have a limited life and are best renewed every few years. Another satisfying activity is digging up bits of robust clumping groundcovers and planting them to fill bare spots elsewhere in the garden - for example, golden oregano (pictured at the start of the blog) is going to be used more in my garden for its toughness and wondrously coloured leaves.

Papaver rhoeas, the original Flanders poppy

I have also been scattering seeds of spring annuals, such as poppies, wherever I see a gap. Maybe not many will germinate, but the few that do will bring a freshness and vitality to the garden in September and October, and hopefully may self-seed from year to year, as some already do, including nasturtiums, Orlaya, Nigella and Primula.

Enjoy these amazing May days - but we really could do with some decent rain!