The great month of May

Cotinus coggygria in bloom. Photo by Kit Flynn.


By Kit Flynn

May is simply a glorious month in the garden. After its barren winter, the garden fills up with plants that have awakened from their annual slumber. Some, such as Baptisia and Spigelia, have widened in width, leaving me with the impression that they have decided I’m a successful gardener – yes, I am giving myself a pat on the back as numerous plants have rejected my hospitality. Still free of blackspot, the roses are happy. The newly planted additions to the garden have received enough rain so are content for now. Temperatures remain moderate with a subdued humidity. All seems right with the world.

While the roses are spectacular, what always captures my heart at this time of year is my smoke tree, Cotinus coggygria; this rather nondescript tree bursts forth with rather subtle blooms, managing to make the roses look rather gaudy. Smoke trees take their time before consenting to bloom so I always begin wondering why I even bothered to plant one – and then it comes into bloom. This Mediterranean plant makes a splash in a very understated manner.

The hardy amaryllises – Hippeastrum – are now in bloom. Over the years I have found that these are rather tricky bulbs for our Zone 7a. There are a couple of things you must do if you are to succeed: (1) plant them in full sun; (2) plant only those that are recommended for 7a gardens; and (3) plant them in the spring, not the fall. I find that some will fail to return. Are these short-lived bulbs? I have no idea; I only know that some have endured while others have petered out over the course of a decade.

There is a difference between the true Amaryllis (A. belladonna) and the so-called amaryllises (Hippeastrum). A. belladonna, a native of South Africa, will not thrive in Zone 7a; the Hippeastrum, all New World bulbs, are the ones you buy for a Christmas bloom. Some will grow outdoors for us whereas others want a warmer winter if they are to survive.

Roses thrive during the months of April and May when the weather hasn’t yet ushered in the hot, humid days of June, July, and August. Enjoy this surfeit of roses as they will decrease in the number of blooms they produce until the cooler months of September and October return. Roses, I find, are all different. Some like Lady Banks and Peggy Martin are content with their original splash – whereupon, they are simply rest on their laurels. Others, including the shrub roses, hybrid teas and grandifloras will continue to throw out periodic blooms throughout the growing season.

The Spigelia marilandica, a plant I keep on yammering about, is in full bloom this month. The clumps will continue to grow in size so, when you plant them, be sure not to crowd them. It’s hard to believe that the sprigs you first plant will grow to a width of 1½ feet, but I assure you that they will. Ignoring the adult size of a plant is a common mistake I frequently make

The clematis have made their appearance known. Now, I have a confession to make: I can never remember when to cut back a particular clematis as some need a refreshing cut right after they bloom, whereas others are pruned towards the end of summer. Generally, the herbaceous ones belong in the latter group, while the woodier ones relate to the former one. I find many of the herbaceous ones grow well with roses, filling in the vacancy left by the rose blooms with their own flowers. I planted some to grow with Lady Banks and now they are decorating this species rose with flowers.

Last year the seed pods of the opium poppies (Papaver somniferum) were mistakenly cut off before they burst forth with their seeds so I despaired of ever seeing them again. Fortunately, there is now some hope as several magically reappeared this month.

Seed heads of Papaver somniferum. Photo by Kit Flynn.

There are several keys to growing this annual: (1) spread the seeds while it is still cold – remember, they thrive in Afghanistan, which is notable for its cool weather; (2) remember that poppies dislike both mulch and being transplanted so find a suitable sunny spot that is relatively free of mulch; and (3) allow the seedpods that form to burst, spewing forth their seeds to provide next year’s crop, before removing this annual.

We have been lucky to receive nature’s gift to gardeners: rain. April was a bit dry, forcing me to water the newly installed plants; fortunately, the rain arrived this month, demonstrating again that it’s essential to have well-draining soil. Because roots require both water and oxygen, standing pools of water are a clear demonstration that the roots are being deprived of oxygen as the water has no place to go. Organic matter added to the soil really does create a magical transformation, allowing the water to flow through the small clay particles.

As I write this, the forecast for part of June is for cooler weather than normal with nighttime temperatures falling back into the 50°s. Enjoy it because July is literally around the corner.

After being an active member of the Durham County Extension Master Gardeners for 13 years, Kit Flynn now holds emeritus status. For five years she was the gardening correspondent for “Senior Correspondent” and shared “The Absentee Gardener” column with fellow Master Gardener Lise Jenkins. She has given numerous presentations on various gardening topics to Triangle organizations and can be reached at

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