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 Dekker (1572-1632)


May is my favourite month, and I always say that if a garden doesn’t look merry in May, there’s a problem. There should be the last tulips and the first roses, tender foliage and entwining tendrils, sweet birdsong, the heady scent of elderflowers and green, green everywhere.


No time for sitting on the beach this week – this shot was take at 9am on Saturday


But May spells hard work for gardeners. There’s spring bedding to come out, summer bedding to go in, climbers to train, plants to be watered (especially this year), pests taking advantage of every opportunity and everything growing before one’s eyes.

When I took this week off, I was determined that Chelsea would not take over, as it usually does. It was a good Chelsea Flower Show, but not a vintage one. The nurserymen in the Great Pavilion excelled, but the gardens were average by Chelsea standards. That’s not to say they were not accomplished, but I don’t think I’ll remember a single one of them come this time next year. One of the most lovely was Kazuyuki Ishihara’s Gosho No Niwa : No Wall, No War which is a garden I could have uplifted in its entirety and enjoyed forever. The Japanese designer never strays far outside his comfort zone, but does what he does with astonishing craftsmanship and precision.


Kazuyuki Ishihara’s Gosho No Niwa was one of this year’s best Artisan Gardens


Apart from Gosho No Niwa, our favourite garden in the whole show was Chris Beardshaw’s garden for Morgan Stanley. It comprised a lush woodland garden navigated via a sinuous path, leading to and an area of jewel-coloured perennials. At the heart of the garden a monumental oak and limestone pavilion offered shelter and space for entertaining. There was meant to be a tentative subtext exploring the sponsor’s long-term committment to young people’s education, but all that really mattered was that the garden was both inspiring and accessible. Helen of Oz adored the lupins and swathes of mositure-loving candelabra primulas. Funny how we all hanker after the plants we can’t grow. (More to follow on both of these gardens in due course.)


Chris Beardshaw’s garden for Morgan Stanley


Wednesday was a rest day and an opportunity to write a couple of posts before the state visit from Helen of Oz. Decoration of the library has come to and end (almost) and the books are slowly moving in. Design-conscious friends have suggested organising them by colour, but that would only mean I could never find the one I wanted, so I have put them on the shelves by subject. I find I have a lot of biographical books, most of which I haven’t read; an abundance of plant monographs and not enough books on trees, shrubs and vegetables. I’ve discovered a good few duplicates too. Thankfully there is enough space for me to keep collecting for several more years, and the shelves look better for not being packed to the gunnels.


Books old and new


The task of getting the house back into order starts now, a full thirteen months after the project began. Everywhere I look there’s a pile of paperwork or a box of ‘useful’ detritus which needs dealing with. I am committing to myself that the library should become a sanctuary away from all of that, so only ‘cleansed’ items may be admitted. The temptation of filling eight new cupboards with junk must be resisted.


The shelves are slowly filling up


I settled on a decorative scheme of greyish-lilac with soft green and saffron highlights. I am extending the palette out into the garden with olives, echiums, yellow marguerites, mauve verbenas, Bulbine frutescens and – I never thought I report this – clipped box balls. Box does not feature in my normal style of planting, but it looks right here – or at least it will when the decorator clears all his rubbish out of the garden.


Yellow osteospermums and marguerites with verbena, fuchsias and calibrachoa


Thursday took Helen of Oz and I to Sissinghurst via Madrona Nursery near Pluckley in Kent. Madrona is one of my favourite places to buy plants because of the eclectic range. They have everything from shade lovers to drought survivors, and the quality of the stock is always excellent. The nursery’s setting, among the woods and fields of the Kentish Weald, is also dreamy. I came away with Salvia ‘Love and Wishes’, Catalpa × erubescens ‘Purpurea’, Agapanthus ‘Back in Black’ and Persicaria ‘Purple Fantasy’.


Madrona Nursery in the Weald of Kent


Given the sublime weather, and it really was sublime, Sissinghurst was busy, but not unpleasantly so. The garden was brimming with irises and roses and looking very fine indeed. There are lots of changes going on, including the opening up of the cutting garden and replanting of the phlox garden; an extension of the Nuttery which will take it right up to the paddock fence; and a stunning planting of Iris sibirica at the end of the moat walk. The simplicity of this scheme is dazzling and refreshingly contemporary.


Iris sibirica at the end of the Moat Walk, Sissinghurst


Beyond the garden gates wild flowers are being encouraged to return to the meadows in front of the house and next to the cafe. A guided tour around the South Cottage, where Vita and Harold slept, was a special treat, providing a fascinating insight into the couple and their extraordinary relationship.


Helen of Oz outside the gates to Sissinghurst Castle


Our final stop before Helen of Oz had to return to London was Walmer Castle near Deal. Once a home of the Queen Mother, Walmer Castle has wonderful gardens which are rarely busy. We shared a stroll around with a coach party of Danes who were equally enamoured of the kitchen and cutting gardens.


The Queen Mother’s Garden, Walmer Castle, Kent


The herbaceous borders, bounded by thick, undulating hedges, were already looking strong, particularly the yellow section in the middle. A preponderance of Mexican fleabane (Erigeron karvinskianus) in the walls surrounding the moat got me thinking about planting some in my own humble garden.


The double herbaceous border, Walmer Castle, Kent


In just a few days it will be June and, before we know it, the longest day. With Helen of Oz on her way back to Melbourne, it’s been back to sorting out the garden, watering and getting the house straight before my not so merry return to work and the imminent arrival of summer.

Wishing you all a very merry May Bank Holiday Monday. TFG.


Eschscholzia californica in the cutting garden at Walmer Castle