Pinch, prune, chop and pot
Over in Chard in south Somerset, Forde Abbey‘s Tulip Festival is in full bloom until 15 May. It’s incredible to think that during the 17th century’s Dutch ‘tulip mania’, a single bulb was valued at roughly the same price as a luxurious house in Amsterdam *looks wishfully out of the window at three slightly droopy, red tulips*.
As well as admiring the floral attributes of the 30-acres of landscaped grounds, you can visit parts of the house (a Cistercian monastery turned family home) and the small but excellent garden nursery, which sells unusual plants including recently introduced species and cultivars, most of which are grown on site. Paul Bygrave, who worked at Kew Gardens for ten years before setting up the Abbey Nursery in 2001, shares his expertise this month with his top gardening jobs for May.
You’ve got the conch, Paul, it’s over to you…
Put support in place
Get your stakes and plant supports in now for taller growing and back of the border perennials. The plants will grow through and conceal their under-pinning, plus it’s so much easier to do before things flop or snap! Also tie in or prune back loose flapping branches on wall shrubs and climbers.
Prune, pinch and chop
Prune away last year’s stems to reveal fresh growth from the base on summer flowering, woody-based perennials like penstemons, fuchsias and Phygelius. Shrubby salvias (eg Salvia greggii, S. microphylla, S. x jamensis cvs) and lavenders can be pruned back by a third to keep them bushy rather than ‘leggy’ and encourage new growth from the base. Early in the month, give Phlox paniculata and taller Helenium cvs the ‘pre-Chelsea pinch’ (pinching out the tips to encourage the stems to bush out). Later on, you can ‘Chelsea chop’ late summer/autumn flowering perennials like Asters, Eupatorium, Helenium, perennial Helianthus, Phlox, Sedum, Solidago, etc, by cutting back stems by between a quarter and a half. You can either reduce all the stems or stagger the height/flowering season of clumps by leaving some stems and cutting back others (either cut every other, or the front/sun-ward half of a clump).
Plant out or pot up
It’s time to plant out or pot-up large tubs of late summer/autumn flowering bulbs and tubers like dahlias, crocosmias, gladioli (including Acidanthera), lilies, Zantedeschia (calla or arum lilies). Now the weather’s warming up and the danger of severe frosts has past, they’ll establish quickly to give you colour later in the season. At Forde Abbey, taller growing lilies (the new ‘tree’ or ‘orienpet’ lilies are amazing) and Gladiolus (Acidanthera) murielae are potted into large (10 litre) pots, and grown on to be sunk into ‘gaps’ in the borders in August/September, extending the season of interest with sensational colour and scent into the autumn.
Feed and mulch roses
Generously feed and mulch your roses now. I scatter two good handfuls of ‘fish, blood and bone’ around each bush, fork it in, then mulch with garden or mushroom compost. A well-fed and watered, vigorously growing rose won’t suffer badly from greenfly and is less susceptible to black spot and other fungal diseases.
Look at your mixed/herbaceous borders and think where drifts of tulips or globe alliums would add interest at this time next year, before the perennials have started to flower. Mark with short canes (or draw a map) where you want to plant the bulbs – you won’t remember when you need to plant the bulbs in October/November. If you already have drifts of tulips, they would benefit from a few new bulbs being added annually; again, mark with canes where you could squeeze more bulbs in in the autumn, and note which cultivar and colours go where!