Le Jardin Contemporain // The Contemporary Garden - Barry Watton Garden Designs

May Garden To Do List

This is the month when the garden really takes flight. Its been on the dry side, but with March giboulées and April’s occasional storms, increasing soil temperatures and day length nearing its peak, the garden appears to grow before your very eyes. As the Alliums and Camassia come to the fore so too do the early flowering perennials for the start of a spectacular annual show.

Don’t let the garden get away from you by following your May garden to do list:


Continue mowing regularly. The lawn will be growing very rapidly now and may require cutting twice a week. If you aren’t already, start cutting with a mulching setting: the clippings will help to retain moisture in the lawn. Frequent mowing will keep the clippings small and prevent them smothering areas of the lawn.

Avoid temptation to give your lawn a short back and sides. Summer temperatures are on the horizon and if you want your lawn to persist for as long as is practicable without excessive irrigation then cut on a high setting.

If a manicured green sward is your thing, you may wish to reapply lawn fertiliser early this month. It is very possibly the last chance to do so before the drought of summer.


Weeding is essential at this time of year. It can be a rather dull task, albeit necessary to keep the character of a planned planting. It has been said that a year’s seed is seven years’ weed so weed little and often. Keep at it throughout the month to really break the back of it and interrupt the weeds’ life cycle. If you mulched earlier in the year it ought to be not too difficult to remove any annual weeds that have appeared since then by hand.

Perennial weeds, such as bindweed or ground elder, are trickier, but not impossible. I’m not a fan of herbicides, but if you want to erradicate these weeds carefully applying a herbicide is the only practical way to remove weeds of this sort. Ensure it is a systemic herbicide that permanently kills the weed by the roots, rather than a weedkiller that simply kills the growth you can see above ground, or else the weed will simply return. Attempting to dig bindweed or ground elder out only chops up the roots and makes what was one plant, now several.

Spray herbicide in the morning or evening to allow the leaves time to absorb the herbicide before it evaporates. As a minimum use gloves, goggles and use some sort of mask so you don’t inhale any fumes/vapour. Wear some old clothing with long sleeves to keep herbicide from contacting your skin. Use a fine spray setting. Spray closely to ensure you hit your target weed only and spray sparingly to avoid the herbicide dripping onto other plants. Make sure you spray on a still day to avoid the wind blowing the herbicide onto your prize plants.

Better still apply the systemic weedkiller neat to the top and underside of a few leaves with a small paintbrush. This ensures good application and minimises the risk of any spray drifting onto other wanted plants.

In new plantings the weeds can be accessed easily. In established plantings, bindweed removal is more difficult. Try inserting a cane in the soil next to the bindweed and train it up the cane. Allow it to grow up the cane and away from your prize plants. Then on a suitably still day spray (or apply with a paintbrush) the weed with systemic herbicide, as above.

More than one herbicide treatment may be necessary. Allow the weed to die in situ. It looks tatty, but don’t try to dig it out once the top growth looks dead, the roots may still not be entirely dead and you may just end up spreading the weed making matters worse. Once truly dead it will rot away soon enough.

Herbaceous borders

Some perennials will flower a second time if cut back once the first flowering is finished. At the end of the month Nepeta and herbaceous Salvias may have been flowering for a month or so and their flowers may be almost entirely exhausted. If so, bite the bullet and prune them back at the end of the month to encourage a second flowering later in the year.

It is important to get to know your plant, as they can have different methods of pruning and not all perennials will flower a second time if treated in this way.

Nepeta fassenii (and its cultivars such as ‘Six Hills Giant’ and ‘Walker’s Low’) can be cut back almost entirely to the ground after the first flush of flowers. If you lift the top growth you may very well see that there is fresh new basal growth ready to come through. Chop off all the top growth and water thoroughly. Within a month the plant will have regrown and all the new growth will be preparing to flower.

Herbaceous salvias (such as Salvia pratensis or S. nemorosa) are similar, but don’t be quite so harsh with them. Simply cut off the spent flower heads back to just above a node about a third of the way down and the plant will produce further side shoots on which more flowers will form.

In the potager

Harvest ripe Cherries. Treat yourself and make clafoutis. Get to them fast before the blackbirds do!

The risk of an overnight frost has now passed and sow directly tender crops such as sweetcorn, tomatoes, aubergines, pumpkins/squash now, or buy plantlets from the garden centre and plant them as soon as you can so they can benefit from the moisture in the soil before the hot summer drought arrives.

Plant of the month

Left to right: Bee orchid, lizard (or goat) orchid and the Charente orchid

So many plants come into flower this month, Alliums, Nepeta, herbaceous Salvias, Roses, Iris, Cow Parsley, the list goes on. But for me, the plant(s) of the month just has to be the native orchids. These are something that just aren’t seen in a typical UK garden and so for me they are quite special and fascinating. They are protected species and thrive in uncut grass free of herbicide. Care is simple, just leave them alone to flower and go to seed. Do not deadhead them. The annual September meadow cut will help disperse the ripe seed and increase your stock.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

I accept that my given data and my IP address is sent to a server in the USA only for the purpose of spam prevention through the Akismet program.More information on Akismet and GDPR.