FRUIT PUNCH® ‘Sweetie Pie’ Dianthus

Ahhhh…. Can you smell it? Spring is in the air. I LOVE the month of May. The earth bursts with new life. All my plants seem to be on steroids as they grow inches each day.

I delight in tiptoeing out to my gardens early in the morning. No lawn mowers, cars, garbage trucks or barking dogs to intrude on the morning hush. I look for fresh dew on the tulips; inhale the intoxicating fragrance of lilacs; hear the sweet songs of the many birds that frequent our property; and catch a glimpse of the rabbit nibbling on my perennials’ tender new growth…. HEY, WAIT A MINUTE. I must make a note to spray the foliage with Plantskydd Rabbit and Small Critter Repellent, an organic taste and smell repellant that also fertilizes the plants. It keeps rabbits, chipmunks and voles at bay. As I continue to wander around the yard I look for new flowers that are just opening, or I scratch the soil to feel for the tips of late emerging perennials that are playing hide-and-seek. Slowpokes such as balloon flower (Platycodon), orange butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), blue plumbago (Ceratostigma), and Hibiscus are late breaking dormancy, sometimes even tricking me into believing they’ve succumbed to Old Man Winter so I’ll plant replacements on top of them. Not a good idea. Better to hold off a little longer before I head for the garden center.

May is also the month I fondly remember my mom giving my sisters and me our colorful May baskets overflowing with flowers. Remember May baskets? Or is my gray hair showing? Speaking of flowers, many of my favorite perennials bloom this month. Let’s start with some of the less commonly known, easy-to-grow sun lovers. Bergenia is a terrific plant that is sadly underused. It has pink, rosy-red, or white flowers that reach about 15” and wonderful leathery leaves that turn burgundy-red in the fall. It is architecturally striking and a low-maintenance plant for year round interest (it stays semi evergreen in the winter). Why is it commonly called ‘pigsqueak’? If you take a leaf, moisten it with a little water and rub it between your fingers, it makes a sound like a squealing pig (imagination required).

Another winner for a sunny spot is Dianthus. This genus has a huge number of cultivars – all heat, drought and salt tolerant. Some of my favorites are in the PAINT THE TOWN® and FRUIT PUNCH® series. I’m especially attracted to frosty blue-leaved cultivars like PAINT THE TOWN® ‘Fuchsia’ and FRUIT PUNCH® ‘Spiked Punch’. Dianthus have a mild spicy smell and are not favored by deer (a big plus).

Spring blooming Phlox are high on my list but I’m not talking about overused moss pinks (Phlox subulata). I’m referring to wood’s phlox (Phlox divaricata) and smooth Phlox (Phlox stolonifera). All those in the divaricata group are highly fragrant. Both species have showy, long-blooming flowers with attractive, mat-forming foliage. The new Paparazzi series is a cross between subulata and stolonifera. I have yet to trial this one but I am hearing rave reviews for its vigorous habit, long bloom and resistance to powdery mildew.

The real spring flower show is in my shade gardens. Many people dread that they have shady yards, but I say REJOICE. Shade gardens are usually much less work than their sunnier counterparts. In general, they have fewer weeds; require less water; perennials usually grow at a slower rate (meaning divisions are not needed as often), and many have flowers that do not require deadheading. Have I caught your attention yet?

It is hard for me to narrow my favorites for shade but once again I will focus on uncommon showboats. Spring blooming bleeding hearts are widely used. Why not rock the boat and get your heart pounding with ‘Valentine’ This beauty has rich red flowers, dark foliage and lovely burgundy stems. It grows to 30” tall and is hardy in Zones 3 – 8. Autumn Fern’s (Dryopteris erythrosora) new fronds are a dazzling coppery-pink to orangey-red that glow in shade. New fronds unfurl spring into early summer. The fern tops out around 1.5’ – 2.5’. ‘Brilliance’ is a popular cultivar. And how could I not mention Brunnera (false forget-me-not)? It has lovely blue flowers that dance above heart-shaped foliage. ‘Jack Frost’ was the 2012 Perennial of the Year, honored for its silvery leaves decorated with green veins. ‘Variegata’ and ‘Hadspen Cream’ display large, creamy-white margins while ‘Looking Glass’ dazzles onlookers with totally silver foliage.

Well, it’s time to push back my chair from my computer and enjoy a stroll in the garden. The last time I looked, the white forsythia (Abeliophyllum) was about to burst into bloom. Its highly fragrant flowers will greet me before I even set eyes on the beauty.

Perennially Yours,

Kerry Ann Mendez

Kerry Ann Mendez is an award-winning speaker, garden design and author based in Kennebunk, ME. She has written three top-selling gardening books. Mendez recently launched national gardening Webinars. These interactive webinars focus on high-impact, low-maintenance, sustainable flower gardening and landscaping. Gardeners of all ages and abilities, both professional and garden hobbyists, have found them extremely helpful. The next Webinar, Inspired Garden Lessons Learned from Magnificent Gardens in England, Canada and the United States is scheduled for January 26.