Close up of apricot coloured lupin flower spikes with the spherical purple heads of alliums in the background

Lupins and alliums are classic cottage garden plants for May – their contrasting shapes work beautifully together
Image: Shutterstock

May is a fabulous time in the garden – fresh spring foliage is injected with colour from early herbaceous perennials, tulips give way to alliums and iris, whilst numerous flowering shrubs such as rhododendrons, viburnum and weigela launch into bloom and the air is perfumed with lilacs. At the end of the month the world’s greatest flower show returns at Chelsea, inspiring gardeners for another busy season.

To keep up with your garden tasks, turn to my jobs to do in May blog . But before you roll you sleeves up and get stuck in, let’s have a look at some of this month’s best plants!

Lilac ‘Palibin’ (Syringa meyeri ‘Palibin’)

Close up of soft mauve panicles of Lilac 'Palibin' composed of clusters of small tubular flowers

Lilac ‘Palibin’
Image: Canva

This dwarf lilac is an old cultivar dating from around the early 1900s where it was already a popular garden plant in China before its discovery by Western collectors. ‘Palibin’ is quite different from the large and domineering common lilac. Slow growing, it will take up to 10 years to reach its maximum height and spread of 1.5 metres but will flower in abundance at an early age, making a perfect specimen for a container or small border. It lends itself to growing as a standard or bush form.  Unlike the large, heart-shaped leaves of common lilacs, ‘Palibin’ has small, delicate, slightly leathery oval leaves which give it added value throughout the season. In spring, deep purple buds open to lavender-pinkish airy panicles. The individual flowers are small but numerous and intensely scented.

Clematis macropetala

Close up of pale violet semi-double flowers of Clematis macropetala

Clematis macropetala
Image: Canva

It’s easy to be seduced by the large, showy flowers of later clematis, but the early varieties have exquisitely delicate blooms, are a valuable source of nectar for pollinating insects emerging from hibernation and don’t require any routine pruning. The nodding, semi-double blooms of Clematis macropetala are borne in abundance and make an exceptionally dainty feature scrambling up a wall or trellis.

Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’

Close up of flower of Geum 'Totally Tangerine' a five-petalled apricot coloured flower with scalloped edges to the petals

Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’
Image: Thompson & Morgan

Geums are valuable perennials for their early flowering and I love the way their ruffled flowers hover on long stems, dancing in the breeze. ‘Totally Tangerine’ wins my vote for the best variety. It is extremely long flowering and after its main May/June performance it continues to produce more flower buds below the earlier spent flowers. The flowers are sterile and so they don’t waste energy on seeding or demand dead-heading. The blooms are not a brash orange but a soft-apricot with subtle variations in tone. This means that they are easily combined with absolutely any colour – although they look especially stunning with purple alliums.


Aquilegia ‘Nora Barlow,

Aquilegia ‘Nora Barlow’

Aquilegias are one of those happy plants which look incredibly delicate but are as tough as old boots, growing in sun or shade and in any soil type. Their nodding flowers are held on long, graceful stems above a mound of feathery foliage. They don’t take up too much space and can be easily dotted in between other perennials to fill gaps. ‘Nora Barlow’ is an old variety with fully double flowers flushed red, pink and white. If allowed, it will throw up seedlings which will generally come true.

Astrantia major ‘Moulin Rouge’

Close up of maroon, pin cushion flowers of Astrantia 'Moulin Rouge'

Astrantia ‘Moulin Rouge’
Image: Sempra

A perfect partner for aquilegias, and equally well-behaved, are astrantias. If you haven’t grown astrantias before then you are missing out. The flowers of Astrantia ‘Moulin Rouge’ are distinctive from other flowering perennials. This is not plant which shouts for attention, but deserves close appreciation of its intricately detailed flowerheads, with maroon papery bracts surrounding a central pincushion. The deeply lobed leaves are also a handsome feature. Prefers a rich, moist soil.

Rhododendron ‘Blue Tit’

Close up of abundant trumpet-shaped pale blue flowers of Rhododendron 'Blue Tit'

Rhododendron ‘Blue Tit’
Image: Morley Nurseries

May is the time to visit woodland gardens when showy rhododendrons are out in force. These large specimens may be beyond the scope of most of us, but we can still enjoy the dwarf varieties. Rhododendron ‘Blue Tit’ is smothered in masses of clear, violet-blue flowers and is perfect for acid borders in sun or partial shade or as a feature in spring containers. Its dark, evergreen leaves provide useful background foliage for the rest of the season.

For more plants which are looking fabulous this month, see Looking Good on The Nursery.



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