Discover more from Floral Notes
Top tips for growing flowers this month; sowing now for summer cutting, a spring review and a Chelsea Chop.
May is jammed packed with seasonal markers. Allotments are waking with Asparagus and the first new potatoes can be dug up; I adore the heavenly scented lilac overhanging fences while the frothy white cow parsley, hawthorn and elderflower hedgerows mingle with bright green nettles, tender enough to pick (with gloves!). Long bright days are almost perfectly balanced with cool nights. It’s an easy going month of bank holidays, opening of summer season, paddling on Lammas Land and the Chelsea Flower Show on the BBC. No wonder villages were once host to colourful Maypole dancing and flower crowns; this is a time to celebrate as Spring turns towards Summer.
For flower growers, May is one of the busiest times with a last chance for this summers beds and vases. After ‘that’ memorable winter segueing into ‘this slow and cold spring’, I’ll be preparing for every eventuality by making last sowings under cover, backing up with directly into the soil too. Half hardy annuals are some of the fastest plants to germinate and grow to flower; the least amount of disturbance, the better. Zinnias, nasturtiums and calendula are great for direct seeding. Rake back the soil, remove large stones and sow in lines or zig zags, keeping well watered until they emerge. This way, the seedlings are obvious in contrast to random weed growth.
We are only in May though; with a whole summer of growing ahead, even hardy annuals sown now will bloom and fill borders generously. I will be sowing another bunch of sweet peas, cornflowers, nicotiana with favourite coreopsis and rudbeckias. Adding interest and texture to August and September arrangements where dahlias can be accused of taking over with their huge heads. For something other than those divas, last year I enjoyed the multi stemmed sunflowers in plums, muted pinks and browns. These sophisticated performers gave smaller flowers for months, perfect for cutting and arranging with.
The task I usually leave until too late is staking. I have no idea why since I have been using jute netting for the last few years and it’s brilliant. We’ve set upright stakes now at different intervals, usually a couple of metres apart and 18” to 2’ high; the netting is stretched across the stakes and stapled where required. It’s a quick job and one that works brilliantly. In the past I set netting too high and it was difficult to cut flowers. Having the net lower is working for all the plants that need support especially the tall sunflowers and heavy dahlias that can be broken or rocked in August storms. Staking low ensures strong roots so that upper stems can move freely and most importantly, be easily reached for harvesting.
Finally, if your borders look a little sparse, you might want to prepare now for your 2024 May garden. Late spring flowers are the ultimate delayed gratification. I’d suggest growing biennials such as honesty, sweet william and wallflowers to complement spring bulbs. Order the latter immediately and forget all about them until the parcel turns up later this summer. But Spring flowering biennials need to be sown as soon as possible. They will need care and attention this summer before planting out in cleared September beds. When there is so much to do this year, sowing for the next one might be low on your priorities but you’ll be right ahead for 2024 if you do. It is my top tip this month. Best of British to you!
Shrubs & Perennials - I am thrilled with the growth on shrubs (those that survived are going great guns like lonicera’s, elder, physocarpus) and perennials. I won’t stop encouraging everyone to grow as many perennials as possible! Any that I have seemed to have grown significantly since last year which is greatly encouraging. I need to do little to look after them. Instead, I am lifting and dividing many to create more plants and fill space in gaps on my plots plans (see disappointments) and the space around the terrace. Where the rosemary and grasses were killed off in the frosts, I happily have replanted with Maclaya, aster and rudbeckia.
Compost heaps - These almost ready to spread across the beds and use for potting on of the fast filling polytunnel. Nettles, comfrey and grasses are now tall enough for another pull to make another heap. The liquid feeds I started last month stink. So are almost ready to use too.
Chrysanthemums - Every single one, whether planted outside or bought in got through the winter well and look in great shape for both cuttings and flowering.
Tulips - After saying for the last few years that I prefer Narcissus to Tulips (for many reasons, mostly that they come back year after year and tulips are so costly and resource heavy for an annual bulb) but my narcissus are already over; yet tulips have flowered successionally on over several months. The last few springs have been so warm that tulip crops have flowered within a few weeks. You just can’t predict it. Spread your bets.
Dahlias - It looks like I might have lost almost all of them. I played fast and loose, leaving them in the ground again, since they did so well last year. And they looked like they did since when I checked, the tubers were fine. But I think this cool spring has delayed sprouting and they’ve rotted off instead.
Ranunculus - Ditto above. Finally they are coming up to flower, but they are sparse and little like the quality of previous years. I can tell already that this growing season will be a great test of me since I usually rely on both Dahlias and Ranunculus as my main failsafe and show stopper crops. Every failure a lesson. Annuals I’ve sown, and perennials will be even more important than ever this year, and a shake up of floral combinations!
Autumn Sown Annuals - Even the sweet peas failed! But Orlaya and cornflowers came through the winter from last years ‘early’ sowings. Those plants are huge. It’s a stark reminder how big and early autumn sown plants are. I wonder if I’d got plants out sooner, maybe they’d have survived better in the ground than in the polytunnel.
MAY FLOWER GROWING TASKS
This month might well be the busiest month of the growing calendar; thankfully we have the daylight and energy to match.
Sow half hardy annuals but wait to plant them out until after the last frost date.
Last year this was in early June. Fleece thrown over many plants may well be enough to protect but take care and harden off plants well.
Sow another crop of hardy annuals
For late summer flowers. You are probably running out of growing space, trays jostling and thinking there is no need! But most of those plants sown and growing will be done and dusted by mid summer. Think successionally and sow another crop of cornflowers, sweet peas and agrostemma. Sow nicandra for show stopping blackened stems and lanterns for unusual filler,
Sow Biennials for flowers this time next year
More on this on Tuesday’s newsletter, in the meantime, order your seeds to sow this month - think foxgloves, wallflowers and sweet williams.
Plant Summer Bulbs
I’ve been planting ixia and acidanthera in pots for late summer colour and interesting stems.
The Chelsea Chop
With a heavy reliance on perennials now, cut to encourage a later succession of flowers across your plants. If you have more than one plant, cut some hard back and others leave to flower. Or if just one, cut a third of the stems back hard, another third by half, the rest leave. Best done later in the month around the flower show, hence the name. Great plants for this are alchemical mollie, aster, rudbeckia and achilleas.
Sow herbs and catch crops
In between rows of flowers and at the end of beds, for both floristry material and to increase soil health, I grow rows of salads, basil, mints and edible flowers, marigolds and borage. These attract pollinators and diversity in your plots. More on growing food to improve your flowers here.
For more on all of these tasks this month, upgrade for weekly emails. Every Tuesday, I take you through growing flowers step by step with my full harvest list direct into your inbox. Each month there is a floral recipe with combinations and methods for growing, cutting and conditioning for you gather the same.