Gardening – May 2023 – Alison Agnew

Oh frabjous May! Callooh Callay! – to misquote Lewis Carrol.

May is such a glorious month for gardeners.  All our failures and errors are wiped clean by the perfect new growth and the still unfaded, still unfurling flowers of early summer.

Wisteria flowers dripping from their still bare twisting grey stems, roses breaking out of their fat tight buds, enormous paeonies not yet dropping petals on the floor, little violas running around their feet.

The rose border Crugsillick




Tree Paeony Duchess of Marlboroug








Iris siberica Silver Edge




Elegant Siberian iris and stately bearded iris.




Primula sieboldii


Frilly Primula seiboldii and the pagoda tiers of Japanese primulas.





Cistus ladanifer


Cistus and poppies in all their crumpled fragility.




So we should go into our gardens early on a lovely May Day and do nothing but stand and stare. How can the heart and eye take in so much perfection?

Rapid repairs
BUT gardeners are perfectionists and it’s hard not to fixate on the weeds and the gaps left by a harsh winter.  The losses can be very painful and people that try to console by telling you that a loss is a ‘planting opportunity’ are very annoying.  But it is true and gaps can be filled up with replacement shrubs or perennials and even more quickly with annuals.

Best annual fillers
It may be an obvious choice but it’s hard to beat Cosmos as a filler to dob in along the borders. It comes in so many colours – white to pink to deep plum and yellow to bright red. Tall white Cosmos Purity is an old cultivar and still one of the best – it filters in among roses and floats about in any soft-coloured border.  Cosmos sulphureus comes in red, yellow and orange shades – Tango is a good single burning orange.

New varieties abound – Cosmos bipinnatus Xanthos is a lovely soft primrose, rather short but there is a new tall version, Kiiro, to try now.  I tried Apricotta last year but didn’t like the magenta centre to the peachy petals.  Cosmos comes in many weird and wonderful shapes too – single and double and  pompom doubles, quilled petals and even fused petals in the Cupcake varieties.  They are marvellous for cutting too.  Chiltern Seeds sells 46 varieties! Wise gardeners will have sown their Cosmos under cover in March but there is still time to sow now or to buy expensive seedlings from Sarah Raven.

Cosmos Purity and Geranium Rozanne






Stately Cleome also look at home in a mixed border.  I find these Spider flowers slow to germinate and they often fail when growing on so I get few from a packet of seed.  Maybe there’s a trick that someone can show me?Perhaps the seed needs to be sown fresh so this year I’ll collect seed from my own pathetically few plants and sow it in the autumn. Or maybe give up and buy expensive young plants from Mr Fothergill’s.

Other annuals that will fill the gaps in the wilder parts of the garden are the Ammi – Ammi majus grows to 1.2 m high and 0.6m wide with fresh green foliage and masses of large white ‘cow parsley’ flowers from July to October.  Ammi visnaga is stouter with frothy foliage and delicate umbels of green turning cream flowers.  They will take over from foxgloves in sunny and semi-shaded areas.  Ammi can still be direct sown and would look wonderful en masse should you have a newly cleared area waiting for permanent planting.  1500 seeds will cost you a mere £5.75 from Sarah Raven.

Papaver somniferum

Poppies – so so many.  The opium poppy Papaver somniferum is a very grand filler, it grows to well over 1m and 0.6m wide and though it loves the sun is quite tolerant of some shade and just about any soil. It comes in a great range of colours from purest white to deepest plum, with pinks and bright reds in between. The foliage is a lovely bluey-grey green.


There are very double forms but I think they spoil the elegance of the single and there are lovely ragged edged forms too. Many years ago I put single white seed in one area of the garden and deep plum in another.  I also inherited a red form.  Now they’ve all interbred and I leave self seeded plants where I have a gap or move very young seedlings to fill one and cross my fingers that the random colours will work.  If they are a real horror I’ll cut the whole plant as it starts to flower and bring it into the house – you need to scald the base of the stem but then they’ll flower well and surprisingly long in a vase.

Papaver rhoeas


Coming down a scale – the varieties of our native field poppy, Papaver rhoeas are easy and lovely.






Shirley Poppy



I chucked seed of Bridal White and the soft pink  Shirley poppies into a newly planted rose border 8 years ago and I’ve enjoyed them breaking out between perennials ever since – reverting occasionally to bright red just to shock.



Californian poppies Escholtzia californica can still be sown to flower this year and often manage a second year of flowering.  They have also been bred in a wide range of colours and frillinesses. I love the burning orange red of Red Chief and the soft ivory of Milkmaid.  Again, the best range of poppy seeds comes from Chiltern Seeds.

Wild gardens

Pendower valley- a flowery mead


May is the best month for our coastal and hedgerow flowers.  So while we are waiting for our garden borders to flush out, we should get out and see what comes naturally.  The wild flower rush may be more fleeting than our garden displays but can still put all our efforts in the shade.


Foxgloves and red campion on the cliff top



Leave a Reply