Early border delights

May is one of my favourite months in the garden. The borders have filled out, the days are lengthening, it is Chelsea Flower Show time and full summer is still to come.

Actually I do not fill my borders with such early stalwarts as peonies, oriental poppies and lupins. Much as I love them, they look tatty or take up room when they have gone over. I prefer planting to perform at its best in late summer, when I am most likely to be sitting out in the garden, and to continue into autumn when my spirits need boosting as the days shorten into winter. However, if I had more room, I would certainly plant some oriental poppies. As a child, I used to love to watch the buds bursting, the new crumpled petals unfurling like a newly hatched dragonfly ‘s wing.

If the bright orange kinds are not to your taste, there are white, pink and deep red kinds. ‘Mrs Perry’ is a delicate shade of salmon pink which goes well with all the hardy geranium tribe, but I find ‘Patty’s Plum’ fades to a dismal colour in full sun, so place her carefully in semi-shade. For full-on pillar box red, ‘Beauty of Livermere’ is one of the tallest and goes well with lime green foliage.

Now oriental poppies are the divas of the late May / early June border, but make their appearance for barely 10 glorious days. After that the foliage tends to be rather scruffy, and when it dies back, leaves a large hole in the border. Also they are tap rooted and will not like being moved, so choose their position well. Poppies will not mind being sheared hard to the ground after flowering to grow a new bunch of leaves. You can fill in the gap with some tall cosmos seedlings, or grow Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant nearby, which will fill up the space for the rest of summer.

I rely on dainty perennials and bulbs to provide pings of May colour. I would not want to be without aquilegias, otherwise known as columbines, or granny’s bonnets, as my granny never ever called them. Plain aquilegia vulgaris does self-seed too well so snap off the flower stalks as soon as they go over. Shear the entire plant to the ground in June and it will produce new neat foliage which is never a nuisance later in the year.

There are many lovely forms and they are easy to grow from seed. A favourite of mine is Purple Emperor, a rich coloured form with lime green leaves which mature to apple green later in the year. The gold seedlings are easy to spot and remove where they are not wanted. I team them with alliums, Early Sensation and Mount Everest being respectively purple and white. Grow alliums behind perennials such as geraniums and poppies, as they have a natural habit of their lower leaves dying back yellow and shabby as they flower, so the lowest foot of the plant is best concealed.

With a good selection of the above plants, your May garden will be a vison of white, pink and purple, which is a pleasant, though predictable, colour combination. Add a little zing of light orange with Geum Totally Tangerine, some lime green in the form of one of the euphorbias (which will have been at their best two weeks earlier with the tulips of your choice) and you will have colourful May borders to enjoy every year.

Katherine Crouch