To-do lists are growing long

And some helpful hints on staking peonies.

Photo by Susan Safford

The “merry month of May” is traditionally characterized by hawthorns in bloom; no matter that May is almost over and the hawthorns are only just starting to flower. Despite the chilly, dry weather, there is much going on in gardens at this wondrous time of year. (And so much in the garden to simply admire and enjoy!) One is often transfixed by indecision on what comes first, as gardening to-do lists are long, and time is short.

Watering should be a priority when dry spells coincide with plants’ efforts to put out leaves or new growth. Recently planted trees and shrubs — planted within the past two years — may need supplemental watering: They are more vulnerable than fully established plantings. Mulching helps retain soil moisture, and may help increase time between waterings.

Staking craft   

Peony season means rain to me, even while we are having this drought, so a refresher course in peony staking might be useful. Many classic techniques of garden maintenance are not much known in the United States — we tend to be seat-of-the-pants, self-taught types in many respects — and gardening for ordinary people here has a short history. Thanks to Old House Gardens, this method of staking peonies at the New Hampshire garden Hildene, estate of President Lincoln’s son, is described. It’s called the Hildene star, as Hildene’s gardener, Andrea Luchini, explains:

“I stake the plants when they have flower buds so that I can easily tell where to string them. For each peony, I insert five stakes equidistant from each other, just on the outside edge of the clump. Then I take a piece of jute twine and tie it to one of the stakes, a few inches below the flower buds. Going counter-clockwise, I pass the twine through the plant going to every other stake and tautly wrapping the twine once around each, until I’m back where I started. When I’m finished there’s a jute star in the middle of the plant.

“To catch the outer flowers, I bring the twine around the outside of the plant, wrapping it once around each stake to encircle the entire clump. This method supports the flowers in sections rather than as one big mass.”

Iris: Peonies’ fabulous companion

Only a deity could imagine and form the architectural iris blossom, with its structural complexity paired with a foliage statement intensely focused and clean-lined. Unlike peonies, irises generally need no staking, with the exception of tall bearded types with heavily frilled flowers. It is for this reason, although I admire them in other people’s gardens, that I mostly stick to dwarf and intermediate bearded iris (IB iris), the former of which kicks off rhizomatous iris season, with the IBs coming a bit later.

Aitken’s Salmon Creek Garden, at, lists an IB, ‘August Treat,’ with good rebloom, mid-blue standards, lighter blue falls, and blue beards that sounds good to me. Also intriguing is their ‘Rust Never Sleeps,’ with cinnamon standards, darker brown falls, blue beards, and possible rebloom.

An 18-inch tall pure white IB from Shreiner’s Iris Gardens, at, ‘Angelwalker,’ makes a good choice for the twilight gleam a good white flower gives the garden. Check them, and others out by Googling “intermediate bearded iris.”

Not to be ignored, Siberian irises, with grasslike foliage, begin their bloom time simultaneously with the tall bearded iris. These plants have great utility in the garden as repeat-theme punctuation in the border. Clumps increase rapidly, and if yours have shown diminished bloom, it is time to divide them.

All of the irises mentioned above are great plants for the dry or unirrigated garden, and make good rock-garden subjects. They fare best in situations where they can be dry and baking after their spring bloom; in fact they will be healthier and maintain their foliage better if grown this way.

Reblooming plants

It is the aim of landscapes of a turnkey or institutional nature to have “color” all season long, while the charm of a rich and well-planted garden is the endless parade of plants and effects throughout the garden year. Who has not waited with bated breath for a favorite iris to unfold its first bud in all its beauty?

A case may be made for rejecting reblooming irises (or any reblooming version of a plant traditionally a onetime bloomer, for that matter), in the sense that these yearly but ephemeral appearances are special and precious events to the garden lover.

However, in confined spaces where every square foot must pull its weight, an iris that reblooms — or an azalea, a mock orange, a lilac — is a gift. They share the function that annual flowers perform: a long season of dependable bloom.

Rose care

Many problems of roses may be avoided by use of manure; they are heavy feeders. A chemical version is no substitute for the best feed for them: stable muck. The best time to give it to them is over winter. A problem with this seemingly simple prescription: Stable muck is in short supply in the 21st century.

Bagged “garden manure” is the likely substitute, but be on the lookout for sources of horse manure. Mellowed in a tarped heap, it will be in usable form by the coming winter. Remove as much of the bedding material as possible, as its breakdown cheats the roses of nitrogen.

Attested to by garden centers’ feet of shelf space devoted to cure-alls for them, roses in deficient soil will manifest many problems that then have to be dealt with. Roses under severe insect attack or demonstrating foliar problems should receive a soil test. Specify that the soil is to grow roses.

In the garden

Prune spring-flowering shrubs such as forsythia, viburnum, witch hazel, and fothergilla. Deadhead rhododendrons. Plant beans, and sow more lettuce.