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Bridging The Gap Before Summer
by Helen Dillon
by Helen Dillon


'Like some of her beloved plants, Helen Dillon blossomed late in life. Now her cut-glass tones and impish face are familiar to garden lovers all over the country But the journey to her present oasis of serenity has not been without its difficulties'...Patricia Deevy

Helen's garden is wonderful and a stop on our garden tours to Ireland when we are in the Dublin area. Visit her site at

and see why it is so popular!

May 21, 2006

The reluctant gardener is just coming out of hibernation. He may be seen on the road heading for the garden centre, chequebook to the ready. The reason that he has been goaded into activity is the imminent collapse of the last of the tulips. Irish springs are deliciously slow - as a succession of different flowering plants present themselves, it seems the display will never end. Until some time around now, when suddenly there's very little in bloom: the May Gap has arrived.

Columbines, aquilegias or granny's bonnets. It doesn't matter what you call them, they are one of the stars of the season. Even if you start off with the sophisticated modern hybrids, with elegant long spurs and vivid colours, their self-sown seedlings will gradually revert to the old-fashioned sorts, the 'Pink and purple columbine' of Spenser, with frilled and very double centres. The Clematiflora hybrids from Aquilegia vulgaris var. stellata, with no middles at all, are suitably named - their flowers are inddeed similar to those of the lematis (to which they are related, both being members of the Ranunculaceae, or buttercup family). With the exception of the rather unpleasant variegated forms, columbines are one of the mainstays of early summer.

The next plant on your list for filling the gap should be the perennial honesty, Lunaria rediviva, a most suitable plant for the reluctant gardener, as opposed to honesety itself (a self-seeding biennial) for which you should struggle out of the deck chair in late summer to thin out the seedlings. But you never have to give another thought to perennial honesty, except to mutter gratefully 'What a nice plant,' each May. It will do in shady places and indifferent soil.

The fresh green of Solomon's seal (Polygonatum) seems the epitome of May. It's graceful, arching stems and pendant waxy flowers are good enough to pick and put in a vase all on their own. There are many different species of Polygonatum, including the diminutive P. hookeri (one inch tall, pale pin, Himalayan) and P. verticillatum (a striking plant for foliage contrast). A shady spot is preferred and most will flourish in the poorest positions.

The last tulip of all is yet to flower, Tulipa sprengeri, a connoisseur's bulb from northern Turkey. It's little bright scarlet flowers have none of the brash 'look at me' air of the large modern cultivars. It is easy from seed, but you will have to search specialist society seed lists for it, such as that of the Alpine Garden Society. (Do not be indimidated by the word 'Alpine' - most true plantsmen join this society, even if they don't grow rock plants.) It is worth making notes now, while spring is still in mind, of where tulips would look good next year.

Lest the reluctant gardener in a fit of enthusiasm starts buying tender plants (such as petunias and begonias), it is far too early to put them out. One cold night will set them back considerably, and may even kill them. In sheltered gardens you might risk putting out argyranthemums and verbenas but wise old gardeners will wait a while.

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