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Late-Spring Flowers and Summer Vegetables

Yellow trumpet-shaped flowers bloom in a flower bed of mulch and dead leaves.
Daffodils are some of the first signs of spring, but the weather is warming up to make way for many other plants to bloom. (Photo: Peggy Singlemann)

April and May are glorious months in the garden!

Years ago, I enjoyed the company of one of Maymont’s garden volunteers who said she could feel the energy in the soil every time she planted. I think of her when I plant and smile because at times I do feel the energy and this spring is one of those times.

There is much to be done, but don’t let the tasks overwhelm the joy of gardening. Even during trips to a local garden center, enjoy the colorful display of flowers and the heady fragrances. However, when choosing plants for the landscape look beyond what is blooming, taking time to read the tags attached to plants that are just green - they bloom later in the season. Include perennials, trees and shrubs that provide color in the late summer and fall, giving consideration to Virginia native plants as well. Remember to aim for the 70% mass of Virginia natives in the landscape to help sustain the ecosystem. This estimate includes the trees as well.

For season-long color, turn to annual bedding plants. Favorites of mine that are known to be deer-proof are Lantana, Petunia, and Marigolds. Consider other plants that have a coarse texture or an excessive fuzzy leaf as they are distasteful to deer as well. Plants with a strong fragrance such as eucalyptus and many herbs are a deterrent, too. Plants with an irritating, milky sap like euphorbias and milkweeds are typically left untouched by deer, even the sap of chrysanthemums is an irritant deer shy away from. So shop the garden center with your senses if deer are frequent guests; if you are deer-free, then shop to your heart's content.

Early May kicks off the summer vegetable garden growing season in zones 7 with mid-May in zone 6, while zone 5 gardeners typically wait until the end of May. At those times the soil has finally warmed to support tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, squash and other summer vegetables that thrive in the warmer sun and soil.  Another early summer task is to prune the spring flowering shrubs once they have finished their floral display for the season but before the new growth begins to emerge. If pruning is necessary, then prune lightly, never removing more than ¼ of the mass of the plant at one time. Spring flowering shrubs form their flower buds for the next year during the summer months - keep that in mind when reaching for the sheers in July and August. At Maymont, we save any pruning of the ornamental cherry trees and the dogwoods until the early fall when the boring insects that thrive on these plants are dormant for the winter. Fresh spring cuts create an access point for borers.

At Maymont, we recently completed the immense task of inspecting each tree planted in the past 5 years to eliminate any soil or mulch build up from around the trunk and exposing the root flare. We took the task one step further and carefully excavated the soil about 1 foot out from the trunk and down 6-8” or so. What we found was alarming - many had roots girdling the tree trunk under the mulch and soil lines. Carefully those roots were cut to relieve the girdling pressure that would have killed the tree or stunted its growth within a few years. 

I encourage gardeners to learn the specific needs of the plants they tend so each can thrive in the landscape or garden. For example, Common or Persian Lilacs grow best in alkaline or sweet soil, and Clematis, too! Working in a handful of line in the soil around their roots will create the alkaline conditions these plants require. To achieve the intended goal, knowing the pH of the soil is critical and that is where the soil tests I encourage everyone to take during the winter become indispensable. Another detail concerns daffodils - once a clump becomes too large and tight, it will stop blooming or have a significant reduction in blooms. Once the green daffodil foliage yellows dig up the large clump and immediately replant the smaller divisions in clumps around the landscape, or consider sharing some with friends. There are 2 very large clumps of daffodils I am dividing this spring once the leaves turn yellow - again, I am meeting the specific need of this plant.  If you don’t know the need of a plant then shoot us a question and we will gladly share those details with you.

Have fun in the garden and join me in enjoying the beauty of spring in Virginia in your community or in the wild!