By Pam Richards
In the Pacific Northwest in
May, rhododendrons reign. When these divas burst on stage to sing their
aria, all around them becomes secondary. They demand and deserve our
attention and applause.
When I first began gardening,
I lived across the street from a man who had grown his six-foot-tall
rhododendrons from seed. In May, brilliant red and yellow flowers
half-obscured the shrubs lining the north side of his house. Blooming columbine
and a montana clematis accompanied them. “I can’t let the rhododendrons bloom
alone,” my neighbor said, offering me my first design lesson. “They’re
the main attraction, but they need some company.”
I took his advice and
planted a large group of columbine at the foot of a small rhododendron—and a
clematis to climb a trellis behind it. The shrub’s elaborately ruffled,
hot pink flowers were the main attraction, with the pale pink clematis and tall
columbine as the supporting cast.
Rhododendrons are dense and
dark and rigid, so I like to contrast them with movement and delicacy.
Some of my favorite rhody sidekicks are:
effusum ‘Aureum’—golden wood
a bright spot in the shade, this grass’s
chartreuse leaves vibrate against dark green. Other yellows to consider are the
variegated holly fern, Arachniodes
with its lemon-yellow stripe, and Corydalis
lutea, with deep yellow flowers and ferny foliage.
The pretty, pendulous
flowers of bleeding hearts are lovely under rhododendrons. And the airy flowers
of heuchera (coral bells), atop a colorful rosette of leaves, are a perfect
‘Regina’ and H.
Mist’ have pink
flowers and silver frosting on their dark leaves.
The heuchera cultivars with
delectable food names and leaves in shades of yellow, orange, peach and amber
blend well with
orange or yellow flowers.
Rhododendrons have shallow
roots that resent disturbance, so do not plant directly beneath them.
Treat the root zone to an acidic fertilizer and mulch lightly—peat moss is great.
Then plant companion perennials around the shrub’s drip line. Water
deeply and make sure the perennials, whose small roots compete with the larger,
thirsty roots of the rhododendron, get the water they need through the growing
season. The shrubs and their companions enjoy morning sun and afternoon
Fun in The Sun
May offers more floral
abundance than just the rhododendron, however. Rosa banksiae (Lady Banks’ rose) is an
exuberant rambler that blooms white and scented (‘Alba
or yellow and scentless (‘Lutea’). It will
cover the wall and roof of a garden shed, most of a fence, or a large
arbor. Lady Banks’ rose has few thorns, is resistant to disease and
insects, and is clothed in flowers in late spring.
white or yellow roses would set off a dramatic black-leafed physocarpus (ninebark) or sambucus (elderberry). Both are large shrubs with
spring, summer and fall interest. Along with the white rose, add full
white peonies like ‘Festiva Maxima’ with lipstick red markings, and the sedge Carex morrowii
with green and white striped foliage. (The sedge needs to
be divided every year to remain attractive.) Include Geranium
mourning widow cranesbill, with tiny black flowers and black markings on the
leaves, and you will achieve a casual yet urbane vignette.
The yellow Banks’ rose is a
good background for some chocolate. A group of the columbine Aquilegia ‘Chocolate Soldier’
will add interest and scent.
Mounding grasses Carex
comans ‘Milk Chocolate’ and Carex
tenuiculmis ‘Cappuccino’ are as seductive as their names
suggest. Edge the planting area with Tiarella ‘Mint
Chocolate’, a low-growing perennial with maple-tree leaves marked with
One of my May favorites is
the oriental poppy. Grow an orange poppy with orange flowering geum and Carex
testacea, a brown sedge with a scattering of glowing orange
blades. Turn a spot of garden into a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie by
planting black-flowering Iris chrysographes
and a black-leaved heuchera with Papaver orientale ‘Royal
Wedding’, whose white tissue-paper petals are lightly dusted with dark flecks.
only drawback to oriental poppies is that they disappear completely once they
have finished blooming. I surround poppies with perennial geraniums that
will weave through garden beds from May to the end of September. I plant
boltonia (a type of aster) behind the poppy. By the end of May the boltonia
will begin to swell and as summer proceeds it will fill the empty space with
the willow Salix
integra ‘Hakuro Nishiki’ trained to a
standard will anchor a collection of plants. The willow has white leaves
marked with green and pink. A pink, early-blooming rose such as ‘Dainty
Bess’ will play up the willow’s pink markings.
Pair the rose with a
single-petaled pink peony and underplant it with white flowering allium.
Scatter small, white and scented Anemone sylvestris
beneath the willow. Let Geranium x
‘Biokovo’, with pale pink on white flowers and the
scent of the woods, wander. Carex ‘Frosted Curls’
will provide evergreen interest in the winter when the willow loses its leaves
and the branches turn red in the cold.
Settle an old, silvery-gray
wooden bench near the rose, under the willow, among the geraniums—and in May you
will have a lush, colorful spot in the garden. NWGN