At the moment, with wide expanses of bare soil between clumps of emerging foliage, an earthworm crawling across the saturated soil in our perennial bed is easy prey for the robin perched on the overhanging oak limb. By the end of May, after the foliage of dozens of blooming plants has fully covered the bed, the robin will hunt elsewhere. In this interval, as each herbaceous perennial species unfurls new leaves, we are treated to a display of foliage color and texture that rivals the peak of flowers in June. A similar show plays in those few vegetable beds planted to perennial herbs and in the fall-planted beds of shallots and garlic.
And so, as I wait for the main event, the parade of flowers and fruits, I stroll through the garden with my camera to chronicle the ephemeral beauty of new leaves. The following is a distillation of that effort this past Monday, May 5.
I think the best herbaceous perennials are those species and cultivars with enduring foliage character, plants that command attention before and after the flowers. The hybrid iris ‘Gerald Darby‘ (Iris x robusta ‘Gerald Darby’) in a splendid example. Growing to 3 feet in height with violet blue flowers in June, this plant is the perfect partner for the golden flowers of Achillea ‘Coronation Gold’. In early May, it graces our garden with new bright green leaves flushed with a strong purple, a much welcomed touch of color.
Long before the chartreuse spring flowers of lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis) appear, the newly emerged leaves turn raindrops into jewels in the early morning sunshine. Seedlings of lady’s mantle have escaped from the perennial bed to pop up everywhere in Marjorie’s Garden, much to our delight.
One of the best ornamental onions is Allium cernuum, the nodding onion. In early May, rounded patches of its soft, flat, arching leaves provide stark contrast with the surrounding bare soil. Over the years these patches have increased in diameter by self-seeding and offshoots of older plants. The common name comes from the early summer nodding clusters of lilac-pink bell-shaped flowers that appear on leafless stalks above the foliage.
In early May, in the shade of overhanging oak branches, new shoots of common bleeding heart (Lamprocapnos spectabilis, formerly Dicentra spectabilis) emerge from a bed of moss surrounding a lichen-crusted granite bolder. These stems and folded leaves are a deep purple-red, the first green showing only as the leaves unfold. It seems odd to me that descriptions of this plant omit these early ornamental features, focusing only on the later soft green foliage and rose pink, nodding, heart-shaped flowers. The early beauty of bleeding heart may be fleeting, but it is no less part of the gestalt of the species.
Succulents such as Sedum x ‘Autumn Joy’, Sedum spurium ‘Dragons Blood’ and hens and chicks (Sempervivum sp.) lend their strong textures as well as foliage colors to our garden in early May. ‘Dragons Blood‘ is a low-growing sprawling groundcover with small green leaves that have red-tinged margins. The lower stem leaves are deciduous, but newer leaves near the stem tips are evergreen and often turn to a deep burgundy in fall for overwintering. In summer, the trailing stems are covered with deep red flowers.
At the back of the early May vegetable garden, a clump of chives greets us with a wave of its bright green spikes, already a foot tall. My first thoughts are of the red admiral butterflies and bumblebees that will sip nectar from the lavender flowers of this plant in June.
Garlic and shallot plants have defied the early May cold by sending up strong shoots from the chilly soil. While the cloves of these two alliums look similar on the cutting board, their garden characters are distinctly different. Each fall-planted garlic clove has produced a single shoot from which three or four young leaves have unfurled. Each shallot plant, also started from an individual clove, has sent up several shoots and has the look of a young clump of chives. At harvest time each of the garlic plants will yield the familiar bulb of tightly-packed cloves while each shallot plant will produce a cluster of 5 to 12 individual loosely-joined cloves.
In the first week of May, the emerging leaves of rhubarb broke through the compost mulch that blanketed their winter bed. Pushed upward through the darkness as closed buds, they unfurled their wrinkled leaf blades in shades of copper, bronze, and yellow, slowly turning green in sunlight.
Leaving the vegetable garden, I spot a large rosette of young dandelion leaves growing along the edge of a bed waiting to be planted. Harvested at this stage, before they set flowers, dandelion leaves can be eaten in fresh salads, adding a distinctive tangy flavor. This particular plant will be part of tonight’s salad, combined with spinach from the garden and strawberries from the market.