Stepping out of your gardening rut

Emily Clay

May might be my favorite month in the garden. The weather is warm but not too hot. We have wonderful afternoon showers that make everything glisten and grow. It really is a glorious month to spend outdoors.

Gardening is a lot like cooking. Like grocery shopping, we can easily get into a gardening rut — I know I certainly do. I buy the same plants for my containers year after year and choose the same annuals to plant in the same areas in my garden each season. Recently, I decided to branch out and try different annuals, perennials and shrubs each season. Many times I have been forced to try things I would not ordinarily choose. If a client calls in late December and needs containers planted or a new area in the garden fixed up quickly for a party or an event, I have to use what is available.

These combinations always end up being so interesting and satisfying. May is the perfect time to try new varieties because our local nurseries and garden centers should be stocked with all sorts of wonderful plants to choose from. So throw away your list from this past May and go out with an open mind to try some new things. Take notes. One of these new plants may become one of your favorites.

Let’s look at some different options that can add drama and interest to the May garden, beginning our search for annuals that we may not normally use in our gardens. Let’s step out of the proverbial gardening box!

Mandevilla: Mandevilla are annual vines that come in bright hues of pink or red. ‘Vivian’ is a prolific bloomer with lipstick pink blossoms. ‘Sophia’ is a deep red variety that is also a long season bloomer. Mandevilla are tough vines that thrive in sun and heat and bloom prolifically. They grow to 18 to 24 inches tall and are drought tolerant once they are established. They are wonderful to add to hanging baskets or to train up a trellis in a large container.

But, why not try something different? Plant them amongst your perennials and let them use the other taller plants for support. They would be a beautiful complement to a purple buddleia or a tall bush of Lantana ‘Miss Huff.’ The bright colors of the Mandevilla will be a strong contrast for the soft blue of the Buddleia, and the bold blossoms will add even more drama to the bright orange and red blooms of ‘Miss Huff.’

Verbena: Verbenas are another sometimes forgotten plant. Verbena was very popular 20 years ago but has fallen out of fashion. It is another tough plant to use in our hot, Southern gardens. Verbena is usually planted in containers or hanging baskets. Why not use it as a ground cover? It has a trailing growth habit which makes it ideal to use as an under plant for roses or standard hibiscus. It is also very well suited to use in a rock garden. Plant it in a crevice between a stacked stone wall, and it will thrive.

Verbena prefer to grow in thin soil. They actually thrive on neglect once they are established. Two varieties to look for this season are ‘Princess Blush’ and ‘Princess Dark Lavender.’ These varieties have been bred to grow in a more compact fashion and will not get “bald” spots in the middle of the plant. Verbena benefits from regular deadheading to prolong their prolific bloom until frost.

Pentas: Pentas is another annual that thrives in the May garden and through the summer and fall until frost. Hummingbirds and butterflies are attracted to the nectar filled blossoms of pentas. A particularly prolific variety is ‘Stars and Stripes.’ This pentas with its bright red petals and pink centers is irresistible to our flying friends. ‘Stars and Stripes’ has variegated leaves (hence the name Stripes) and shows up well in the evening. This pentas paired with chartreuse potato vine is a stunning window bow or hanging basket combination. It is also very effective planted en masse in the perennial garden for constant color during the summer.

Ornamental Pepper: Now let’s really add some drama to your garden and containers. Look for ‘Black Pearl’ ornamental pepper. This ornamental pepper has almost solid black leaves and pearl shaped fruit that turn from black to bright red. It is recommended not to eat the fruit and not to let your pets eat it either. This tough little pepper plant thrives in hot sun and can survive drought conditions. A small plant with lots of aesthetic punch, it would look stunning in a container planting of yellow coreopsis and the pentas mentioned above, ‘Stars and Stripes.’ Small containers of this combination would be fun to use as table top decorations for a 4th of July celebration.

Sun Coleus: I am a huge fan of sun coleus, and new varieties show up every year. All are easy to grow, and they thrive either planted in the ground or in containers. A…