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May: Month-by-month guide to planting, gardening and produce – with recipes

Iris (Iris germanica) is rugged, reliable and colorful. It’s no wonder the genus was named for the Greek goddess of the rainbow.
Iris (Iris germanica) is rugged, reliable and colorful. It’s no wonder the genus was named for the Greek goddess of the rainbow. The Sacramento Bee

Stalwarts in the sun-loving, water-efficient garden must include plants such as rosemary and lavender. But there are hundreds more plants that perform admirably in our climate, many of which offer year-around interest.

Generally, best bets are plants with silver or gray foliage since they are uniquely adapted to dealing with heat and sunshine. Many silver-leaved plants have a downy or hairy appearance, which lets them reflect light and conserve water so they can easily survive hot, dry conditions. Plants with small, needle-like leaves – English lavender, for example – are also suitable for low-water gardens. Unless it is a plant intended as a focal point, avoid planting just one of many different plants because it makes the garden look choppy.

Instead, plant in groups of odd numbers, because this looks more natural. Choose at least three of one plant. This gives the garden continuity and cohesion.

Here are a few of my favorites. I’ve chosen plants for each month of the year sometimes because of beautiful foliage, sometimes for their flowers, sometimes for autumn color or striking berries. Most provide year-round interest, although a few are herbaceous and die back when the weather turns cold. Include plenty of these plants in your garden, and you’ll have flowers to pick, foliage to enjoy and beauty in the garden all seasons of the year.

Iris ( Iris germanica): Bearded irises are rugged and reliable. They survive neglect, drought and poor soil. The flower colors are magnificent, the combinations stunning, and the scent of the flowers perfumes the air like no other flower. It’s no wonder the genus was named for the Greek goddess of the rainbow.

The genus Iris contains more than 300 species. Almost all grow from rhizomes, which resemble a misshapen potato. Iris flowers have three upper petals called standards, and three lower petals called falls. Bearded irises ( I. germanica) are easily identified by a thick, hairy tuft, or “beard,” on each of the falls. They’re native to central and southern Europe, and many people call them German bearded irises. They range in size from miniatures that hardly top 8 inches to ones that exceed 4 feet tall in bloom.

Hybridizers have created bearded irises of almost every color of the rainbow, from deepest indigo to bright orange, pale yellow, warm peach, startling white and reddish purple as well as stunning color combinations. There are probably 100,000 named varieties of bearded irises.

They mix well with perennials and shrubs such as lavender, daylilies, poppies, daisies and roses. The spiky foliage is a beautiful soft green color, and a shape that blends well with other plants. The newer reblooming varieties will continue to bloom throughout the year, even into December. It won’t be the riot of color typical in May and June, but there will be enough flowers for both the garden and the house.

Hints: Tops of the rhizomes should be exposed when planting. Bearded irises go dormant in the middle of summer and the foliage can look tattered. Cut faded flowering stalks and dying foliage to the ground. You can also divide irises during the summer. However, it’s one of those plants that, if you inadvertently leave the rhizomes sitting around and don’t get them planted for a few weeks, they don’t seem to mind. They’ll grow when they are finally in the ground. What could be easier than an iris?

Wormwood ( Artemesia sp.): Wormwood is such an ignoble name for a plant that looks as stunning under the summer sun as the artemesias. Their brilliant silver, fern-like foliage seems to shine. It always looks fresh. The foliage seems to float atop the stems, and the plant gives the garden a light and airy feeling. It blends well with deep green foliage, boldly colored flowers, almost anything you put next to them.

Unfortunately, the flowers are a disappointment. In fact, I’d rather they didn’t bloom since the flower stalks are floppy and thin, and the plant falls apart after blooming. I cut the flowering stalks away before they have a chance to open.

Give artemesias plenty of sun, even poor soil. Just don’t give them a lot of water. The foliage turns dull gray when wet, so the plant isn’t at its prettiest during winter or if you overhead water, although you don’t really notice it until the summer sun dries everything out and suddenly you realize the artemesias haven’t been looking their best. They look best grown on the hard side, like herbs.

The genus Artemesia is a large one with more than 200 species. Some are evergreen (or ever gray), some deciduous, and some make woody shrubs. They are mainly native to the Mediterranean and the Caucasus Mountains in Turkey, but there is a California native that hails from the Channel Islands called A. californica.

One of the most popular is A. “Powis Castle,” which mounds to about 3 feet tall and 6 feet across. However, its stems root as they go, and a single plant can cover 20 or 30 feet in a couple of seasons if you let it. There is also one called A. “Silver Mound” that makes a small silvery gray mound.

To keep them from getting woody, I cut them back by half each fall. They seem to bounce right back no matter how severely they are pruned.

What's in season in MO: Strawberries

The tiny, almost tasteless wild strawberry has come a long way to become the sweet, plump, flavorful berries we know today. And hybridizers have found ways to take what has traditionally been a June-bearing crop and make it produce from late spring to mid summer. There are also cultivars that peak in early summer, but continue to produce berries sporadically through the fall.

Strawberries are perennials, but commercial farmers pull them out at the end of each season. Left in the ground, the plants will produce offshoots, that is, small plantlets that will root where they touch. Each plant will produce four or five offsets, and a tidy strawberry plot can get messy and overgrown quickly. If you leave your plants from year to year, you'll need to be diligent and cut these offshoots away.

Strawberries require fertile soil and plenty of water, but not so much as to make the berries huge and tasteless. It's definitely a balancing act. They're best grown in a bed by themselves - a raised bed is a perfect place for strawberries.

Starter plants are available at nurseries in late fall and early spring. Space plants about 18 inches apart in rows if your garden is large, or if you have raised beds you don't have to worry about rows. Pinch off any runners that appear during the growing season.

Berries are ready to harvest when they have turned bright red, but are still slightly firm. Harvest before the flesh turns soft. When in doubt, pick a berry or two and give them the taste test. I predict very few strawberries will make it out of the garden and into the kitchen.

- Pat Rubin

Fresh: They are fragile so handle them as little as possible after harvest and wait to rinse them off until just before you plan to use them. Store them in the refrigerator no longer than a few days. To remove the hulls and caps in one quick step, insert a paring knife just under the leaves and twist the berry around the knife, making a funnel-shaped cut in the top. Grasp the leaves and pull out the hull.

Preserving: They will soften when frozen but frozen berries make great additions to homemade smoothies. To freeze, just wash the berries, remove the caps and hulls, toss them into a freezer bag and pop them into the freezer. To make jams and jellies follow the recipe in the pectin box.

- Gwen Schoen

Strawberry salsa

Prep time: 30 minutes

Serves 6

This refreshing salsa is a nice break from the traditional salsa made with tomatoes. Try it as a topping for grilled fish or just serve it with lots of tortilla chips for scooping.


2 cups diced strawberries

1/2 cup finely diced red onion

1 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste

1 tablespoon sugar

2 teaspoons white vinegar

Juice of one fresh lime

1 tablespoon finely minced jalapeño chili, seeds removed

1/4 cup finely chopped cilantro

2 teaspoons finely chopped mint, optional

1/2 cup finely diced yellow bell pepper


Combine all ingredients. Toss gently to blend. Let stand 30 minutes at room temperature before serving. Best if served the day it's made.

Success in the May garden

For a succession of crops, plant beans, radishes, carrots and corn every two weeks through July.

Pinch back fuchsias, mums and petunias to keep them full and bushy. Remove spent flowers from annuals like marigolds.

Prune away spent iris stalks. Fertilize iris with a 10-10-10 fertilizer.

When temperatures start to heat up, water early in day.

Put together a garden first aid kit. Include medication and cream for insect bites.

Pinch spent blossoms from marigolds and petunias to keep them producing. If any marigolds develop seeds, let them dry on the plant and sprinkle them where you want them to come up next year.

When fruit begins to ripen, hang old CDs in the trees to scare away birds. Hang them just before harvest or the birds will get used to them. You can also hang strips of aluminum foil, anything that is shiny and moves to scare them away.

Plant pumpkins, squash and melons. You can seed them directly where you want them to grow.

Break off old flowers on rhododendrons. Be careful not to damage the new buds or you won’t have any flowers next year.

Flowers to plant from seed this month: sunflowers, zinnia, marigolds, cosmos, salvia, celosia and asters. You can sow them where you want them to grow (pay attention to sun and water) or in pots.

Vegetables to plant now: cucumbers, radishes, tomatoes, squash, eggplant and melons.

Pinch asters marguerites, petunias, mums and fuchsias for busier growth.

Feed your lawn. For most lawns, nitrogen is the only nutrient needed on a regular basis.

Watch newly planted trees, shrubs, vegetables and perennials for signs of stress, mainly from heat or lack of water while they are getting established. A slow soak that wets the entire root area is best. Apply mulch to the soil to conserve water.

Prune spring blooming shrubs like forsythia after they are done blooming.

Watch for aphids on roses – hose them off or use insecticidal soap.

Begin summer pruning of fruit trees to keep them small. Keep thinning fruit on fruit trees, especially near the ends of the branches.

Mark the raspberry and blackberry stems that are producing fruit. You’ll cut these vines to the ground at the end of the season.

Cut gladioli stalks back when flowers have died.