Living in the countryside, it is easy to see why May has traditionally been associated with Mary. This is a month for the countryside over and above the organised space of any garden. Great plumes of umbellifer line hedgerow and field like happy clouds smiling at the sky, lark song drops like honey along a golden thread into the ears of the country rambler and all around are courtyard spaces of the very freshest green. There is no month like May. Joy is pregnant in every shape, everything is new, everything is somehow original.
Our farmhouse sits on the lip of a hill that runs down into a winding valley. Just before the land falls away, the view opens to a large reservoir. Our May walks around the reservoir are stymied only by the arrival of babies whose little legs aren’t up to the voyage. There is no formal path, only a hopscotch of ancient byways that criss-cross the countryside.
This year we have three canine babies (a pug for each of our middle daughters). They spend most of their time at my feet in my study and are unspeakably adorable. Given their diminutive size, perhaps I can persuade my daughters to carry them. We could fashion a pug hammock from a pashmina and attach one to each of their shoulders? Nothing must keep us from our May walks.
Of course, there are joys within the garden too. My garden is heavy on roses and May is the month in which I start to allow myself to greedily anticipate their June spectacle. It is a spectacle that, to me at least, is as good and as dramatic as any firework display. One starts to think of colour in May, but truly speaking it is about pure white against crispest green, the frame from which June emerges.
A crescendo of purest white starts early in the year and mounts through Easter into May. Blackthorn, traditionally thought to have formed the cross of thorns, blossoms early when it is still ostensibly winter. In this garden it is the same bush, just beyond the end of the avenue, that always goes first. Next, the Japanese cherry trees along our avenue break a blossom of purest white, though still set against changeable April skies. Then one morning I will draw the curtains and see the unusually large pear tree by the house (all 60 or 70 foot of it) dazzling ice-white blossom. This is followed by the cherries on the edge of the valley. The garden becomes a promenade of purest white.
This crescendo reaches its climax in May with the clouds of umbellifers and hawthorn blossom. The latter is my favourite blossom of all. I love it for its salty scent that carries with it all the promise of the summer to come. Sadly many farmers hack at it late in the year so it doesn’t blossom at all, but I make sure I leave great wands of it untroubled all over the place. Finally, the darkest corner of our vegetable garden lights up to the tune of Prunus Amanogawa. This is a cherry tree that grows in a fastigiate shape (meaning straight up like a pencil). Once its white blossom illuminates the vegetable patch May is truly at hand.
Being in Essex and at the top of a hill, we aren’t troubled by frost in May so it is the month in which I will plant out tomatoes and squashes, under bell cloches at first. I give the tomatoes and squashes a mulch of giant flints, partly to keep moisture in the ground through our dry summers but also to retain the warmth of the day and radiate it through the night. I will start basil outside this month too. As anyone who knows me will tell you, I am a huge fan of the summer squash patty pan. The children love that they look like flying saucers and I love that they provide a meal in one. Cut a little lid off, scoop out the seeds, stuff with whatever you fancy (I fill them with a basil, cheese and paprika paste, and sometimes withmince meat) and shove them in the oven.
Would it be best if every month were May? Certainly it seems to contain some sort of “original moment” for the rest of the year. It is not hard to see why May has long been associated with Mary.
Charlie Hart is the author of No Fear Gardening: How to Think Like a Gardener (Constable, 2020)
This article appears in the May issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe now.