While appreciating the magnificent blossom on his fruit trees and blooms on his rhododendron, Richard Orton takes time this month to highlight some less spectacular plants that still play a crucial role in the Lewis Cottage garden.  And as they busily prepare for their first open days on 28 and 29 May, Richard suggests some other Devon gardens to visit for inspiration, as well as jobs to be getting on with in your own garden.

An abundance of apple blossom

Walking around the garden early one morning I couldn’t fail to notice the abundance of blossom this year. Both apple and quince trees are back to their blousy Maytime best, after a couple of years when blossom was sparse. It augurs well for a bumper crop of both apples and quince in late summer. 

Rhododendron loderi King George

Alongside the fruit trees Viburnum plicatum f.tomentosum mariesii and Rhododendron loderi King George are also blooming their socks off, which got me thinking again about those plants that spend their lives supporting these showstoppers. So this month I’m going to suggest four plants that are, perhaps, undervalued for the contribution they make to our gardens. 


First up are Epimediums, common name Bishop’s mitre, a slow growing, slow spreading, spring  ground-covering plant. Available in a range of sizes and colours, it seems only those in the know grow them and I think that is because most can’t see beyond the leaves of these incredible plants. Removal of the old leaves in spring (they are nearly all partly evergreen) reveal the vivid but tiny flowers which give the plant its common name and, once over, the new fresh leaf growth form a gentle canopy. Shade loving, they are ideal as underplanting in a woodland environment. 



Up next are the ubiquitous Bergenia - common name elephant ears - and oft frowned upon as dull and boring by the gardening cognoscenti. Beloved by Victorian gardeners, they fell out of favour in the 20t century but have of late, through the introduction of new varieties, found a new audience. Many have leaves that change colour as temperatures drop, providing much needed colour during the winter months. B.Bressingham Ruby or B.Beethoven are good examples. 


Gunnera magellancia

Third is the little known baby of the Gunnera family, G.magellanica. Unlike its huge relation G.manicata, this variety grows no more than a few centimetres high and spreads slowly but surely in a boggy situation, happy in both sun or shade, its leaves joining together like water lilies pads to form a lush green carpet. 

Gunnera Magellancia

Lamium orvala

Finally we have Lamium orvala , one of my favourites of early spring. Not a ground covering form, this variety over time forms a sizeable nettle like clump with beautifully marked dusky plum flowers resting under its leaves. 

Lamium orvala

Quite often these ‘unsung heroes’ have their moment in the spotlight at times of the year when we might spend less time in the garden and only see them when they are  supporting the summer stars, providing a foil or weed suppressor for the more glamorous blooms. But take another look and see if you can’t find a spot in your own garden for any of those mentioned, you won’t be disappointed.

Lewis Cottage opens to the public on 28/29 May

As you may know, every year we open the garden at Lewis Cottage for the National Gardens Scheme and this year is no exception. Traditionally we have our first opening on the last weekend in May which this year falls on the 28 and 29 May. 

There will be plenty to see in the garden of course, including the fallen walnut tree, a plentiful supply of homemade cake and savoury tarts and plants to buy from the nursery. You can book tickets online using this link or you can just turn up on the day.  

While you are putting those dates in your diary, here is a selection of gardens open before then that you can visit instead. 

Gardens open for the NGS this month

13 May to 29 July (check NGS website for dates) Quince Honey Farm – Aller Cross, South Molton 

14/15 May Kentlands – Whitestone, Exeter

14/15 May Kilmington - (Shute Road) Gardens

17/18 May Avenue Cottage – Ashprington, Totnes

Gardening Jobs for May

  • Check plants daily and water if the soil is dry, especially newly planted fruit trees and shrubs that are getting established.
  • Harden off remaining half hardy bedding plants ready for planting out.
  • Shade your greenhouse using blinds or shade paint to prevent it from overheating. Open doors and vents on warm days.
  • Try to keep on top of weeding, plants shouldn’t have to compete for much needed light, water or nutrients.
  • Harden off and move hanging baskets and containers to their final position in the garden. If plants become leggy trim off the excess growth to encourage bushy new growth.
  • Use water butts as much as possible to water pots and containers. Apply a liquid general fertiliser every 2 to 4 weeks. 
May 1, 2022

More from 


View All