May 2008


Updates from May 2008.

The Food Garden in May

What will the weather do? May is a crucial month for sowing and planting, offering anything from summer heat to icy winds. The advice here is an ‘average schedule’ for normal conditions. If it is cold and wet when you read it, with no summer weather forecast, I recommend waiting to set out those tender seeds and plants such as french and runner beans, squashes and cucumbers. More problems occur from sowing or planting too early than too late. Last year my best french beans were in September, from a sowing in late June. My winter squashes were poor, due to the lack of sun and warmth, but this can’t be known in advance, so there is an element of gambling in some of our plantings at this time of year.

Comparing growth on a dug bed, foreground, with an undug bed, background, on April 24th.

Comparing growth on a dug bed, foreground, with an undug bed, background, on April 24th.

All the plants mentioned so far, as well as courgettes and sweetcorn, require warm soil to grow healthily. Such warmth is rarely maintained consistently in much of Britain until about mid June, so it is worth having some fleece in reserve to keep over tender plants if summer is reluctant to arrive. Fleece offers worthwhile protection against late frost: for example last year we had a ground frost on May 29th, even after lots of warm weather before, and courgettes under fleece survived, while unprotected runner beans were severely damaged.

If you have a greenhouse or sheltered propagating space, it is much easier to bring on all these tender plants and set them out at the best moment. On average, I would say this is early June for planting well rooted beans, cucurbits and tomatoes. You could also buy plants at this time, but they will be tender and need keeping outside for three or four days so they can adjust to outdoor conditions before planting. For sowing directly in the soil, wait until late May for best results and early June may be more reliable.

Meanwhile you can be sowing any of the more hardy vegetables such as lettuce, chard, leaf beet spinach, broad beans, beetroot, cabbage, calabrese, brussels sprouts and spring onions. Some vegetables not to sow now, such as spinach, rocket and oriental leaves (mizuna, mustards, pak choi etc) are more likely to flower from May sowings than to make many leaves. Apart from spinach, their leaves will also be full of holes from flea beetles and this damage can be avoided by sowing them after late July. Lettuce is the easiest salad to grow until July and many colourful varieties are available. Their flavour can be enhanced with herbs such as dill and coriander, and basil too, but this is another extremely cold sensitive plant which is best grown indoors or in a position of maximum sun and shelter.

May is an important month for keeping on top of weeds as many annuals are germinating and growing. Hoeing them off when small, preferably in dry soil, is the quickest way of keeping soil clean. Aim to prevent any weeds seeding, so as to lessen the amount of work needed next year. This means frequent visits to the plot, which will benefit all your plants as you keep a close track of their progress, spotting and dealing with any developing problems like slug damage.

Chards raised in modules, ready for planting out in mid April, to grow in clumps without separating the seedlings out.

Chards raised in modules, ready for planting out in mid April, to grow in clumps without separating the seedlings out.

Some hand weeding is always needed for larger weeds and perennials such as couch grass, which require careful digging out. Remove as many roots as you can find, then do the same again after two or three weeks when the remaining roots will be growing more leaves. I have cleaned soil like this, but it can take several repeat visits to be rid of thick infestations and it may be better to mulch them with thick cardboard.

Planting modules or plugs as in the photo of chard seedlings is an excellent way of stealing a march on weeds. You don’t have to wait for your sowing to germinate in a weedy seed bed and can hoe around any plantings which are starting to grow strongly. Planting is often more reliable than sowing with regard to slugs, whose nibbles are less likely to kill large than small seedlings.

Review of April: A typical British spring month with plenty of rain, hail and snow showers, gusty winds, occasional warmth and more than enough frosts. Growth outdoors has been slow: fleece has made a huge difference through protecting plants from the cold winds, some lettuce grown under fleece was ready for picking first leaves on 22 April, and fleece-protected spinach was cropping in mid month.

Salad in the polytunnels has been prolific and of excellent quality, many of the oriental leaves rising to flower by month’s end, as well as cress, winter purslane and rocket. Weed growth has been mercifully slow and my first general hoeing was not until April 23rd. The greenhouse is filling up with tender plants such as tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, aubergines, melons, basils and squashes: I am about to sow a few climbing beans as I write this.

Charles Dowding.