When my daughter Anna (21, not living at home) called to tell us she had adopted 2 kittens I started a countdown in my head to see how long it would take for them to end up with us. It took about 4 weeks. Anna now lives in an apartment and the cats, inevitably, live with us.
Not that I mind. They are the two oddest cats I have ever come across; one of them is interested in gardening and the other one appears to like film and video. If I am in the garden, Charlie, who you see featured below, will appear and begin a never ending inspection of whatever I am doing. For some reason he also wants to sit on my shoulder like a parrot so if I’m bending down weeding or whatever, he climbs aboard and coils his tail around my head.
I rarely see his sister, Lola, if I’m working outside, but if I’m making a video in the polytunnel she will turn up and start throwing herself around as if auditioning as a stunt cat. She also climbs the back of the set and pokes her head around the edge when we are shooting which has Mike, the camera man, in stitches. Don’t worry, I’m not going to keep going on about them but figured they deserved a mention, especially Charlie, who kept me company (and my ears warm) when planting potatoes on Saturday.
What to sow and plant in May
As you know, it has been a slow start to the year with generally cold weather in April and plenty of frost at night. Looking at the forecast for this week, the first week of May will also be unseasonably cool so I would strongly encourage covering any freshly sown or planted beds with fleece. The photo above shows my garden this morning with fleece dotted around the place on beetroot, Brussels sprouts, calabrese and potatoes, there will be a lot more of it by the end of the week.
Ideally you should have your garden beds clear and ready to plant by early May as it is the busiest month of the year when the majority of sowing and planting is done. For direct sowing outside in May, you have the choice of beetroot, early carrots, chard, parsnips, spinach, perpetual spinach, radish, turnip, peas and runner beans. I think I would hold off on parsnip and runner beans until the middle of the month.
If you are sowing indoors for planting out later, you can also sow Brussels sprouts, calabrese, chard, kale, kohl rabi, swede, turnip, lettuce, spring onions, sweetcorn and winter cabbage. It is a little late to sow tomatoes (although you might get away with some cherry tomatoes) cucumbers of chillis but if not done already you can also sow courgettes, winter squash or pumpkins.
The benefits for starting plants off in modular trays in April becomes very clear in May as the garden can get off to such a quick start if you have a stock of healthy seedlings ready to go in.
When should tray grown seedlings be planted out?
As a rule of thumb, most plants grown in modular trays will be ready to plant out 4 weeks after sowing. The photo above is a tray of cauliflower plants sown at the beginning of April which are now entering their fifth week in the cell. I sow most of my early April cabbage family sowings in trays using a large 5cm module instead of the usual 4cm to allow them an extra few days in the cell if early May is cold, naturally I am glad I did it this year.
If I remove one of the plugs we can see a nice looking root system that hasn’t become pot bound yet but is just about to get cramped, this really needs to be planted out by the end of the week. You can see by the colour of the leaves (nice and green) that the plant has not run out of nutrients yet, to my eye they are about perfect for planting now but by early next week they will start to struggle if I don’t get them in the ground.
Remember, the majority of plants can be planted up to their first set of true leaves to strengthen them up but this is particularly beneficial for the brassica (cabbage) family which usually have a lanky lower stem when grown in a tray. You can see the seed leaves of the cauliflower in the photo (they are the first two with the long stalks and rounded ends) the true leaves begin just above them which is where your soil level should be when you plant them out.
When planting out any seedling, make sure to firm the soil in well around the root to get a good seal with the surrounding soil, you don’t want big air spaces around the root or the plant can’t take up moisture efficiently. Also make sure to water well after planting, it is better to take the rose off a watering can and make a little puddle around the root to ensure there is plenty of moisture deeper down and not just on the soil surface.
This photo shows radish seedlings (‘French Breakfast’, who has radishes for breakfast?) sown outside on the 23rd of April and just starting to come up under fleece. The little blue pellets are a natural slug killer which I use around most early outdoor sowings as a single slug or snail can wipe out the lot overnight. This is one of the reasons I start off so many vegetables in modular trays but radish, carrot or parsnip don’t transplant well and need to be sown direct. In general I avoid any ‘killer’ products in the garden but do make an exception for these slug pellets which kill the slugs but are harmless to pets, birds or other wildlife even if the slug itself is eaten.
This image shows shallots looking very happy in the Saturday morning sunshine. Unfortunately, a prolonged period of frosty nights (we have just had a week of frost) in late April will make it more likely for onions or shallots to bolt in the summer. Thankfully we didn’t have a warm March (followed by a cold April) which is the worst possible scenario so we shall see what happens. I think I mentioned it in an earlier mail but it is better to delay planting onion sets until the third week in March to minimise the chance of bolting.
As per the previous mail, the reason for bolting (going to seed) is that onions are biennials so are programmed to produce a flower (and seed) in year 2 of their lifecycle. If an onion set goes through a early spring followed by a cold period it chalks up the cold spell as winter and goes into the seed producing part of its cycle.
Frost damage under fleece
I should have mentioned in the previous mail about fleece that if you have a prolonged period of heavy frost, particularly if the fleece has got wet in the daytime, the parts of the plant that are touching the fleece will freeze. To avoid this, use hoops or battens (or a cat) to raise the fleece above the foliage. The photo shows the first early potato sprouts after a -2 night and all is well with no damage.
This is Asparagus Pacific Purple coming up though a layer of garden compost. The asparagus picking season runs from late April to early June but, like rhubarb, you should not harvest all the stems as the plant needs some to go into leaf and make energy for the following season.
Asparagus is a long term project with the first harvest coming 3 years after planting crowns or 4 years after sowing seeds (my plants are coming into their 6th year). The upside is, once established, it will crop every year for at least 20 years. I suppose it’s like a pension, not that appealing as the reward seems so far away but something you will be very glad of when it starts bearing fruit.
It is too late to plant Asparagus crowns but, for next year, choose a hybrid all male variety if you are thinking of growling as they are much more prolific.
Planting tomatoes or other warm climate crops in the polytunnel
As we said, May is the busiest time in the garden but it is also a busy time in the polytunnel when most of the warm climate crops are planted into their final positions. Normally I would plant now but, as it has been so cold, the polytunnel soil is not as warm as I would like. If possible, I would hold off for a week or more, especially with very tender crops like cucumber or melon but if tomatoes are close to getting pot bound you may not have any other option.
The minimum soil temperature for tomatoes is 14˚C and, if you look at my thermometer above, you will see my soil is exactly 14 degrees so, while on the limit I will go ahead this week. I will be planting them in the morning to give them the day to adjust before the cooler night and will wrap with fleece at night to be as a precaution.
Remember, when planting tomatoes, they need a lot of feed to produce the bountiful crops we are hoping for. Your soil needs to be in top condition with plenty of well rotted garden compost added but, even if this is the case, I would also add a slow release poultry manure pellet to bolster the nutrient store, the more fertile the soil., the less frequently you will need to add liquid feed later on.
When applying feed, avoid concentrating around the planting hole as this will make roots reluctant to leave this small, fertile patch. You want the roots to spread out and take nutrients and water from as wide an area as possible. The planting distance is a good rule of thumb, it is 50cm all round for tomatoes, therefore you need to feed 50cm all around the plant.
Strawberries in the polytunnel
We don’t even sell polytunnels so this is not a sales pitch but a polytunnel or greenhouse really is a fabulous thing. Not only can you grow warm climate crops like tomatoes chillies and cucumbers but it is also a far superior propagation area than a windowsill (3 times the amount of light) so becomes the engine room for the whole garden.
At this time of year I really fall in love with it. I have been harvesting crops since late January with overwintering salads, calabrese, beetroot and spring cabbage just finished. I have garlic coming close to harvest and early baby carrots (below) which will be pulled at the end of the month. Strawberries are bulking up now and will be ready to pick in a week or two, all way ahead of anything outside. They are big investments, fair enough, but pay for themselves several times over with what they offer directly and for their support role to the outdoor garden.
If you have the room and don’t have a covered area already I would strongly recommend one, it will transform your growing year.
That’s about if for this week, I hope you found something in there relevant and helpful to your own garden.
See you next week