What to do in May

Gardening in May
The secret to successfully getting your garden to look its best in May is to watch the weather. Although everyone likes to feel that spring is here and that summer is just around the corner in May, sadly there is still plenty of chance of frosts and the although the days can be pleasantly warm the nights are often really cold, so tempting though it is to plant out the bedding plants and remove cloches and other protection, the watchword in May in the garden is – be careful!

Bulbs and aftercare
When bulbs start to fade they can look unsightly and the gorgeous drifts of colour in spring can look like a tangled mess as they flowers finish. Deadheading as you go can minimise this a bit but if you have hundreds of bulbs planted to naturalise in lawns or under trees it isn’t really practical. The only thing for it is to be patient if you want to get good flowers next year because the leaves should be left for as long as possible, because by reabsorbing the nutrients in the leaves is how the bulb builds the food to make the flowers next season. If you have noticed that the flowers were a bit crowded or small, it might be time to lift and divide the bulb clumps or even start again, although again, with large swathes of flowers that is a major undertaking, not to mention expensive. If you really hate the look of dying foliage, plan ahead so you don’t get that look next year by interplanting some herbaceous plants which will be coming up as the bulb leaves fade, so it won’t be so noticeable.

Flower or weed?
Forget-me-nots are one of the pleasures of spring. They suddenly seem to appear and their lovely pale blue, pink eyed flowers really tell that spring is well and truly here. They give clumps and cushions of colour in unlikely places, including between paving slabs and in the middle of displays of other plants and this habit is why many people consider them a pest. As soon as the flowers are over, forget-me-not shed millions of tiny seeds and they have an amazingly high germination rate, meaning that one forget-me-not plant can soon rule your garden. Harden your heart and pull out any plants in the wrong place but certainly make sure you dead head them at the very least before they can set seed, or your gardening hours will all be spent tracking them down and pulling them out – and still  you will have forget-me-nots in your garden. This perhaps explains their name – you will never forget the person who gave you your first forget-me-not plant!

forget me not field Myosotis-arvensis

Herbaceous borders
Even if the nights are still cold in May, your herbaceous perennials should be really taking off this month and so it is important to make sure you stake any that are getting heavy. Not only do they need support for the flowers but a bit of judicious staking early on will stop wind-rock and will help the plants grow better. Pinching out the leader is a good idea if you want your herbaceous plants to grow more stocky and thick, but if you are a flower arranger and like to grow for long stems, leave them as they are. At this time of the year when the borders are just beginning to grow, you can see whether there are any gaps or perhaps some perennials that are getting towards the end of their natural lifespan. Some, such as dicentris spectabilis (bleeding heart) will grow for several years and just get bigger and bigger and then one year will not do so well and then may simply fail to appear at all one spring. Planting another nearby every year or two will make sure that you are never without a centrepiece plant and by renewing you can take advantage of any new strains which the seed catalogues or plants merchants have in their catalogues.

Planting out
If you have sown a lot of annuals in the greenhouse, you can start hardening them off in May. It is still not a good idea to leave them out all the time as frosts in May can be very hard but if you do have somewhere you can set them out, or perhaps you have a greenhouse with wide doors you can prop open in the daytime, it is a really good way of getting them hardened off. This way, when you do plant them in their final positions, they will not be checked in their growth by the sudden change in temperature and will be established much more quickly. Plants which you may have planted out earlier, such as sweet peas, will be growing fast in the longer days of May and will need tying in to supports to get them going in the first foot or so of growth. After that, they will support themselves but when they are really small and their tendrils are not full strength, they need a little help.

Pruning in May is not usually too hard, more of a tidying up exercise in many respects. Spring flowering shrubs that have finished their displays can be cut back and this will certainly make them look tidier, but it is always a good idea to check before you snip whether it is the right thing to do – you can always cut a bit more off but you can’t stick it back on is a good piece of advice to bear in mind. Clematis montana may still be flowering at the end of May if the month started really cold but as soon as it is over it should be pruned to get rid of any really overcrowded bits or any shoots showing signs of disease. Most people would say it is not possible to kill a clematis montana and you would certainly have to do something fairly dreadful to even check its growth, but all it really needs at this time of year is a bit of a trim – untangle the shoots if you can and keep just the strongest one. It will really need keeping in check if it is climbing in a tree as it can smother the crown and kill it.

Strawberry time is almost here!
May is the month when a bit of preparation in the soft fruit garden will pay dividends in June and July. Alpine strawberries can be fiddly to pick but the taste is lovely and some people even go to the lengths of making jam with them but that seems a shame. Lightly marinated in sugar for an hour and then served with crumbled meringue and cream is the perfect way to serve them and the best way to ensure large fruit and a heavy crop is to plant the seedlings out now in well-manured soil in a sunny spot. Try not to let them dry out and you should get a good harvest of these lovely little strawberries. If you are a gooseberry fan you will know that they are nicest straight off the bush, warm with the sun. To get enough for all the pies you could possibly want, trim the bushes now to thin out the branches to get bigger fruit, which are sweeter and a better texture when cooked.


Sowing vegetables
Always being alert for frosts, you can sow a large variety of vegetables in May. If you are planning to grow your own sweetcorn, remember to plant it in a block, not a single row because sweetcorn is wind pollinated, so needs to be planted to maximise the potential. Plant fairly thickly at this point and then thin out the seedlings later to leave just the strongest ones. Looking ahead to next winter, you can also sow Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and purple sprouting broccoli. Again, these can be thinned out later to leave the strongest plants. Thinking of summer rather than winter, cucumbers and squashes can be planted now where they are to grow. Their large seeds make sowing easy, but rather than have a space where a seed does not thrive, plant three in a small triangle and then thin later to leave the strongest. If all grow well, you could plant the others elsewhere, or swap with a friend.

Reward for all that work
May is the month when you start to get results. If you planned ahead and planted some early varieties of vegetables or planted under glass, you should be able to pick some vegetables this month. Spring lettuce and cabbage are ready now, as well as spring (or salad) onions and asparagus. Asparagus is often seen as being a vegetable for an expert and it is true that you need quite a large garden to be able to grow it successfully, because it needs its own dedicated bed. But if you are able to give it the space it needs as well as the care, there is nothing quite like asparagus picked and in the pot in minutes. The thinning are almost the best part – whip thin asparagus, tasting like spring with just a knob of butter and a sprinkling of coarsely ground sea salt has to be one of the treats of the season.

May is the favourite month for many people, dedicated gardeners or enthusiastic amateurs alike. The garden is full of life, colour and the noise of bees and birds so, frosts notwithstanding, spring has sprung and things can only get warmer from here on in.