Hanging baskets can be planted up as the weather warms, but protect against late frosts.

Hanging baskets can be planted up as the weather warms, but protect against late frosts.

I’m catching up on my weeding, having left a quite an area for a couple of years and the Ground Elder getting a grip. The Tulips are nearly over, but the Hostas are opening up. As I’m away for much of June and July I’ve only just planted my second early potatoes, hoping that the delay will bring them to harvest just as we get home from a long trip to Australia. What are you up to in your garden? In case you need a few pointers, here are my tips for garden jobs in May.

Keeping weeds under control is a key job in May

Keeping weeds under control is a key job in May

1. Just weed away Renee…

Hoe borders to get rid of weeds before they get too big to remove easily – ideally do this on a dry day to kill them off by drying them out (or desiccating). Keep removing moss and weeds from paths, terraces and drives, ideally by hand (you can hoe out fresh weed growth in gravelled or other loose material drives and paths). Alternatively, use a weedkiller with glyphosate on paths if there’s too much to cope with or you have a more persistent problem.

2. Search for the ‘precious’ and keep hold of it

Water is precious! Use kitchen and bath water (as long as it isn’t too dirty, greasy or full of detergent) for watering. Collect rainwater (from downpipes and gutters with pipes into water butts or similar containers) and possibly look at some form of automatic irrigation for specific areas – for example, my friend has a simple micro – pipe, drip feed system to keep his containers moist. If you haven’t already done so, help to conserve moisture around your plants by mulching – especially shrubs and other perennials – any rotted organic material will do the job (including the contents of old grow bags). Make sure your planted pots and containers don’t dry out, especially where they are located near to a  wall or other spots where a ‘rain shadow’ means they don’t get wet when it rains.

Harvesting rainwater can help conserve water supplies- here three water butts are linked together so that overflow from one is saved to the others

Harvesting rainwater can help conserve water supplies- here three water butts are linked together so that overflow from one is saved to the others

3. Protection racket

There can be some big variations in temperatures in the garden during May so protect against night time frosts (e.g. using fleece, cloches or other coverings). If you have tender bedding or other plants make sure you keep these inside a greenhouse or cold frame until all risk of frost has passed in your area (generally the end of May here in Norfolk).

4. Feed me

As the soil is warming up and plants are starting to grow, add a general purpose fertiliser (e.g. Fish, Blood and Bone) to key shrubs, perennials, fruit, vegetable borders and containers before covering with mulch.

Scarlet lily beetle

Scarlet Lily beetle

5. Pest watch

Keep watch for pests in the garden. Ideally, avoid using chemical controls as they may also kill off beneficial insects that prey on the pests you are trying to kill off (as well as being useful pollinators) – e.g. ladybirds and hoverflies. This is the time to get a grip on slugs and snails! They’ll go for tulips, young shoots of Delphiniums, Hostas etc. Use wildlife – friendly slug pellets or ‘beer traps’, drench Hostas with liquid slug killer to kill off slugs below the surface or go for a biological control – nematodes carry a lethal bacterial infection for the slimy things. Keep an eye out for Lily beetles (bright red beetles with black heads- I’ve already squashed a couple) or their yellowish larvae, and also black-spotted, green caterpillars of the gooseberry sawfly. Squash away! Before birds can get to their new buds, it’s wise, if possible, to net fruit bushes. Netting installed over newly planted brassicas is also a wise precaution and/or some form of bird scarer in the vegetable garden (I’ve found the plastic tape you stretch out between two posts and which vibrates in the breeze is quite effective, and I’ve also got a very lifelike plastic owl!).

Pinching out broad bean tips

Pinching out broad bean tips

6. Grow to eat

If you don’t fancy growing your own vegetables and herbs from seed or perhaps don’t need to grow that much, its possible to buy ‘teenage plantlets’ from garden centres. I’ve found things like celery work well this way, saving you time and giving you strong little plants to plant out. Remember to harden these off gradually before putting them out in the garden. If you do want to seed sow, now’s the time to get many different crops underway – remember to look carefully at the instructions on the packet and sow away – its a good idea to sow a little now and some more later to ensure a continuous supply and so avoid gluts that you can’t use (or soon get bored with!).

You can also plant out brassicas and quick growing crops such as lettuces and radishes between them to make good use of the space you have. Sweet peppers, tomatoes, aubergines and salads can also be planted in the greenhouse. Developing Broad bean plants should have their growing tips pinched out to discourage blackfly, and its sensible to put up a border of canes connected by string around the block of plants to support them as they grow heavy with newly forming bean pods.

As potato stems start to peep above the ground you should ‘earth up’ – just draw over more soil from the surrounding area to cover the new shoots once they are about 15 – 20cms tall. This will help to prevent those near the surface going green and becoming inedible and reducing the risk of blight (it might also increase your crop and make lifting the potatoes easier). This needs to be done every few weeks in the early growth period. Strawberry plants can be planted in the ground, in containers or even hanging baskets (as can some ‘tumbling’ varieties of tomato).

7. Sward play

Mowing the lawn frequently is important – if you leave it too long between cuts, the job becomes harder and the grass gets tougher and rougher (you could opt for a wildflower meadow of course and let some or all of the grass grow longer, or maybe reduce your mowing area). A weekly mow is probably advisable, but keep an eye on the weather and don’t cut if a hot, dry spell is expected, to avoid scorching the grass. Established lawns can be fed if you haven’t already done so and are keen to get a good looking, healthy lawn. You can just about get away with sowing  a new lawn this month as well as finishing off any repairs to an established lawn by sowing bare patches or replacing these with turf.

Tying in Sweet peas as they grow

Tying in Sweet peas as they grow

8. Get a grip

Clematis that have been pruned hard (‘if it flowers before June, don’t prune’) are probably now starting to grow quite fast, so regular tying in of their stems will ensure you don’t end up with a tangled mess of a plant with brittle stems that break easily, later in the year! The growing tips of young sweet peas should also be pinched out to encourage bushier side growth and more flowers – and tie these stems in to your supports as they grow, just like the clematis. Alternatively pinch out early side shoots to encourage a single stem (or ‘cordon’) which can be tied onto a cane (see picture above)- this will encourage bigger but fewer flowers.

9. Spring cleaning

Some plants will have finished flowering this month and it’s important not to forget them (I must say this is something I regularly do!). Perennials such as Pulmonaria should have their old foliage cut off, and then large clumps can be lifted and divided and replanted with plenty of water and organic fertiliser. Likewise, young self – seeded Polyanthus can be lifted and moved to a nursery bed for planting out next spring. Narcissi and Tulips should be deadheaded as the flowers die off and if possible the plants sprinkled with bone meal or a liquid foliar feed. Ideally, let the leaves of these bulbs die down naturally, as they will still be soaking up the sunlight and so help to swell the bulbs underground for a good show next year. Spreading and trailing plants such as Alyssum and Aubrieta (Aubretia) can be cut back to encourage fresh growth.

Cut back early flowering plants like Aubretia to encourage new growth

Cut back early flowering plants like Aubretia to encourage new growth

10. Trooping the colour

Tubs, pots and other containers as well as hanging baskets can be planted up for extra flowers and colour in the summer, but keep these under cover if frost threatens and gradually harden them off before finally positioning them outside. Go for a limited colour range for impact – purple and gold, red and green or blue and white?

Old School Gardener

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