Last month I wrote that April should have fickle weather. It certainly did! From heatwave to bitter chill and blazing sun to rainswept grey skies the weather at Longmeadow ran through the whole gamut of possibilities. I now long for a balmy, predictable, quiet meteorological May just to calm things down a bit. But do not be fooled. May can be chilly and certainly at Longmeadow a frost is not at all unusual in the first half of the month. But although it can veer from chilly to positively hot, May is always – always – beautiful.
A green fire runs through the veins of the garden like electricity and May brings colour and a fullness that fulfils all the promise that grows before it. At the beginning of the month our Jewel Garden begins its flowering season with tulips and the first really rich, deep colour of the year and four weeks later the garden has arrived at summer and is firing on all cylinders with alliums, peonies, irises, oriental poppies and the first roses all holding sway. May is the month that the rest of the year aspires to, both in its consummation and freshness. It is lush and sweet and as the years go by passes tantalisingly fast so I have to keep stopping and reminding myself to drink deep and store all these May-time moments.
Best of all is to remove some of the layers that have kept cold and wet at bay. Gardening in shirtsleeves and feeling the sun on my back as the day winds down is a true measure of happiness.
BEES IN THE GARDEN
Bees need help from gardeners. The unrestrained use of pesticides, insecticides and fungicides by modern agriculture have not just affected perceived ‘pests’ but also bees.
In particular bees have been affected by by neonicotinoides. These are a class of systemic insecticides that are used by non-organic farmers on a very wide range of grain, vegetable and fruit crops. As a result the world population of bees has been steadily falling – which is a potential disaster for humans as well as honey bees because it has been estimated that 80% of the western diet is dependent upon pollination by bees.
But gardeners are in pole position to do something to preserve and build up our bee stocks.
All bees gather nectar which gives them their basic source of energy. It gets passed from bee to bee and the residue is deposited as honey which is essentially a stored food supply.
Pollen provides proteins and fats and is only collected by females and mainly consumed by nurse bees in the form of jelly which is also fed to queen bees. It is also mixed with water and used to create the combs.
By planting a good selection of pollen and nectar rich flowers such as thistles of all kinds, blossom, scabious, cornflowers, mallows, bramble flowers and roses that are easily accessible to bees, we gardeners can help halt the catastrophic decline of the bee population.
What to do in the garden this month:
SOW FRENCH BEANS
If your soil has warmed up – and only feeling it with your skin will determine that – then you can safely sow a batch of French beans, both dwarf and climbing. These are tender plants that will be knocked right back by a touch of frost and will survive but not grow if the temperature drop below about 10 degrees and then become fair game for slugs and snails. but by the time they have germinated we will be clear of those cold temperatures in most areas and the young plants can grow strongly.
Sow dwarf beans in rows in well manured soil a with each bean spaced 6 inches apart and the rows 12-18 inches apart. For climbing beans sow two seeds at the base of each support and removed the weaker of the two once one is established and growing strongly. water them well and keep them watered throughout the growing season.
DIVIDE & MOVE GRASSES
Unlike herbaceous perennials, grasses are best divided once they have started to grow vigorously. Lift the clump and divide into fairly substantial sections – they grow slowly so do not cut them up into too small pieces. Replant them at the same level they were in before and water in well. Keep watering them weekly until they are growing strongly.
Some grasses seed themselves freely and form crowded clumps and these can be thinned and moved by lifting entire young plants and repositioning with more space around them.
The beginning of May is a good time to lay turf as the ground is warm and the grass is beginning to grow vigorously so will establish quickly.
A lawn is only as good as the soil it grows on. Rather than hiding imperfections, turf tends to accentuate them whilst making it much harder to fix, so get it right before the turf goes down. Dig over the area, breaking up any compaction and removing all and visible weeds. Rotovate it well and then rake it thoroughly so that the surface is smooth and level.
Then tread over every inch, keeping the weight on your heels. This will expose any dips and hollows which should be filled and then the soil raked completely smooth again.
Then, using planks to stand on, lay the turf in courses, butting the edges tightly together making sure that the joints do not line up. Only cut when you have to and keep any shorter sections away from the edges so that they will dry out more easily than longer sections. When you are happy that it is done, water it well. Do not tread on it at all until the grass is visibly growing – which will be around 10 days.
If you have tulips growing in borders, deadhead them once they are past their best. This will stop the development of seed so that all the energy goes into forming new bulbs for next year’s flowers. The best way to deadhead them is simply to snap off the spent flower with the growing seed pod using your fingers.
Do not cut back the stem or any of the foliage as this will all contribute to the growing bulbs as they slowly die back.
It is time to plant out tomatoes if you have not already done so, burying them deeply – right up to the bottom leaf as the buried section of stem will develop extra roots.
As the young plants grow they form shoots between the leaves and the stem and these are known as side-shoots. They grow with extra vigour and although they do bear trusses of fruit, they take energy from the plant and reduce the overall harvest as well as making a cordon plant straggly. So they should be removed as they appear.
The best way to do this is in the morning when the plant is turgid, simply breaking them off with finger and thumb. However in the evening they will be limper and may tear the plant so should be cut off with a knife.
PLANTING TENDER ANNUALS
By the middle of May tender annuals like sunflowers, Zinnias, Cosmos or Tobacco plants can be planted out into all but the coldest gardens, especially if you have hardened them off for at least a week. Hardening off is important and will means much faster growing and longer-lasting flowers – so if you buy any of these annuals from a garden centre over the coming weeks, do not plant them out immediately but put them in a sheltered place for a week to acclimatise to your garden, as they will probably have been kept sheltered for best retail display.
I like to use tender annuals both in containers and borders and in the latter I do not use them as bedding but to enrich the general tapestry of the overall planting. So I place them in groups so they make drifts and clumps rather than straight lines.
Space them about 12 – 18 inches apart in a sunny situation that is sheltered from strong winds and water them in well. As long as the temperature does not drop below 5 degrees they should grow strongly and flower well into autumn.
PRUNE EARLY FLOWERING CLEMATIS
The best time to prune early-flowering clematis such as c. montana, armandii, alpina and macropetala, is immediately after they finish flowering. Obviously the timing of this will vary considerably in different parts of the country but the principal remains constant and for many of us this occurs at the end of May.
Next year’s flowers are formed on all the new growth made from this period until late summer so if you prune them much later than mid to late June you will be removing potential flowers that would bloom next spring.
Pruning of these clematis is solely to maintain their size and spread for your convenience rather than for any horticultural benefit. So cut back freely, not worrying about individual stems or the position of the cut. Then when you have finished, weed round the plant, water it well and mulch generously with garden compost or bark chippings.