Grandads Garden: May

“Button to chin till May be in, Cast not a clout till May be out”

Great excitement this month. Granny is digging out her glad rags and off gallivanting to meet two of her daughters and her new granddaughter and spend a couple of days in Alnwick with them. All are proud that family history shows they are related to Anastasia de Percy…maybe they will get in for free?!!  The main day out will be Alnwick Castle, where much of the Harry Potter films were made. And there is even a broomstick lesson to be had on the day they visit. However, the “girls” are sure they know enough about all that business not to need any lessons….it is also the month of Grannies birthday and she will be a grand 55 years old.

Alnwick

This month can be fickle and fitful; sometimes sunny, sometimes stormy––and sometimes more than a bit frosty! That is the trouble with May, those killing frosts that do so much damage to our fruit blossom and young potato plants, and catch the unwise and unwary who put out their tomato plants too early and without protection. The end of May is quite soon enough for tomato planting. Too often we gardeners cling to tradition and get too far ahead with our sowing and planting, regardless of how our weather varies and how treacherous it can be.

However, May should be a busy month with all of us––so here’s hoping you will be “as full of spirit as the month of May”. And watch out for those frosts!

May is a month for many jobs on the vegetable plot and it’s not easy to keep pace with them all. Let’s just list them now and deal with them in turn. Here they are:––

Thinning seedlings; earthing up potatoes; mulching peas and beans; top dressing certain crops; sowing winter greens in the seedbed and planting out Brussels; making successional sowings of earlier crops; sowing runners and marrows; planting out tomatoes; attending to the compost heap and keeping an eye open for pests.

Now let’s say a bit about each of them:

Thin SEEDLINGS

Always try to seize the opportunity, if the ground’s fairly moist and the weather cool with a promise of warm showers to come, to thin any crops that need it––lettuce, spinach, parsnips and, later on, spring-sown onions. If these crops need thinning when the soil is too dry and the weather seems set fair, water them thoroughly before thinning and again as soon as you have finished.

This will prevent too great a disturbance of the seedlings remaining while their neighbours were being pulled out. Generally thin seedlings twice: first leaving twice as many plants as you will need; at the second thinning remove every other plant. Always pull out the weakest seedlings, leaving the strongest to grow on. Hoe between the rows, removing any seedling weeds at thinning time, and leaving the plot tidy.

Earth up POTATOES

It is important that during the period of active growth your potato plot should be hoed and kept free from weeds. If there is a danger of frost when the young plants appear, cover them lightly with soil. The first earthing up should be done when the plants are some 6 in. high, and further soil should be drawn up to form a ridge about three weeks later. But don’t cover up the leaves this time––they need all the light and air that they can get.

Earthing up helps to keep the haulms upright, and prevents the tubers from being exposed to the light, which would make them go green. Incidentally, a good covering of soil over the tubers protects them in case of an outbreak of blight on the foliage. Blight spores don’t work down the stems to the tubers, as some people think; they drop from the haulm directly on to the soil. So make your ridge as illustrated; don’t leave a very pronounced furrow at the top, into which rain may wash the blight.

MULCH PEAS & BEANS

Both peas and beans specially need moisture to produce a good crop. In very dry weather, instead of watering, spread grass mowing’s, decayed leaves or compost to a depth of 1 in. along each side of the rows.

TOP DRESS.

Very young plants, such as lettuce and spinach, will appreciate top dressing of sulphate of ammonia––about 1⁄2oz. to the yard run.

Greens for the Seedbed

May is the month for sowing in the seedbed seeds of sprouting broccoli (mid-May), winter cabbage (also mid-May), kale and savory (late May). How to use a seedbed was described in the March issue of this Guide.

Plant BRUSSELS SPROUTS

May to June is the period for planting out your Brussels.

The Ministry’s plan provides for two rows, 2-1⁄2ft. between rows and the same distance between plants. Don’t forget that the plants need a long season of growth to develop properly. If your ground is poor, you would do well to fork well into the surface, before planting, 2 oz. to the square yard of some complete fertiliser such as “National Growmore”, which is of special value to crops that have to stand the winter.

Be careful in lifting from the seedbed to see that you get a good ball of soil round the roots. Should the weather be dry, water the seedbed row the night before.

Plant with a dibber deep enough to bury the roots and stem up to the first leaves. Press the soil firmly round the plant with the dibber or your heel. If you plant in dry weather give the plants a good watering. Some gardeners practise puddling, placing soil and water in a bucket and plunging the plants’ roots in it before planting. If the dry weather continues, water the plants each day, if you can, until they are established and show signs of making new growth. Hoe frequently between rows and plants. To make watering more effective some gardeners plant in a drill about three or four in. deep.

SOW FOR SUCCESSION

Beet, carrots, lettuce and radishes (see March and April Guides for Directions)

Sow RUNNERS

Runners do best on soil well trenched and given a good dressing of manure or compost, as advised in the February Guide. Clay soils are usually too wet and cold for them. One pint will sow a double row of 50 ft.

The plants are very tender and seeds should not be sown in the open until May, though early crops may be secured by sowing in boxes in a frame or a greenhouse and transplanting later. In the open, sow the seed in double rows with 9 in. of space between the plants. For single rows, the plants should stand 12 in. apart. If you have double rows, it is an advantage for staking to put the plants opposite each other. It is a mistake to overcrowd runner beans. Seeds are best sown in a trench and should be placed 2 in. deep. Don’t forget to sow a few extra at the end of the rows to fill up gaps in the rows.

Runner beans produce best when supported by stakes or some other contraption that allows them to climb; they can also be grown as dwarf plants by pinching out the growing shoots as they appear, but the yield will not be so heavy.

Stout, straight stakes 6-8 ft. long, without branches or twigs, are best for runner beans. Stakes are inserted against each plant and slightly inclined so that they cross at the top, allowing for a cross stake to be fixed as illustrated.

During dry weather, runner beans derive great benefit from watering; in fact, drought is often responsible for the flowers dropping and failing to set. To induce a good set it may be necessary to syringe the flowers with water. Keep the beans closely gathered as they mature so as to prolong cropping.

Sow MARROWS

Choose a sunny corner for your marrows, digging in some well-rotted manure or compost into the bottom of the bed, which should be taken out one spit deep. Sow towards the end of May, placing groups of four or five seeds about 6 in. apart and 1 in. deep. Eventually thin to two plants, 12 to 15 in. apart. Take care not to let the young plants suffer from lack of water; give them plenty in dry weather and hoe regularly to keep the bed free from weeks.

Plant CELERY

If you want to grow celery (and you have not been able to sow seeds in heat), you should buy the plants ready for planting out in late May or June. Celery likes richly prepared ground. Dig out a trench 18 in. wide and 1 ft. deep, and fork in manure or compost into the bottom of it, returning the soil to within 2 in. of the level of the ground. Set the plants carefully in staggered double rows, 1 ft. apart––10 to 12 in. between plants. Water them in and give them plenty of water when the weather is dry. Dust with soot at intervals, as a prevention against leaf maggot. Earthing up will be dealt with in the June Guide.

Some people like celeriac––a turnip-rooted celery––for flavouring stews. You may like to try a row as an experiment. Plant in shallow drills 18 in. apart, 12 in. between plants. Celeriac also needs plenty of water in dry weather. Remove side shoots as they appear and hoe regularly.

The popular war-time crop… TOMATOES

Judging by the response to the Ministry’s advertisements in earlier years, the tomato is crop No.1 with war-time gardeners and allotment holders. Unfortunately, despite many warnings, some amateurs have been taken in every year by unscrupulous people who sell them tomato plants far too early for planting outside. It is foolish to hope that the danger of frost is past until at least the end of May. As with so many gardening jobs there is no fixed date for planting; it varies from about May 20 in the south-west to the end of the second week in June in the north. Little is gained and much may be lost by rushing plants out of doors a week or ten days before the weather has warmed up.

The plants do not grow away well, and if the nights are cold they turn a dark, unhealthy colour and are seriously checked. Always buy your plants from a reliable supplier. A well-grown tomato plant should be sturdy and short-jointed––about 6 or 8 in. high, with the buds of the first flower truss visible in the head of the plant. The distance between the leaves should be small and the leaves should be dark and of a bluish tinge. As a rule, plants produced in pots are best for planting in the open. Avoid “leggy” plants at all costs.

To grow tomatoes successfully in the open you must have a good site. The best spot would be in the shelter of a wall or fence facing south or south-west, because there the temperature won’t fall too low at night. The plants will get some sunshine there and be protected from the cold east winds we often get early in June. Get the ground ready well in advance of planting. Take out a trench 9 to 12 in. deep and 15 to 18 in. wide and dig in compost or well-rotted manure into the second spit.

For watering during summer get some unglazed drainpipes, if you can, and put them upright into the trench, 3 ft. apart. Then fill up the trench with the soil you took out. These pipes will let the water get to the subsoil, which it is difficult to wet by surface watering.

When you fill up the trench, sprinkle a suitable fertiliser––”National Growmore”, for instance–– over the surface: 1 to 2 oz. to every yard of trench, and mix it in with a fork.

The plants should be at least 18 in. apart in the row; if you have more than one row, make the rows 3 ft. apart. Measure and mark out beforehand where the plants should go, putting in a 4 ft. stake at each position.

Before planting, make sure that the ball of soil round the roots is really wet. If you have bought plants in pots, stand them in water for about 20 minutes so that the ball is completely covered. Drain away excess water before planting.

Plant with a trowel. When planting from pots, take care not to damage the roots when you take the ball of soil out of the pot. Make the hole about 1⁄2in. to 1 in. deeper than the height of the ball of soil. Then put the ball in the hole and pack the soil tightly round it. Make a saucer-like depression round each plant: it is very useful for watering, and the absence of loose soil round the base of the stem makes it difficult for wireworm to get in. Immediately after planting, water each plant to set the soil round it. Then watch out that the ball of soil does not begin to dry out. If it does, give each plant about a pint of water.

When you have finished planting, tie the plants to the stakes you put in as markers. Tie loosely; a good guide is to leave room for your thumb to go between plant and stake. As the plant grows, tie it again to keep it upright, and remove every side shoot that appears in the corners formed by the leaf stalks and the main stem. These side shoots are usually dealt with when they are about 1 to 1-1⁄2in. long. Don’t let them get too big; if that happens, cut them off close to the stem with a sharp knife. More about tomatoes next month.

Attend to the Compost Heap

The importance of compost was described in the January Guide, and the March issue dealt with how to make it. May is the time of the year when further materials such as waste vegetable matter, coarse grass, lawn mowing’s and annual weeds, become available for the heap. While not forgetting the needs of domestic livestock, all the waste material that can be collected should be rotted down on the compost heap.

Look out for PESTS

If you are growing broad beans, look out for signs of black fly and tackle this pest early, as advised in the April Guide. If you are growing early turnips, you may be troubled with the flea beetle. Last month’s Guide also dealt with that.

To prevent the depredations of the onion fly, sprinkle 4% calomel dust along the rows of spring onions when the seedlings are about 1 1⁄2 high; repeat about 10 days later. Your seedling carrots may suffer from the carrot fly, so apply naphthalene dust to the rows and repeat at 10- day intervals until the end of June.

Some gardeners put lengths of creosoted string about 2 in. above their carrot rows, and find this wards off the carrot fly. You will need to dress the string with creosote three times (at fortnightly intervals, beginning mid-May) for early sowings and five times for the maincrop. You can put the creosote on with a brush or take the string up and re-dip it. You must not allow any of the liquid to splash on the plants or it will ‘burn’ the leaves.

A bit about BIRDS

The nesting season of wild birds is in full swing in May. Soon the birds themselves will reach their peak of usefulness to man. Robin, wren, hedge-sparrow, song-thrush and many others will be about their business of finding food for hungry nestlings and so will be making constant inroads on garden pests. True, the song-thrush may later take small toll of your bush fruit; but, all the same, this bird is the gardener’s very good friend. Of all our birds, it is the champion snail killer; if it were no more than that, it would deserve protection and encouragement. As for robin, wren and hedge-sparrow––nobody has anything but good to say of them; in fact, there is nothing but good to say. Any or all of them may nest in gardens; if any of them nests in yours, let it nest in peace. Your interest and protection will be repaid a hundredfold.

Then there are the great tit and the blue tit. If you have a nest box in your garden––maybe even if you haven’t––you may have the great good luck to harbour a family of either species.

The last analysis of the food of these two feathered benefactors showed two-thirds injurious insects for the great tit, no less than three-quarters for the blue! What gardener would grudge such friends as these an occasional beak full of fruit?

It’s a pity to add a discordant note; but there are birds you will need to watch. The house- sparrow, it is true, feeds its young on grubs and insects and takes a good many for itself; but it can be a nuisance when green things are coming through. If you are near a wood and there are jays about, look to your peas. If there are woodpigeons, look to anything in the garden that can be eaten. But apart from these few, the birds are your friends. If you give them a square deal, they will give you something better than that, for not all your labour or insecticides will do so much to keep the garden clean. And, remember, the birds are on the job all day long.

Man digging garden

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