May in the Garden
Jobs and tips for May in the garden, what's looking good, observations plans.
Jobs / Tips
As the flowers of spring flowering shrubs fade, they can be pruned back to get a good display next year. Forsythia, Ribes (flowering currants), Kerria japonica, Chaenomeles (Japanese quince) and early flowering Spirea should all be pruned after flowering to keep them vigorous and flowering well. Ideally each year you should cut out one in three or one in four of the oldest braches down to ground level. In this way, the plant always has plenty of growth left and no branch is allowed to get old and past its prime.
If you have a neglected specimen of one of these plants, then they can withstand being cut pretty much right down to the ground, though I prefer to carry out drastic renovation over at least two years. Leaving some of the more upright and further back shoots intact so as to keep the plant going rather than dependent on reserves in the roots when recovering. If you do cut it right down, then expect at least one and maybe two years before it flowers again.
Lower the lawn mower height to the normal setting now. Initial mowings in early spring should be slightly higher than normal, after a couple the blades can be lowered. Remember that little and often is the best way to get a really good lawn. If you don't take much off each time, then it takes less time to do overall.
Give your lawns a feed of fertiliser now. Buy a proprietary lawn feed and follow the instructions carefully, I can guarantee that in the next few weeks I'll get a few emails from people who over-fed their lawns and want me to tell them how to deal with the dead patches. These emails usually ask if I think it's a good idea to add some other chemical they've heard about or found in the shed (it isn't).
Weed, weed and thrice weed. They're coming up thick and vigorously now, so start while they're relatively small and you'll stop them from seeding and have a chance of staying on top of the situation.
Continue to protect young shoots from slugs, scatter pellets / slug pubs or whatever particularly around clematis and herbaceous plants (they love Delphiniums). As soon as there are shoots to eat the slugs and snails will appear from nowhere.
Push support stakes into the ground around emerging tall perennials. This will enable them to be supported from the earliest opportunity and cause the least disturbance to them when they are covered in leaves. It also helps to disguise the supports later on as the plants grow around them.
Plant up containers and hanging baskets with tender summer bedding plants towards the end of the month, but don't put them out until all risk of frost has passed. If you can't keep them frost free, then order them in advance. If you do have the space in a greenhouse, then such containers and baskets are best planted up a few weeks before they are due to go out as this allows the plants to grow into their new homes and around each other.
Trim quick growing hedges. They're starting to sprout well now and it helps keep them in shape before they get too unruly. Most hedge types can be left until early to mid summer, but the faster growing varieties need 3 trims a year.
Watch out for early signs of aphids. Mild winters mean that more survive than in a cold one. It's about now that they start to come out of hiding and build up their numbers. If you can spot aphids early, then life gets an awful lot easier later on in the year. Check the newly emerging shoots of their favourite plants, particularly roses. My stage-one aphid eradication involves simply rubbing them between my fingers, you'll never get them all this way, (it's not too distasteful when there's only a few - wipe your fingers on the grass) but it's a good way of setting them back a couple of weeks or more. Stage-two involves chemicals.
There is still time to sow seed if you've never tried growing your own vegetables, or grown anything from seed, you really should do this. I tend to go for things that are either expensive in the shops or difficult to get really fresh. I don't see the point of struggling against the slugs and weather to get a crop of lettuce that I can't possibly eat quick enough at the time when they are almost giving them away in the shops (though you could try unusual and therefore more expensive varieties, lollo rosso, rocket or the like). Beans and peas are easy and don't travel well so the ones in the shops are never as good or fresh as home grown. Broad beans are good as are French beans and very easy too. French beans don't need the long canes that runner beans need.
Don't cast any clouts before the end of the month. Following an enquiry about this comment and the fact there's virtually nothing on the web about it, I thought I'd elaborate:
There's an old English phrase "N'ere cast a clout 'ere May is out". Which is well known but the meaning a bit obscure. It originates in Lancashire where "clout" means clothing (as well as a smack) and the "May" is not the month of May, but the Hawthorn which flowers in May along the hedgerows and so is often called May itself. So it means don't cast off any clothing until the hawthorn blossoms - or make sure you still keep your winter underwear on until later than you'd think.
Go out walking one morning in May, by the time you get back you're almost guaranteed to be inspired to write a folk song, place left forefinger in left ear for additional inspiration.
Isn't this a great time of the year? Almost every day - certainly every week - there's new things happening in the garden and once one flush of flowers are over, there's another one right behind it to take over.
April and May are two of the kindest months for any growing plants in England, warm temperatures, but not hot, bright long days, the worst of the winter weather is long past and there's regular showers of rain. The combination of sun and showers gets lawns in particular growing at quite a pace and I've been implementing my new lawn regimen. The lawn has never been actually bad, but it's not really one to be proud of, other people seem to expect more of it due to my gardener credentials, but it's not really interested me much. Now I've a new mower though and have been able to ally it to my love and fascination with composting, I'm well on the way to sorting it out properly.
I started by cutting it on the highest setting and collecting the grass clippings, removing them from the lawn. Then after about 3-4 days I applied a spring lawnfeed, I don't like the idea of adding unnecessary chemicals, so this was an organic feed only and not a feed, weed and mosskiller that are almost ubiquitous now. I don't have moss or weeds all over my lawn, so I see no reason to apply a killer all over - it may not be needed at all - read on. With April being a showery month, the feed was soon watered into the soil where it started to do its job. After another few days, I mowed again, still on a fairly high setting and left the grass clippings on the lawn so as not to remove the fertiliser I'd added. The next cut was a week later with the mower on what will be my "normal" setting - one notch above minimum. I'll collect the clippings from now on unless it's just after an application of feed or weedkiller so as to avoid a build up of thatch.
The results? Well slightly surprisingly, the feed has very effectively killed all the moss, "slightly surprisingly" because it's something I expected for the feed to tip the balance from moss to grass which can process the extra nutrients more effectively, but I didn't quite expect the result I've had - I'm pleased with it, and it shows that moss killer as a poisonous extra isn't necessary. When I've just mowed it - as I did yesterday, there are a few dark patches of dead moss mixed in with the grass (my moss problem wasn't too bad), but after 3-4 days of growth you can hardly tell. In a month or so, the grass will have spread and the old mossy areas will begin to disappear.
There's quite a way to go yet, but I'm well on the way there. I don't have any poorly drained areas, so aerating the soil isn't so important, but I'll need to feed again and scarify in the autumn. The one thing that probably makes the most difference is to mow regularly about once a week through the spring and summer and remove the clippings, so they don't build up the thatch. The feed will give the grass an advantage over the weeds, so I'm in no hurry to kill them yet. If I do decide to, I'll be applying a selective lawn weedkiller only to the parts that have weeds, not the whole lawn.
Which brings me to the next part, what to do with all those grass clippings? The easiest and best thing if you can't use them in the garden is to put them in your green or brown wheelie bin for the council to take away, but I'd never waste such a valuable resource like that. I've been using them to help rot down the other stuff I have on the compost heaps that had slowed right down in the rotting process. To work effectively, compost should have both green matter (rich in nitrogen) and brown matter (rich in carbon), this correct C:N ratio is what makes the difference between a heap that rots wonderfully and one that sits around doing nothing or turns to a smelly slimy mess. Mine were of the most common, too much carbon variety, so I forked a loose pile of semi-rotted compost about 4 inches thick onto a new heap I started, then on went about 3 inches depth of loose grass clippings, mix in well with a fork and repeat with more almost-compost and grass clippings until it's all used up. I'll do a couple of laps of the garden to fill the mower bag, then play on the compost heap for a while (my wife's description).
But the clippings keep coming! So I cut the hedge a bit, twigs on compost heap, mow the lawn, clippings on heap, cut the hedge etc. It can become quite a logistical exercise making sure you don't get too much of any one thing and have the right balance.
Then I noticed that the thing that slowed my lawn mowing down the most was all these itty bitty in and outs around plants and trees, so a couple of new beds were born to give a smooth run. This resulted in (oh joy) piles of stripped turf to get rid of! I currently have too much stripped turf until next week when I mow the lawn again. It's amazing how much organic matter from the garden you can get rid of this way and I'll have loads of lovely garden compost come the autumn to spread all over those new beds to the delight of the plants.
Another way you can dispose of grass clippings is to use them as a mulch under mature trees and shrubs, but well out of the way. Of course they're green when you have them, but will rapidly become a pale straw colour and so stick out like the proverbial sore thumb if you don't think about this before you put them down. This is not the best way to use them, composted is better, but you may not have the time or inclination to do this. Spread the clippings about 2" deep underneath mature trees and shrubs, young ones won't like it at all, and do it preferably under the canopy of branches that come to the ground so that you can't see the grass at all.
It's worth mentioning at this point that we gained a cat this way. One came to lay on the nice soft bed he decided I'd made for him in the front garden, my wife decided he was a bit skinny and needed feeding. A bit of investigation found that he belonged to some people who had moved house, we never found out if he'd been left behind or just made his way back to where he used to live, so now we have a cat due to my disposal of lawn mowings.
It's a while since I did any major planting and it's been a great workout, stripping the turf digging it over and planting. One of the beds is very shaded and the other in sun nearly all day, so I enjoyed working out what plants to go where from those that I've propagated in the last couple of years and have had sitting around in pots and thinking about what new ones I want. The first time I started all this physical activity in the garden, my hands were shaking for a couple of hours after due to the exertion - I was worryingly unfit - but now I can strip a couple of square meters of turf, dig it over and feel tired but good. Who needs a gym? I'd much rather do my "reps" in the open air surrounded by birdsong and have something to show for it.
That's one thing I'd love to be able to have accompany this page, a recording of the birdsong that's coming in through my open study door as I'm sitting here typing it. There's 3 distinct songs on the go almost all the time and then another 2 or 3 that keep coming in, and when I turn to look out of the door - butterflies, lots of small blues this year for some reason, my wife thinks they're attracted to the honesty that's self-seeded all around the sheds.
The daffodils have all been over for some time, as have the hyacinths, but there's still plenty of tulips in full bloom. They don't need any cutting off, tying up, bending over or such like, so resist the temptation. Make sure that you remove the faded flowers so that they don't start putting their energy into making seeds and give them a good feed of double strength liquid plant food, especially if they're growing in grass. Just the one feed will do, no need to repeat it, give them a good soaking so that the water gets well down to the roots - remember spring bulbs are usually planted 2-3 times the depth of the bulb height. As a rule of thumb, you should leave the top-growth after dead-heading for at least 6 weeks after flowering before removing the foliage, longer if possible. The only time this should really be necessary is if the bulbs were planted through grass in your lawn, otherwise, just leave them to die down and turn brown in their own time before removing them. Remember, this is the time that they have to build up the energy for next years flowers, if you make it hard for them, you pay the price next year.
If you have any bulbs that were in containers in the house, they can be left in the pots and put outside in a sunny position, water and feed them like any other container plant until the leaves die down and then keep the bulbs in a dark, dry place until the autumn when they can go in the soil. Don't try using them in the same way again as you'll be disappointed, they will probably have been prevented from flowering last year in order to build the bulb size up to give the best performance after you bought them. In fact next year will be a bit disappointing even if you put them in the soil, but their second year in the soil and afterwards will be worthwhile. Before long, they'll be filling the garden. Pretty good value I reckon from something that cost the same as a bunch of flowers - years and years extra for free.
A "must buy" if you haven't already got any yet are pots of sweet pea seedlings. They have the advantage over many similar plants in that they're hardy and so don't need to be kept in a greenhouse or take up huge amounts of windowsill space. They benefit from protection though, so keep them under shelter if you have any, or in a sheltered part of the garden if you don't until the days start to get warmer.
Put about 10-12 plants into a large container, say 18" square or diameter, arrange a wigwam of 4 x 5ft or so high canes with string across them to bridge the gaps and interplant at the bottom with 4 viola plants. Before long, the sweet peas will be up the canes hiding the wigwam and as long as you remember to dead-head, will provide you with weeks of glorious fragrant flowers.
Summer bedding is particularly useful if you've a new garden maybe with some gaps between the shrubs and perennials because they haven't yet grown large enough. Choose larger plant varieties and group them in 3's and 4's, as they're usually frost tender, they'll have gone by the time the permanent residents have grown up.
There's still time to sow the seeds of hardy summer annuals. Sow them in situ as they resent being moved. You sometimes see a reference to "broadcast sowing" and raking them into a bed - I don't bother any more as it's only ever given me poor results. I find the best thing is to draw a shallow drill in the soil with the point of a trowel, sprinkle the seeds thinly, cover them with soil, and wait. Water them to start with and again if it doesn't rain. As long as your drills are irregular, they don't look at all regimented and the results are 10 times better than broadcast sowing. I always sow some night-scented-stock (fantastic evening perfume from a ridiculously small number of open flowers - sow near a patio or deck), Californian poppies (they may well naturalise), corn flowers (blue only - I used to sow the mixed colours, but would be disappointed they weren't all blue) and Shirley poppies. There are plenty of others you can use, I chose these because I like them and I know that they grow well in my soil.
Don't plant out any frost tender plants until at least
the middle of May and preferably towards the end.
If you do have any outside and it looks like a frost maybe due, then bring them in if possible to a greenhouse, cold frame or even a garage or shed over-night.
Archive - selected parts of previous year's newsletters from this month
Summer Games and other things to do in the garden
Once you have (or are on the way to having) your garden as you like it, then it makes sense to use it as often as possible. Games in the garden such as boule, or if you have more room, badminton, quoits croquet, or even a small scale "pitch and putt" are an ideal way of involving the whole family in outdoor activities.
They can be good ice breakers for those awkward barbecue guests, a way of involving Great Aunt Maude AND the children, or something pleasant to do in the garden on all of the balmy summer evenings that we're about to get (I can live in hope).
You could make the garden a place to work if you do much paper work at home. I don't mean sitting out on the patio blinded by the glare from the papers in front of you and cursing the slightest breeze, but why not get a small (or even large) summer house that you make into a temporary (or even permanent) office. It doesn't have to cost the earth. Tuck it out of direct sight of the house and sit at a table or desk with the doors fully open in the summer and you're a million miles away, but still with the conveniences of home at the end of the path. If you have heating and a phone line installed, all the better, there's something very cosy about having an office / den at the end of the garden with all the comforts of home without actually being in the house.
Good garden furniture and a barbecue are musts to make the most out of your garden and to extend your living space.
Wildlife antics. As well as the plants waking up, the wildlife has also woken up and is to be seen out in the garden entertaining me on a regular basis. The grey squirrels in particular are earning their keep (in walnuts later in the year from the tree at the bottom of the garden) I love to watch them run up and down around the trees in three dimensions chasing each other and leaping branches. It's almost as if it makes no difference to speed or agility whether they're the right way up, upside down, spiralling up a tree trunk or on the flat with their tails doing that thing where they follow them around a split second behind, a sort of furry motion trail.
I tidied up my ornamental grasses recently, pulling out dead leaves that I chucked under the shrubs at the back of the border. The house sparrows have discovered that these, now nicely dried out make great stuff for lining nests, so often when I'm sat in front of the computer just a couple of yards away they're arriving and leaving with beaks full of this dried grass.
There's some song thrushes too that saw the same wildlife programme on themselves that I saw. One of them has dutifully set up an anvil just outside the patio door and brings snails on a regular basis to bash to bits so he (she?) can get at the juicy innards. There's a pair of males they have been seen a couple of times heads down pointing towards each other in the middle of the lawn, before rushing together and flying up into the air a few feet, wings, legs, beaks and feathers all over the pace.
If there's one thing I've noticed that the birds and squirrels like a lot it's when I cut the lawn. They seem to really appreciate being able to walk or run around easily and not have to wade through the "undergrowth".
Long term projects - If you've planted or hard-pruned any shrubs or trees in the last year, then it's time to re-assess and maybe attend to them. This time last year we had a couple of old lilac trees that flowered quite magnificently, but at between 15 and 20ft up in the air and only able to be appreciated from the bedroom windows. After they'd flowered I cut them right back to about 2 - 3ft above ground level. There were no flowers this year (lilacs only flower on wood that is over a year old - how many I wonder have been cut back because they were too large then grubbed up the next year because they appear to have stopped flowering) just lots of long shoots and plenty of foliage.
I've been out again with the loppers and removed some of the shoots that are headed where I don't want them to and to thin them out so they're not crowding each other. One of them had shoots that were nearly 6 feet long, but had grown too quickly and were bending under the weight of the leaves, so they were the first to come out before they blew about and split the wood so introducing disease. Next year they'll be flowering again and will give us privacy from the neighbours too.
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