Your May fruit and veg jobs
Want bumper harvests all year round? We share our top tasks for growing edibles this month
May is the month when a lot of crops have their first day at school. After an age of being tended at close quarters by their parents in the comfort of home, it’s time for them to go out into the big wide world and make their own way. Why? Because May is the month when most gardeners will celebrate ‘no more frosts day’ and plant out a whole host of plants that have been longing for summer as much as we have. Aubergines, tomatoes, chillies, sweetcorn, climbing beans and cucumbers all get their chance to grow outdoors.
Of course, there’s no such thing as ‘no frost day’ and the last frost is an almost mythical thing. You never know when it was until after the event. But there will come a point towards the end of the month when the garden starts to feel like a warm, safe place for planting tender things. There’s no harm in having a layer of fleece to hand in the shed though, just in case a cold night threatens to spoil the party!
More fruit and veg advice:
Sowing and planting
Plant out leeks
Here’s a job that looks half done by the time you’ve finished! This is because leaving the young plants in the planting hole without covering them with soil is the way to get a nice long white stem on the leek. Plant out leeks when they are around 20cm tall, making holes 15cm deep. Space the plants at around 20cm intervals along the row. Drop the plants into the holes and then water them until the hole is full of water, without backfilling the hole with soil. Do this each time you need to water while the plants are settling in. It looks strange but will give you the most sweet and succulent crop. There’s also just time to sow a batch of late-cropping varieties such as ‘Neptune’, either direct into the soil or in trays on a cool but well-lit windowsill indoors.
Sow sprouting broccoli for winter
Who wants to think about winter when summer is so tantalising on the horizon? It’s like being on holiday with someone who as soon as you reach the destination, starts to mention something that’s going to happen when you get home! Yes it might seem like the elephant in the room but if you act now you can be one of those organised ‘here’s one I prepared earlier’ gardeners later in the year!
More like this
Sow a couple of seeds per module in module trays filled with peat-free multi-purpose compost and keep them on a sunny windowsill. Once the plants are sturdy and the roots are growing through the base of the module, they can be planted out. They’ll be pumping out delicious succulent, slender stems to add to your winter roast dinners, when summer is a fading memory and the veg plot could otherwise be dispiritingly bare.
Plant out tender veg
Most of the tender fruiting crops that can be planted out at the end of the month are also sun lovers and hungry feeders (they just love the good life!). When deciding where to plant, think about the ideal conditions for sun-bathing when on holiday (sunny and sheltered from the wind) and then replicate them in the garden and you won’t go far wrong!
Plant pumpkins, tomatoes, chillies, sweetcorn, melons, courgettes, French beans and runner beans in a sunny spot, ideally south-facing, and mix lots of homemade garden compost or bagged compost into the planting hole.
Give them a good soak after planting, then spread more compost around the base of the plant. If you are growing tender plants that are going to get tall (such as cordon tomatoes, trained cucumbers or climbing French beans), choose a sheltered spot that isn’t at the mercy of strong winds. If the weather forecast is frost-free but otherwise cool and wet, hold off planting out for a few more days.
After you’ve planted out veg plants that you raised from seed indoors, wash out the pots and stack them all in size order. Then use them for sowing or potting something else, or store them in the shed or garage so they can be used again next year.
Increase your crop size
Earth up potatoes
I find this a great job to do first thing in the morning while having a wander through the garden. The soil in my garden is quite heavy clay so it can take a bit of chopping first with a hoe before dragging the soil up to the top of the potato stem, just below the leaves. Keep earthing up the soil little and often and the potatoes will never get a chance to pop their heads above soil level, which turns them green. If your soil is lighter than clay and easy to work, a digging fork can do the job quicker than a hoe. Also check the middle of the row for weeds because they can do quite a good job of camouflaging themselves once the potatoes are in full leaf towards the end of the month.
Thin out gooseberries
This is not a job for the faint-hearted, as you try to negotiate the spiny stems, but it can give you a crop of bigger, juicier fruits. If you’ve got gooseberry fruits crowding each other out on the stem, remove the smallest ones to allow others to reach full maturity. Remove up to half of the fruits. You could use these ultra-bitter thinnings for jam or for a super-tangy dessert, depending on how much you like your eyes to water.
As the fruits begin to ripen, net them to keep the birds off and don’t commit too early when it comes to picking. I’m sure I’m not the only one with childhood memories of biting into bright green fruits that were so hard they were crunchy, and sour enough to strip away the powers of speech. Wait until the fruits have some give in them when you squeeze them, and in the case of green varieties, wait until there is a golden tinge to the colour of the fruit. A sun warmed, perfectly ripe gooseberry can taste as sweet as honey, while one picked two weeks earlier is closer in taste experience to a pickled onion!
Weed in between onions
Little weeds growing in the small gaps between onions can seem innocuous, but they can stunt the growth of your crop if they’re allowed to establish. It’s one of those slightly fiddly jobs that needs to be done by hand but it’s the work of moments if done this month, compared to the job you’ll have on your hands if you leave it until next month. If the gaps between some onions are small and weeding is difficult, you could pull up a few onions to harvest as spring onions and give the others more room. You should have some good-sized spring onions along the row if the crop was planted in autumn.
Protect your crops
Pinch out broad beans
The phrase ‘bees around a honeypot’ would be a good way to describe the way that blackfly congregate around the tips of broad bean plants this month, seemingly overnight. If they are allowed to move in en masse it can affect the quality of your crop, so prevention is better than cure.
As the first pods start to appear towards the base of the plants, it’s your alarm call to snip off the tips of the plant, with two leaves attached. This is the soft growth that the blackflies crave. The rest of the plant won’t appeal to them. Harvested when clean of any infestation, the shoots can be eaten as a steamed veg for a bonus crop at a time commonly called ‘the hungry gap’, when there’s lots growing on the veg patch but little to harvest.
Protect crops from flea beetle
If you’ve been direct sowing like the clappers, you’re likely to have lots of rows of perky seedlings popping their heads above the soil. If the soil is dry and we go a day or two without rain, use a watering can with a rose attachment and gently splash water directly on the seedlings. Just enough to wet them but not drown them will keep flea beetle at bay. You’ll know they’ve been active because seedlings will be full of tiny holes.
Net brassicas from birds
While succulent young vegetable plants will be largely left alone by slugs once they’ve reached a decent size, the same cannot be said for pigeons. They’ll see brassica plants as a potential dinner all year and at any stage of their life, depending on how hungry they are. If you’ve got towering conifers around the boundaries of your garden, be assured that there is an army of pigeons in them watching your every move. To get cabbages, cauliflowers, calabrese, kale and Brussels sprouts to maturity, there really is no better solution than netting the crops for their whole life. If you’re planting out now, cover them from the word go to avoid disappointment.
Now’s the time when you can end up realising that you’ve got far too many of a particular plant, if you’ve grown them from seed. Or maybe you’ve potted up a lot of self-sown plants in the garden that were threatening to take over.
These can all be very useful if there is a local plant swap event near you, where you can exchange your spares for something else. Also look out for plant swap groups on social media.