Generally I try not to refer to current weather conditions, when considering the coming month’s topical tasks, for fear of tempting fate. As I write this, however, April has been so dry and sunny that it’s hard to ignore. I’ve already had to irrigate, before making spring plantings, and planted pots, which usually get enough water from ‘April showers’, have had to be watered as if it were already summer.
Unseasonably warm weather, with the associated high light levels, promote flowering so May should fulfil its promise of being blooming marvellous. The only fly in the ointment is that sunny days, with cloudless skies, go hand in hand with cool nights which, even as late as May, can cause frost. Tender plants that you have been carefully hardening off with spells outside should survive near freezing conditions but not a hard frost.
Tender plants, bedding and container specimens, bought from garden centres and the like may have spent their whole lives in a heated environment and cannot be planted out until all risk of frost has passed. A severe drop in temperature, even if it doesn’t actually get below zero, is enough to shock a plant that hasn’t been properly acclimatised. How would you like to be turfed out from under your cosy duvet, from your toasty warm home, and left outside, naked, on a clear May night? I’d bet you’d be shivering long before it got frosty!
If normal service has resumed, on the weather front, then this month spans the period that marks the end of spring and the beginning of summer. As such it is the very last chance to complete spring jobs and is the first opportunity to move onto summer tasks like planting out the aforementioned tender perennials and annuals. Keep some horticultural fleece handy so that tender specimens can be protected, in an emergency, by draping it over them.
When planting up pots, hanging baskets etc. remember that to get a good effect it is better to stuff them unnaturally densely so that the plants really explode out, as the season progresses, rather than sulking in a soggy morass of compost. If using a water retaining additive, such as ‘Swell Gel’, soak it first, so that it fully expands, before mixing into moist compost. If you add it dry it won’t just be your plants that ‘explode’ out of the containers when you water them. Also, feed containers with a liquid fertiliser from now, and throughout the summer, on at least a fortnightly basis (see instructions on whichever liquid / soluble feed you choose to use)..
Tender perennials, that you have been gently coaxing back into growth in a protected environment, then hardened off, can be moved into their summer flowering positions after the risk of frost has passed. Cannas and dahlias can be included here and are really useful to add late season interest to mixed borders which contain a lot of spring and early summer plants. Perennial grasses come into their own in the latter part of the growing season, being relatively late into active growth, so late spring / early summer is the best time to dig up, divide and replant them.
Some habitual gardening operations need to be stepped up a gear from now onwards; lawn mowing, watering, weeding, pest and disease control, dead-heading, ‘post flowering’ pruning, tying-in and adding plant supports, are the ones which come immediately to mind..
Considering how dry it is as I write this, then sorting out irrigation is pretty vital as we head into the summer proper. Installing as many water butts as your down-pipes will allow is a good start—not easy if you have cast iron guttering like me! If you have to use mains water then the most efficient way of getting it to the plant roots is by using ‘seep’ hoses, laid under a surface mulch, controlled by a watering timer so that the precious water is added stealthily, overnight, when losses to evaporation are at a minimum.
Sprinklers and spraying by hand are very wasteful of water. They encourage surface rooting which can leave the plants high and dry if the drought is prolonged. Where watering by hand is the only option then soak the ground really thoroughly, every now and again, using a dribbling hosepipe, moving it along each time one area has been soaked. This may take a long time, especially in a large garden, which will make you wish that you’d spent more time mulching the beds and investing in seep hoses earlier in the year.
All of that makes it seem like May is going to be a lot of hard work. Well, you don’t get something for nothing and your reward is that it’s also a month packed with blossom, new plants coming into flower every day, bright young foliage full of life and scent all around. Even if you don’t have a garden of your own it’s hard to ignore the fact that things are on the up and fingers crossed for a glorious English summer to come….