May in the Garden 2009

Recently I met a young head gardener fresh from completing his ‘Kew Diploma’, possibly the most respected horticultural qualification in the country. His enthusiasm and vigour made me wish that I had a set of gardening jump leads to attach to his green fingers to recharge my own plant growing batteries!

The month of May is a bit like that; it’s so full of life and rising sap that it’s impossible not to feel that anything is possible. Fundamentally it’s when the risk of severe frost wanes and your tender plants can be gradually moved outdoors, ‘hardened off’, providing that you can whisk them back under cover if a seriously cold night is forecast. By mid May onward it should be safe to plant out tender plants and border exotica like dahlias which are enjoying a new surge in popularity.

If you are in the habit of propagating a lot of plants, and therefore have numerous perennials in pots, it might be a good idea to make a ‘stock bed’ to plant them out because it’s far easier to water plants in the ground than those in pots. From this point on watering becomes one of those inescapable chores and you’ll have enough on your plate with bedding displays, summer flowering bulbs in containers and, most thirsty of all, hanging baskets, so the more that’s planted in the ground the better.

On the subject of watering I’d like to gently remind the reader (yes, I know who you are and where you live) that if a pot is allowed to dry out it cannot be rewetted by simply pouring water onto the soil surface. The only way to saturate totally dried out compost is to plunge the pot into a bucket of water, or tin bath in my case, until it is totally immersed. You will know when it is properly wetted again when no more air bubbles arise from the compost surface. I shouldn’t need to remind anyone how important it is to collect rainwater in water butts with the aid of ‘rain diverters’ fitted to gutter down-pipes.

Watering is only going to be a real problem if we actually get a warm and dry summer. Pests and diseases, on the other hand, can become a problem whatever the weather. In wet years fungal diseases may be the greatest threat to plant health whereas in drier, warmer, summers pests, such as aphids, may multiply at such a rate that natural predation cannot keep on top of them. That’s why you must keep an eye open for early signs of trouble now when swift intervention can nip the problem in the bud.

I’ve noticed that lily beetles (bright red beetles and their poo covered grubs) have been getting more and more numerous compared to a decade ago when I don’t remember seeing them this far west, having first spread from their epicentre in the Home Counties. The adults emerge as soon as the sun warms the soil, I’ve found them as early as February, so by now you will find adults and grubs ravaging your gorgeous lilies. Destroy the adults and larvae by whatever means you can stomach, if you don’t the infestation will get worse and worse until you have to give up growing lilies.

Controlling slugs and snails is also important and if you do not agree with chemical means then the warmer temperatures mean that biological controls, based on nematodes (microscopic worms), become effective. It would be very expensive to control a whole garden this way but used to protect the most susceptible plants, especially those in pots, is sensible. A similar biological control is available to control vine weevils and this is almost obligatory if you have dainty morsels such as primulas and auriculas in pots – vine weevils love these particularly (begonias too).

Herbaceous perennials will be putting on a growth spurt to muscle each other out of the way in the race to reach flowering height and the whole sordid business of procreation – they’re sex mad, these plants! To stop them flopping when the inevitable winds and rains descend, this is Britain after all, insert a support system, such as pea-sticks, if you haven’t done so already. To employ an indelicate metaphor, this is the gardening equivalent of ‘Viagra’; artificially supported plants will stay up for longer and give the little lady a more satisfying performance than plants which collapse before reaching their flowering climax. Sorry about that – I think the sloe gin is beginning to kick in.

If your garden is anything like mine then you’ll hardly have any time to admire all the abundance of May because you’ll be up to your ears in grass cutting and weeding. I also have rather too much in the way of Lonicera nitida  hedging which demands trimming every five minutes at this time of year. The nesting birds seem to have got used to the disturbance and it hardly fazes them. I don’t do it as often as I should due to my inbuilt laziness and a desire to be pootling around in old cars when I should be gardening.

Ah, May! Half spring, half summer.