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May Notes

A bridal bouquet for May with tulips, ranunculus with beech branches in pretty pastels
May Bouquet with ranunculus, tulips and beech foliage

Call me nostalgic but May inspires images of rainbow ribbons around a Maypole, village greens, cream teas and huge horse chestnut, candle-like flowers. The seasons and their natural way markers have been predictable events that steep this country in tradition.  We still have snow on Christmas Cards, excitedly await the first narcissus and tut at April showers, however, these weather lores have become predictable in their elusiveness, and none less so than the last frost dates.

As I write, we have’t had a frost here in and around Cambridge since early March, mid feb and before that, a decent spell of sub zero temperatures in January. It has been a mild winter; which accounts for the early blossom, wisteria display and leafing of trees. My Akebia (chocolate vine) has flowered delightfully and no frost to play party pooper, dropping all the maroon, chocolate scented flowers. Looking back at the last few years, there have been few late May frosts and I am wondering whether the expected frost dates,  watched faithfully by gardeners over decades, now need to be redrawn? Every year, I stand by with fleeces and cautiously harden off half-hardy’s (those not hardy to the cold such as dahlias, zinnias, cosmos and coreopsis).  I plan sowing schedules giving these plants a good six weeks to grow under cover before planting them out, just as that last frost comes and goes. Or doesn’t appear at all.

Do I need to change my approach? Or should we still be tentative, until at least mid May? These are questions I am asking myself as we face climate change and how it affects how we garden.

I am planting more trees for shade and biodiversity (and fruit for me!), growing perennials for cut flowers, reducing the annuals I grow from seed each year. Aiming to be clever with successions, orchestrating a rhythm of flowers across the plots between April and October.

Annuals grown early under cover need watering, feeding, potting on and fleecing at night.

Instead, I am treating annuals (and I include tulips here as a cut flowers) as the greatest luxury, which is the opposite of how we once saw a packet of seeds as an affordable way to garden.

Direct sowing is a far more efficient and effective way to enjoy annuals. Seeds are grown in their flowering position rather than in trays or modules of compost. In May, the soil and air is warm enough for any hardy or half hardy annual to germinate and grow with very little assistance from us.

Simply clear the ground of weeds and large stones, rake to a fine tilth and draw your lines with a hoe or cane. Lines are good because all sorts will germinate at the same time, so you can see which plants to leave and which to hoe off. Water the lines and sow thinly.  Plants will thank you for leaving a good 10 or 15cms between the them, if not often more. Then gently rake or sprinkle some soil over the top and keep the soil damp until you see growth.  Direct sowing is great for rows or blocks of plants and thrown onto damp soil into border gaps for summer colour.

Another low effort growing tip is to treasure self sown seedlings, lift them and replant. Do this on a dull, cloudy cool day and plant immediately. Ideally I’d have watered the plants before I move them. Grown once, panicum, nigella, calendula, antriplex and nicandra will reliably self sow thereafter.

There is no alchemy in this growing lark, beyond that of the magic that the natural world simply is. Plants just want to grow. I can’t help think we have made things more complicated than we needed to, let free those seeds from their packets, throw them around this month and enjoy what comes up.

Originally published in Cambridge Edition May 2024


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