GYO – Gardening in May

Circular Cambridge is a season of events that celebrates progressive ways to design, manufacture, access, repair and reuse the things that we want and need in our lives. 

Keith Jordan

It was great to wake up to a bright sunny morning on the lay day of April, after yet another day of continuous rain.   For us gardeners, with wet soil and overflowing water butts, the current drought is certainly over!  However it will take much more rain to replenish many streams, rivers and aquifers depleted by 2-3 years of insufficient winter rain.   The current ‘block’ of weather, featuring wet, westerly winds is influenced by the position of the Jet Stream – a narrow band of strong winds in the upper atmosphere.  Ours lives, and that of all living organisms , down here on the ground are so affected by what takes place high up in the atmosphere.


Honey bees, butterflies and other insects, especially those that are essential for pollination of many crops, are severely affected by long periods of cool, wet weather. I was therefore heartened to see a honey bee out and about visiting my main apple tree.  I still have a few fruits of this variety in store having picked them in October – it shows the value of planting varieties that have long storage times. The blossom on my rain-battered allotment apple trees looked more affected – damage to the delicate stigmas and stamens could affect crop yields latter in the year. Make sure you plant good nectar-producing flowers as well as crops in your growing area.

Be careful not to walk on wet, sodden soil to avoid compaction – use planks of wood to spread out your weight when sowing seeds in the (now) moist soil.  Compaction removes the air spaces, vital for root growth.  Many seeds can be sown now and fast growing salad crops, radish, chard, spinach, turnips, kohl rabi and Swedes will benefit from the moist soil.  This is in complete contrast to last month when I wrote, ‘on my allotment I am starting to wonder if it is worth sowing some crops as the soil surface in some places is so dry after another spring drought’.

Gardeners need to quickly adapt to the prevailing weather conditions and not rely on longer term weather predictions.  The old rhyme/weather prediction

Oak before ash, we’re in for a splash

Ash before oak, we’re in for a soak

is no more of a guide than modern- science-based meteorology that has to deal with many changing variables.  (The relative timings of leaf opening are influenced by temperature with oak being more responsive than ash – it says more about the weather we have had the previous 2-3 months!).

Growing a range of crops means that some will always do well – leafy crops in wet periods and those that come from warmer countries (tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, squashes, etc) are more productive in sunnier, warmer seasons.  However, most crops need sun and moisture, hence the need to use lots of organic matter to enrich soils (this helps retain moisture) and mulch soil surfaces after rain.  It’s surprising how soon soil can dry out after a rainy spell.

May is the month to ‘harden-off’ tender (sub-tropical/ half-hardy) plants that have been sown indoors in pots and trays….courgettes, squashes, tomatoes, sweetcorn, runner and French beans.  The plant cells have to gradually adapt from the ‘molly-coddled’ warmer conditions of your window ledge or greenhouse to harsh UK conditions.  Over the next 3 – 4 weeks gradually increase ventilation or put plants outside when conditions are mild (eventually overnight).  Increase this as the month progresses but be aware of sudden cold nights that can kill even hardened-off crops that originate from sub-tropical Asia, Africa and South America!

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