Vegetable garden bursting into life
Is there any better time of year in the countryside than in May? Probably not. The tree leaves are at their lush best. The hedgerows are sprinkled with sugar frosted hawthorns. The meadows are ripe with grass for silage. The road verges are awash with buttercups and cow parsley.
Is there any better time of year in the garden than in May? Also probably not. I think it's the freshness and abundance of life that gives May its trump card. Borders, be they flower, shrub or mixed are full and bursting with vitality. Lawns have recovered from their winter pounding and after two or three cuts even the worst have begun to look acceptable.
Even the vegetable garden has burst into life. Those poor St Patrick's Day sown potatoes did survive and are repaying us with shamrock green leafy stalks that promise much more to come. I started harvesting salad leaves this week. Lettuce, rocket, coriander and beetroot.
I tend to pick leaves off many plants and let them grow on again at this early stage because the plants are still quite small. This is also particularly useful to help stop rocket and coriander from running to seed which they are all to eager to do. Even doing this you will still need follow on sowings of these plants if they are to be used all summer.
When sowing a row of salad crops I break the length of the row, about eight feet, into three. I then split the sowing between say lettuce, rocket and coriander or what ever are your personal favourites. This should give you a mixed of salad leaves ready at the same time but without a glut.
This method can also be used to grow a catch crop. This is simultaneously growing a fast maturing crop in between slower growing vegetables. So say you are planting some cabbage sown in rows two feet apart. If inbetween these two rows you sow some lettuce by the time your cabbages have got to a harvestable size the lettuce has been grown, picked and eaten. Radishes are also great for this.
I have peas in the open ground now as well. I have mentioned before that I like to grow both peas and beans in plug plant containers then plant them out at about six inches high. This makes managing the seedlings much easier when protecting against slugs and mice.
Mice will find and eat open sown peas and beans. A trick I learnt from an old head gardener where I first worked was to bury clippings from a berberis or other such thorny shrubs on top of the sown seeds. A thorn on the nose or paw certainly makes a mouse think twice if the reward is worth it.
I stake my peas with pea sticks. These are small twiggy branches taken from trees, preferably in the winter when they have no leaves. These are then pushed into the ground about two inches from the base of the pea plant, the plant will then scramble up these. Birch and hazel are best but as long as they are not brittle and will provide support for a fully grown pea plant then any tree will do. A warning though, if you use willow or poplar you may have a hardwood cutting on your hands and find that they break into leaf.
Check the height of the pea variety you wish to grow as this will determine the height needed for your pea sticks. Pea netting or chicken wire will also do this job but hopefully the pea sticks are for free. If your household is like mine peas never make the pot as they are one of the most delicious vegetables eaten raw.
I've also been on my hands and knees amongst the veg this week hand weeding. Now this might sound a bit perverse but I actually quite enjoy hand weeding. On a warm dry day I find it rather therapeutic. A friend of mine once said he found this with hoovering, and ironing does it for my mother. So each to their own.
Hand weeding is like doing a jigsaw but in reverse, deep in concentration taking away component parts rather than adding them to achieve your goal. I get quite absorbed in it particularly, nose to the ground, getting the tiniest seedlings out. And the reward is pristine rows of of vegetable plants.
Apart from looking unsightly and from seeding everywhere another ,often an overlooked, aspect of allowing weeds to establish in the garden is that they are taking away nutrients and moisture from crops and plants you actually want to grow. This can be quite detrimental particularly when growing from seed as the weeds tends to be hungrier and more aggressive than your cultivated seedlings. So down on your knees ,nose to the ground ,get personal with your soil and prepare to get your hands dirty.