What to do in your garden in May?
Since we have had a few heavy rains, we have to wait for the soil to dry out some before we try to plant into it. Working soil that is wet will compact the structure of the soil (which harms things like root growth and water retention/ drainage). If you can hold a handful of soil, compress it in your hand and it holds together, and then crumbles apart when you tap the ball, your moisture level is just right.
While we are waiting for the soil to warm and dry, you should be finalizing your garden plans for the year. What are you going to plant (what do you want to eat?)? Where will you plant it? Can you plant something else before or after in the same location? In my garden, these tend to be very complex plans that include succession planting, companion planting, and all of my indoor starts being successful. The reality never matches the plan, but that is MY process. You get to figure out what works for you.
These early weeks in May are a good time to take advantage of the odd nice day and repair or install the infrastructure your garden will need. Trellises, fences, watering systems, raised beds, and container placement are all good things to work out now, before we get busy planting.
Weeding your garden area as needed is good to do now, especially if you can do it without walking or kneeling on the too wet soil. Whether you are planting seeds directly or transplanting seedlings, you want your garden plants to out-compete the weeds. One way to give your desirable plants a head start is by weeding right before planting.
After weeding, consider topping your garden with compost. Even if you don’t do a soil test (we recommend you do a soil test), adding quality compost is always a good idea. If you are growing in a raised bed, use compost to bring the soil levels back up to the height they were at last year (soil levels will naturally drop every year). Compost will also act like a mulch for a little while so it will help suppress weeds.
There are plants that can be in your garden now. Kale, lettuce, peas, onions, broccoli are just a few of the options for a cool spring garden. Many of these plants will not do well during the heat of the summer, so try to get them in ASAP so they will be productive before it is too hot.
If you started plants inside (or are getting home started plants from a very good friend), you will need to harden them off. This basically means the plants need to be gradually introduced to the outdoor climate (wind, sun, temperatures). We do this by putting the plants out for increasingly long periods of time. Remember it is not just the cold that we are helping them to tolerate, but also the harsh sun and drying winds. Plants with sunburn will have white, limp leaves (if you would like to see some, come on over to my house). Don’t put your baby plants in the bright sunshine on their first day out. Work your way up through shade, dappled shade, and then short periods of full sun. If you buy plants from a garden center, those are typically already hardened off.
Also, let’s not forget, take time to enjoy the beautiful flowers that are blooming now. They are feeding our pollinators before our veggies are ready to take over the role of grocery store to the bugs. In your garden, plan some space for pollinator friendly plants. Try to think native if you can. Not only will the flowers add to the interest and beauty of your space, but the beneficial bugs are your teammates in the garden.
Thoughts on Starting a Garden
A garden should start with a plan. Even if it is a rough idea, not at all specific, just broad strokes, you should have a plan before you start buying and growing plants. For a food growing garden, that plan ideally will start with your kitchen. What plants does your family eat? Then you look at the growing zone (we are in 5b for now, but, you know, climate change…) to learn if those plants will grow here. For example, if your family eats 10 pounds of mangoes every week, you really just need to resign yourself to buying those from the store. On the other hand, if you eat cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, greens, basil, eggplant, okra, onions, strawberries, raspberries… and the list goes on and on.
The best piece of advice I have ever received as a gardener was to “start small.” In the world there are sprinters and there are marathon runners, and I am more of a sprinter in my attention span (not at all in running; in running, I am neither). While I love planning and prepping and planting in May and June, in the heat of August when I am lugging water, pruning huge tomato trees, and losing the battle to the squirrels my interest wanes. So, for a new gardener, I recommend keeping your garden space small until you know what kind of gardener you are and how much you can manage for a whole season.
Plant an extra row
Edible Evanston facilitates a Produce Sharing program to help gardeners connect our excess produce with local food pantries. We have all seen the headlines about the pressure being put on food pantries due to the economic downturn. We need to support these valuable members of our community now more than ever. So, if you have room, plant a row of chard, beans or beets or whatever you enjoy growing, and harvest it for those in need. Find a cooler near you on our website, drop off your extras in the cooler during the time mentioned, and know we’ll get it to a food pantry for you! (Different sites have different pickup days to serve several of Evanston’s food pantries and to give gardeners flexibility. Not all sites are open to the public, but this is indicated on EdibleEvanston.org)
Don’t forget to include fresh herbs in your pantry donations. These are highly desirable and difficult for the pantries to source, so plant an extra basil, cilantro, thyme plant and commit to addressing food security in our community.
Save seeds. Donate extras.
You probably already know that Edible Evanston has hosted an annual Seed Swap in the late winter/ early spring for the last few years. The majority of the seeds we make available are from seed companies who send us their seeds from the previous year at a very discounted rate or for free. Seed companies have been struggling this year to keep up with orders for all the EXCELLENT people growing bigger, better, new gardens. While we see more gardeners in the world as a wonderful thing, we are looking ahead to 2021. We want to be able to host our annual seed swap next February or March, but we think our seed company partners might not have the packets to donate to us like they have had in the past.
We are planning now for the seed swap to be more of a “swap” than it has in years past. Please plan to share your seeds from this year’s garden with us. A pack of tomato seeds can have 50 seeds, but very few gardeners in Evanston have space for 50 tomato plants (as much as we might wish we did).
We are asking that after you plant your garden, please donate your unused seeds in their original packet to Edible Evanston. We will ensure the seeds are carefully stored to protect the viability, so you don’t need to worry about that. Find sites where you can drop off your seeds on EdibleEvanston.org.
We will also be offering classes this year (likely virtually) on saving seeds from different plants. It’s fun and easy to harvest lots of viable seed from peas, beans, lettuce, tomatoes and many other plants, but there are things you need to know first. Watch Edible Evanston’s calendar and your email to be sure not to miss these classes.