Kitchen Garden Notebook in May
By Ian James, gardener, and co-custodian of Water Lane
It’s May in the kitchen and cutting garden, and Ian shares some of his expert tips and thoughts for making the most of your garden in this glorious month.
Tempting as it is in the mad flush of verdant new life in the garden, hedgerows, forests, and fields, we could well be in for a frost until the middle of the month, depending on your own garden condition. So, beware - protect any new tender plants wherever possible or wait until you’re confident that the risk of frosts has passed. And don’t forget the Chelsea Chop towards the end of the month too, cutting back perennials by a third in height encourages bushier growth and more blooms. Now is also the time to fertilise your pots and beds with the nettle or comfrey tea we made in April.
In the vegetable garden:
Remember to harden off young plants and seedings before planting out by using a cold frame or a sheltered spot. Use horticultural fleece to protect if frost is forecast and continue to sow to ensure a steady succession of crops.
Tomatoes, aubergines, cucumbers and chillis can be planted up in a greenhouse or against a warm and sunny brick wall. Make sure you put supports in place at the beginning rather than waiting until the plant is growing and risk damaging the root ball.
Now is the time to start vigorously checking plants for signs of pests and disease, don’t let greenhouses get too hot and keep them vented to allow airflow around plants. Avoid the use of chemicals to control pests – there are plenty of organic alternatives out there!
Keep on top of weeding with regular but light hoeing, in warm and dry conditions ensuring any weed seedlings dehydrate and die.
Leafy crops are putting on a lot of growth now so feed with an organic liquid seaweed or tomato feed.
In the flower garden
By the middle of the month if you’re sure that the last frosts have passed you can start to think about planting out dahlias. Dahlias are originally from Mexico and like a rich and fertile soil with good drainage in a full sun position. Dig a deep hole and add in organic compost or manure and a general-purpose fertiliser. Many dahlias will need some kind of support too, especially the dinner plate decorative varieties.
Plant out another row of sweet peas to extend the season, tying in new growth and pinching out the side shoots to encourage bushy growth and maximise flower production.
May is a glorious month for harvesting cut flowers, it’s no wonder it’s one of the most popular months to get married in. Tulips, Hesperis, Anemone and Ranunculus are all at their peak, while Peonies, Bearded Iris, Icelandic Poppies, Stocks, Sweet William, Corncockle, Geums, Gypsophila, Fox Gloves, Calendula and the first Sweet Peas are racing in too. Many flowers will benefit from being conditioned before arranging. Do this by removing all lower stem foliage and cutting the stem on an angle with a sharp knife. Put the stems into a few inches of tepid water with cut flower food - the tepid water will be taken up by the flower quicker than cold. After an overnight soak the flowers can be arranged.
Plant up decorative pots. There are no rules! Plant for volume and height, form, colour and texture. Plant a pot full of scented flower that the pollinators will love by the back door or a favourite seating spot, one full of blowsy colour and another full of single variety white cosmos, so beautiful. There are no rules, experiment and just have fun.
By May, it’s all about asparagus. We don’t grow our own at Water Lane as we don’t have space, but our corner of Kent in the Southeast produces some of the best asparagus in the UK (the world?!) and we are lucky enough to have suppliers within a few miles who cut fresh for us each morning of the season and deliver boxes of beautifully firm and incredibly tasty asparagus to us. Jed has lots of ideas for asparagus in the restaurant, but the first serving is always the simplest - gently steamed with lashings of good butter and crunchy salt.
Broad beans, peas and other legumes clambering up 6ft canes in the beds is the one of the first signals of the change in season again, ushering out Spring and calling in Summer. Their arrival is the starting pistol for a flurry of activity over the summer when we spend more time outside than in, and ingredients are picked young and fresh and have the minimal treatment from plot to plate. The wealth of summer abundance is upon us.
All the hedgerows and fields are filled with elder trees blossoming with frothy creamy white flowers. Elderflower cordial is a seasonal favourite but so too is elderflower vinegar. Using a raw apple vinegar or white wine vinegar it’s a super simple infusion which has so many uses. The herbal, green floral notes of elderflower vinegar is delicious to cure firm white seafood for ceviche such as elderflower cured seabass with water cress and poached rhubarb, or to make into a vinaigrette to cut through something rich like fried artichoke, grilled mackerel or even ox tongue. Simply take 5 or 6 large young elderflower heads that you’ve picked on a warm dry day and giving a shake to loosen any dust and little insects and immerse in a litre of your vinegar of choice in a clean and sterilised container, such as a lidded Kilner jar. Store in a cool, dark place for 1-2 weeks (it will take on more flavour the longer you leave it) and then strain through a muslin cloth and decant into a jar. It will keep indefinitely and is delicious to pickle vegetables such as fennel and cucumber, whisked into salad dressings, and even try a dash in your next gin and tonic.
[This piece originally appeared in the May issue of Kent Life]