How to start a vegetable garden, part 2 in a series of 7. This month, we're planting! Plus the tasks and tools for this month and what pests to watch out for.
If you're new here, please catch up with Part 1 in the series.
We’re here! You and I did it like the champs that we are. We suffered through snowstorms, sleet, freezing rain and the Ick.
It is gardening season! Instead of seeing a landscape of desolation outside our windows we can see hope and green, and dirt, and bugs. There’s probably also dog poop out there, but that’s the kind of thing I like to gloss over when describing the joys of May.
If you’ve been following along with this Vegetable Gardening series then you’ve been stuck inside trying to get your gardening fix through grow lights or a sunny window and a few seeds. No more. THIS is the month that you really start gardening so do a few stretches, some callisthenics and let’s do this!
Table of Contents
May is when you’ll be planting most of your vegetables and flowers out in the garden like a real gardener. You probably won’t be picking anything yet (unless you plant some quick growing radishes) but you’ll be laying the foundation for the next 5 or so months.
The more time you put into May the more vegetables you’ll get in July, August & September.
By May, your garden beds should be prepped and ready to go.
- Thoroughly weed
- Shape beds if needed
- Add 2-3" of compost on top of soil or add a granular slow release fertilizer
May gardening tasks
It’s Planting out time!
- Decide what goes where.
If you haven’t already, decide what goes where before you start putting anything in the ground. Plan out and think about how many tomato plants or carrots you really need and then map your garden bed (or pots) out accordingly.
- Buy some plants!
If you haven’t started any plants on your own DON’T WORRY. This month everything you could possibly want will be available to buy. I get some of my seedlings from a local seed store that grows their own seedlings, plus I pick up the odd one from nurseries, garden centres and even the grocery store.
- Staking, stringing and netting.
In May, smart people build or buy some type of structures for their bigger sprawling plants (tomatoes, beans, melons, cucumbers). Not so smart people ignore this step. You can recognize the not so smart people by the inconsolable crying they do some time around mid-July.
Look up different methods for staking tomatoes, cucumbers and pole beans. My preferred method is string training them. You can read about how to do it and why it’s great here. Smaller gardens might just need stakes or cages for tomatoes.
- Vegetables that need support structures.
Pole beans (as opposed to bush beans) – Use netting strung between two posts, the string method, or a bean tee pee.
Cucumbers – Use heavy netting, a wire fence or the string method to keep cucumbers up off the ground and disease free. If you plant them in a Vegtrug, cucumbers can trail over the side instead of staking them.
Melons – Melons take an enormous amount of garden, but if you grow them vertically you can save a lot of space for other things. Make sure your structure of netting in between two posts is very sturdy and strong. Melons get heavy! If you have a real problem with raccoons it might be better to grow melons on the ground. That way when it ripens you can cover the melon with a milk crate or other box with a rock on top to keep raccoons from getting at it. It’s much harder to protect a melon hanging on a trellis from raccoons.
Growing these pickling cucumbers and beans up strings and under row cover protects from pests and disease.
Now that you have everything mapped out, your structures bought or built, you can plant your plants. If you grew them indoors, make sure they’re hardened off. Hardened off means acclimatizing them to their new growing conditions outside where there’s much stronger sun and wind. This is how you harden off plants.
If you’re planting warm weather plants like tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers, remember to wait until your last frost date has passed. And even then, keep an eye on the overnight forecast and if frost is predicted, cover up your plants!
An easy way to cover them for the night is putting an overturned bucket over the seedlings. Fleece row cover is a great option if you have a larger area with more plants. Just make sure you do something to keep the frost off of them or you could wake up to blackened, dead seedlings.
May gardening pests & solutions
A hinged hoop house like the one I made a few years ago is really effective it is for keeping pests like thrips, cabbage moths and birds away from your vegetables. It’s a big project for a big garden. If you have a smaller garden you can get the same protection by hand picking bugs and caterpillars or by draping row cover over the plants.
Every pest imaginable is roaming around in May. Slugs, cabbage moths, chipmunks, mice, voles, rabbits, thrips, cucumber beetles and swede midge are some of the more destructive May pests off the top of my head.
You can lower slug populations with slug bait or beer. Gritty products like diatomaceous earth that supposedly stop slugs because of its sharp edges don’t work. Slugs will crawl over glass to get to vegetables, diatomaceous earth will do nothing to stop them.
Rabbits will not only eat everything in your garden, they’ll set up home there, have babies and then teach their baby bunnies how to eat everything in your garden too. Keep them out with fencing dug a minimum of 12” into the ground and at least 2’ high. It’s your only option.
Raccoons are even worse than rabbits. If you have them, they’ll eat your tomatoes and melons and a fair amount of other things. You need fencing. Loose, wobbly fencing is the best because it’s more difficult for raccoons to climb if it isn’t stable. Like I mentioned earlier, a milk crate with a rock on top placed over melons will protect them from raccoons.
Voles and mice will chew through newly planted seedlings overnight. When plants are seedlings they’re the most vulnerable they’ll ever be. To give them a fighting chance cover each seedling with some type of tall collar like a clear plastic pop bottle with the ends cut off or a pot with the bottom cut out.
Cucumber beetles are a menace. They’ll eat entire seedlings, and if a plant happens to make it out alive, the cucumber beetle will come back and fill the plant with bacterial wilt which it carries inside itself. Plants that are susceptible to this are cucumbers and melons (not watermelon). You can either grow these plants under a tent of row cover to eliminate the risk or plant wilt resistant varieties to minimize it.
Cabbage moths are the white moths you see fluttering around all summer. They lay eggs on your brassica plants which hatch, turn into caterpillars and live the rest of their days on your kale, broccoli or cabbage. They eat and poop all over your food leaving them filled with holes, feces and … caterpillars. Row cover is the only 100% effective option. Spraying your vegetables with BTK (a naturally occurring soil bacteria) once a month will kill any caterpillars on your plants but won’t harm any other animals or insects.
Because you’re actually gardening outside this month you’ll be using a lot more tools. This is my list of essential tools for your upcoming gardening season. You’ll find you may need a few more things but these will get you started.
A TIP about weeding! If you have limited time to weed always pick the weeds with flowers on them first! These are the closest to setting seed and starting the infuriating cycle all over again.
The Dutch Hoe is your number one essential tool. It’s what you’ll use more than anything else. The Dutch Hoe is for weeding and it does a better and faster job than anything else. The dutch hoe (or loop hoe) cuts weeds off from their roots at soil level.
This disturbs the soil the least amount plus it’s easy to use. Just drag it over your soil and it cuts all the weeds off on its path. Annual weeds are killed for good by this, perennial weeds will grow back after being cut off at soil level, but each time they’ll grow back less and less until eventually they roots completely die.
Secateurs (clippers) - I've been using these same Felco pruners for years.
Small trowel for digging small holes
Large shovel with pointed tip for digging big holes.
Good quality Gardening gloves If you're doing some serious gardening you need GOOD QUALITY gloves that will last. Cheaper gloves get holes in them quickly or fall apart at the seams. Better quality gloves will have leather palms and be comfortable to wear.
String (for marking straight lines)
Cages, stakes, insect netting
Compost bin - I do NOT use a compost bin. I find a compost pile is much easier if you have a sizeable garden. Just pile all your compost on top of itself in a compact mound. The bigger the mound and the more you turn it, the more quickly it will compost.
WHAT CAN BE PLANTED IN MAY
This is the month you can get it all outside. All the warmest weather crops can be planted outside now. Some should be left until a bit later in the month if they’re especially heat loving like sweet potatoes.
There’s also still time for you to direct seed a lot of things in your garden. It’s too late to start tomatoes or peppers from seed in my zone 6 climate but it’s the perfect time for planting tomato and pepper seedlings.
And there’s a TON of stuff that you can direct seed into the garden in May.
Lettuce (it's getting late for lettuce planting but if it's still coolish out you're O.K.!)
By the end of May you can plant out heat loving seedlings or starts like:
andddd pretty much everything else you want to plant.
The two exceptions for me are Luffa seedlings and sweet potato slips.
I plant my home grown luffa seedlings on June 1st.
I plant my started sweet potato plants on June 1st as well.
Work hard, pay attention and within a few seasons you'll be worthy of this gardening mug. A truer mug quote there never was.
The truth is, I only *just* feel worthy of this mug so it's a real shame it isn't available in Canada. Gardening is a lifetime of learning.
I can't even begin to tell you how many very large, very respected websites have completely wrong gardening information.
If you want gardening information you can trust, skip the huge sites & read the ones that you know are coming from actual gardeners sharing their experience. You'll get much better advice.
Next month we’ll get into celebrating the growth of your seedlings, how to maintain them for the best production and how to keep on top of the pest patrol.