Going nuts in May

Apple Blossom
Apple Blossom

May can be a bit of a growler, and this year it has been a perfect storm of grumpiness. So far it has been the coldest, windiest and wettest May for a number of years. The weather is so unpredictable that one day it is shirtsleeves, factor 30 and a sun hat and the next it is back to jumpers, fleeces, waterproofs and a woolly hat! Unfortunately sitting by the fire with a cup of tea and a good book is not an option when the weather is foul. The latest round of Common Agricultural Policy reform has spawned another bureaucratic nightmare of form-filling complete with an all singing, all dancing, user-friendly, non-functioning on-line system which has turned even the most mild-mannered crofter, small-holder and small farmer into a snarling beast. This is one of the busiest times of the year in the islands, lambing is in still progress and the ploughing has to be done before the end of the month and we have to waste our time filling in forms which we don’t understand for subsidies which most of us don’t get.

Normally I’d utter some rude words about numpty bureaucrats and politicians in Brussels, Westminster and Edinburgh and go and work in the vegetable garden, but it’s blowing a hooley with squalls of rain and hail, so I’m going to escape to the polytunnel. Want to come? I promise not to growl too much.

Vegetables in polytunnel
Vegetables in the polytunnel 13 May 2015

We grow a fairly standard mix of vegetables in the polytunnel each year. The year begins with spinach, carrots, beetroot and rocket, progressing to lettuce and salad leaves, fennel, radishes, spring onions and early salad potatoes. By-mid May we are ready to plant the tomatoes, cucumbers, French beans and courgettes. The peppers and strawberries are in pots on the bench jostling with various cuttings, seedlings, tender herbs such as lemon verbena, French tarragon and lemon grass, and pots of scented-leaved geraniums and salvias. We’ve not reached crisis point yet, but unless the weather improves we may have to impose triage and put some of the more robust plants into the tunnel out-riggers for hardening-off. Normally I have sown some of the annuals such as Cosmos and annual scabious, but unless I get a move-on it may be a waste of time. However, there is still time as our long daylight hours partially compensate for our cooler temperatures and the plants can catch-up very quickly.

Little gem
Little Gem Dazzle

I have my favourite list of varieties for most of the vegetables, but I can’t resist trying something new. Little gem lettuce always performs well, but this year I’ve tried a red-leaved variety (Dazzle) which is producing beautiful plants.

Each year is different and I am having problems with getting some seeds to germinate. I’m not sure if it is because I’m trying a new supplier or if it is the weather conditions. It is proving very difficult to keep the temperature reasonably constant even with a propagator. When the sun is out the temperature in the tunnel can soar to more than 30°C, even with ventilation, on other days it barely makes 15°C, and at night it can fall to around 5°C. So I’m rushing around trying to keep seed trays and seedlings cool and moist or trying to keep them warm.

Outside the vegetable beds look desolate. The onions, shallots and potatoes are cautiously pushing shoots above ground, the first beetroot seeding have just appeared but may not survive to produce plants and as yet the parsnips and carrots have not germinated. I suspect the soil is too cold and I may have to try again. In a good year I would now be planting the first broad beans and early peas so I’m having to resort to the alternative option of putting them in the fruit cage. The celeriac has germinated, but the plants are growing so slowly that I doubt I will get a crop this year. This is one of my winter staples, but they need a long growing season, so I am not optimistic.

Fortunately there is less doom and gloom in the fruit cages.

The red currants were pruned to single cordons in the winter and given a mulch of rotted manure and seaweed a few weeks ago. So we have splendidly healthy plants and an abundance of flowers. It has been too chilly for the bumblebees on most days, but the flies do a good job of pollinating the flowers. I know all about counting chickens, but I’m hoping for another good crop this year. Last year we replaced all our black currants with new plants (grown from hardwood cuttings). This year they have produced some flowers, so a modest crop is anticipated.

We were concerned about the two damson trees but they have survived the winter. They were pruned in the early spring and the fan shape is now emerging. Will they flower next year? Possibly, but whether they will ever produce fruit is another matter.
We also have an asparagus bed in this fruit cage and I have been eagerly awaiting the first spears. Most of the crowns have produced nice thick shoots, but I have to control my greed and wait until next year. If it is as good as it looks, then I will be planting a second bed. Asparagus, with quince and figs, is one of the things that I miss most from my last garden.

We have also been looking at the apple trees on a regular basis. They were pruned to produce the first tier while they were still dormant, so we have been waiting to see if they would shoot. They are just coming into leaf now and one tree actually produced some blossom. Did I skip up the path with a silly grin or leap into the air and shout “YES”? Well almost, a few flower buds are a long way from an apple but like the swallows sitting on the fence looking a bit glum, a sign of hope! Fortunately there is always the rhubarb to sustain us and poached rhubarb with ginger has been back on the breakfast menu since Easter.

The sky has turned an interesting colour of indigo and the wind is picking up as another squall approaches. Time to go home for tea. Fancy a cuppa? I think there may be some ginger cake in the tin.

21 thoughts on “Going nuts in May

  1. Thanks for the insight into gardening in the islands! My veg patch is looking pretty bleak too but I bit the bullet and started planting out and so far weather has been kind and just rained 😀 Certainly is a cool May but hopefully will get better and everything will catch up! Happy gardening and hope you get your application in too!

    • I don’t think I’m the only one having problems this spring and although the forecast is for sunshine and showers this week at least there are no really strong winds forecast. So I’ll have to get on with planting and hope for the best. I finished my forms, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I end up on the naughty step for using the wrong code or getting my area calculations about by a nanometer or two!

      • Ah well , at least I don’t need to fill forms, when I listen to Farming today it seems a nightmare!
        Potting on today, still sowing, hope it gets warmer soon!m🌞🌱🐝

  2. I’ve been having similar problems with the weather here on the south coast hit then cold is a tricky combination. Im fascinated by your polytunnel – maybe one day I’ll figure how and where to have one that way I really could extend my seasons

    • It seems that there are plenty of vegetable gardeners with long faces and puzzled expressions at the moment. I couldn’t manage without my polytunnel and if you can squeeze even a small one in somewhere I’m sure you will not regret it.

  3. Hello C,
    Hugely impressive photos of your productive polytunnel. Puts my outside efforts to shame, doesn’t it? How exciting to get the apple blossom as well.
    But I think we’re all hoping that the weather will warm up soon or the seasons will slip away. Sympathies with form filling. I’m sure none of the fellows who draft all the bumph have any idea what actually living on any sized bit of land actually entails,
    Best wishes

    • Thanks Julian, you are too modest; I often turn a nasty shade of green when I look at some of the photographs of your garden. I’m quite convinced that none of these civil servants who have anything to do with the agricultural or the environment ever get their wellies muddy never mind their soft white hands!

  4. A cup of tea and a slice of ginger cake sounds most welcome! The contents of your polytunnel look really good, hopefully outside will catch up too when the weather gets better.

    • There is nothing as good as a cup of tea and a piece of cake to revive the spirits. Things in the polytunnel are not too bad at all and when/if it warms up the vegetable garden will spring to life again – it always does.

  5. Margaret Temple

    Just booked our flights up to visit the Hebrides in September. Looking forward to calling in to say hello. Really enjoy reading your blog every week. We have it quite easy down in the south, Hertfordshire, weather wise that is, none of the extremes you seem to have where you are. It must be very challenging. Mx

    • How exciting, let me know when you’re coming and we can arrange a garden tour. Gardening here is challenging and exasperating too. Although I have the occasional rant and moan, I really wouldn’t change it. After all gardening anywhere always has its ups and downs.

  6. It sounds exhausting, but it must be so rewarding when autumn arrives and you have a lovely harvest filling your pantry and freezer. I do hope your weather calms down soon so you can get some annuals sown… vegetables are great, but a few flowers are wonderful too!

    • The situation in the cottage garden is bleak too. However the garden will recover eventually.

      • Despite the weather we can’t resist the challenge and succeed to a greater or lesser extent despite the weather. However I wouldn’t live anywhere else

  7. I always have problems with the weather, my garden can hardly resist these strong winds… :/

  8. Its been an erratic season here too, still too cold to plant out my veg seedlings, the greenhouse is bursting at the seems and flowers are so behind.

    • The weather seems to be causing us all problems. I think my parsnips seeds are germinating and I’m contemplating covering them with fleece!

  9. WOL

    Here in the Texas Panhandle (That square bit on the top) we have had one of the wettest coolest springs in a long time. We’re supposed to be in drought conditions, and yet two weeks ago, we got over a quarter (11+ cm) of our yearly average rainfall (41 cm) in one day! We can have a problem with flooding here, as when it does rain, typically a lot comes down in a short period of time and the storm drains can be overwhelmed and unable to cope with the amount of runoff.
    It’s rainy and cool again today with our high around 12C and thundershowers predicted for the next four days. Usually, we’ve already had temperatures above 32C, but so far this spring, we’ve only had two days where the temperature was as high as that. (Just to give you a frame of reference, my town is at the same latitude as Casablanca, Morocco, and it does get a bit warm here in the summer.) I don’t mind the rain (nor do the farmers). It’s the hail. I got a new car last year, but I don’t have covered parking where I live. We have been known to have hail here big enough to shatter a windscreen and pound dents all over the car body. So far, I’ve been lucky (touch wood).

    • Hello; thank you for your interesting comment. I’d not realised that the cold wet spring was so widespread. At 57N (same as Alaska peninsula) we expect cool springs, but they are not normally wet and windy! Our climate is remarkably temperate, really falls below freezing or much above 22C, but it can be very windy and wet – but not as wet as people think in the summer. I thrive on it, but I’m not too keen when the winter gales become hurricane force!

  10. We had a wonderful warm April but May here has been cold like yours. All of the vegetables are still in the greenhouses apart from potatoes and broad beans. In a normal year quite a lot would have gone out over the last fortnight. We sow pretty much everything inside, even hardy stuff. Things take so long to get going here that they do better with a head start under cover. Your polytunnel looks rather wonderful.

    • Hello Elizabeth, unfortunately the weather isn’t getting any better and I’m beginning to think that everything is going to stay in the polytunnel for the entire summer. In desperation I put some peas and beans in the fruit cage and although they have some wind protection, they look rather cold and miserable.

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