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What we're planting this May

Red dragon mustard deserves a place in every garden. Photo by Rebecca Cuttler.

Vancouver has had what feels like an unusually mild spring so far. We’ve already enjoyed plenty of summer-like days.

As much as these soaring temperatures are pleasant, I also find them a bit discomforting. Each year seems warmer than the last. Flowers are blooming ahead of schedule.

Our rhododendrons used to blossom in May; this year, they burst open in the last week of April. What does this say about our warming climate? As gardeners, we need to adapt to the challenges of weather anomalies and climate change. 2015 was hot. Will 2016 be even hotter?

Of course, there is no certainty that this summer will be a scorcher. But after last year’s watering restrictions, I’m putting measures into place based on the lessons I learned in 2015.

This year, our irrigation lines have gone in at the very beginning of spring, before a mess of half-grown plants make them difficult to install (a big mistake I made last year). I’ll also be installing terracotta irrigation urns and using mulch. We have a hose with a trigger attachment waiting to use if we face Stage 3 watering restrictions again.

For now, we’re still in the sweet spot of spring, where there’s just the right combination of  warmth and moisture to allow just about anything to grow. May is a month when the garden is coming into fullness. It’s the month when harvests are beginning in earnest.

Tips for May gardening
Keep your soil moist. With our current warm weather, newly planted seeds and seedlings need regular watering. Give them a gentle daily sprinkle with a watering can or handheld hose attachment to keep the surface of the soil moist. Inconsistent watering is often the cause of poor germination, especially when it comes to carrots, a popular crop to plant in May.

Don’t plant too much. Hold back a bit. This is advice I have to give myself continuously.

Your beds might still look a bit sparse in early May, but by mid-June they’ll be bursting with more produce than you can keep up with, and you may end up dumping a lot of lettuce in your compost, or, worse, letting it get overgrown and diseased. It’s well worth it to plant just a small section of your garden each week.

Stay on top of thinning. Pull out those extra seedlings as soon as the plants are a couple of inches tall. It’s painful to do, but so necessary.

One of the biggest mistakes made by beginning gardeners is planting seeds too densely and then failing to thin them out. Crowded plants really don’t grow well. If you want big, healthy carrots, you need to thin them while they’re young.

Decide what to do with overwintered plants. The kale and arugula you planted last summer has probably gone to flower by now, and your lettuce, chard and parsley won’t be far behind.

If you have the space, consider leaving these plants alone for a while, as their flowers are a great food source for bees. If space is at a premium, pull them out now to make way for spring plantings.

What we’re planting this May
You can plant just about anything in May, but there are a few classic veggies that deserve a place in any garden. Here are three crops I’m always sure to plant in May.

Lettuce. Lettuce can be challenging in warm weather, but choosing the right variety helps to prevent “bolting” (going to seed). One of my favourites is Olga, a tasty, crisp romaine that holds up in the heat.

Carrots. Carrots are another crop that can be tricky for gardeners. The tiny seeds have difficulty pushing through the surface of crusty or dense soil, making germination a challenge. For the best chances of success, sift your soil before planting using a mesh screen (special tools exist to do this, or you can make your own). Alternatively, sprinkle the surface of your soil with seed-starting medium. Keep the soil evenly moist once planted.

Mustard greens. Mustard greens are some of my favourite things to grow. They look beautiful in the garden and make a spicy addition to salad. Red Dragon mustard is gorgeous, tasty and slower to bolt than some other mustards. I’ll be planting lots of it this May.

Other crops. There’s almost nothing you can’t plant in May. This is a great time to get beet, kale, scallion, spinach and chard seeds into the ground. Sow your cucumber and squash seeds now, and transplant tomato seedlings out into the garden. May is truly a month of abundance.

Rebecca Cuttler is an urban gardening teacher, member of the Vancouver Food Policy Council and gardening contributor. She blogs about urban food gardening at

To ensure germination, keep your carrot seedlings evenly moist. Photo by Rebecca Cuttler.
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