May is traditionally a month where we sow and eat salads, and start off the summer vegetables. It’s an exciting time in the kitchen garden after the drabness of winter. However, if you want to produce your own food all year round, it’s important to do some preparation now if you want to eat fresh food during the winter and beat the ‘hungry gap’* next spring.
Yes, it’s hard to visualise frost and snow once the sun starts peeking through the clouds, and yes, most of us would rather forget the long, cold winter we’ve just experienced, but a successful kitchen garden always has an element of planning involved. It might even seem like a nuisance this month, but I promise you’ll be glad of it later.
Why sow in May? Many of the plants that provide food in late winter and early spring take a long time to get going, or they need to reach a certain size by the autumn to be sure of surviving the freezing weather conditions that follow.
What to sow in May for winter food
- Kale, borecale, Cavolo Nero
- Sprouting broccoli (standard types)
- Chicory (witloof varieties, for forcing)
- Salsify and scorzonera
- Brussels sprouts
- Parsnips (taste better after frost)
- Winter cabbage
- Winter cauliflower
- Winter squash and pumpkins
Choosing what to sow in a small kitchen garden can be difficult. These plants tend to take up a lot of space, and they’re in the ground for a long time – so you could decide to grow mostly quicker crops instead for summer and autumn productivity (and do a lot of freezing). However, it’s really good to have something fresh growing in the winter and spring so try to strike a balance. You could have a few brassicas growing in modules and pots, for example, waiting for a spot to become vacant at the end of summer.
Kale is a cold weather stalwart, with a rich flavour. There’s even a variety called Hungry Gap. Like many brassicas it regenerates after a moderate amount of cutting, so you can pick a few leaves here and there off each plant during summer and autumn and they will regrow. You can also cut some of the heads off in December above the level of the lower leaves, and the heads will resprout.
The standard purple sprouting broccoli and white sprouting broccoli types crop in the late winter and early spring, although there are new varieties that crop at other times of the year. Growing more than one type can extend the season, if you have room for them.
Salsify is mainly grown for its roots, but if it’s overwintered it also produces edible shoots and flower buds above ground. Scorzonera grows in a similar way.
Ideally Brussels sprouts should be sown in March or April to be cropped in winter, but you’ll probably be able to get away with starting a few last chance seedlings off in early May. If they’re sown a bit later they tend crop a bit later too, so they will probably not be ready for traditional Christmas eating – although you might well be glad of them during the spring next year.
It’s also the last chance to get many types of winter squash and pumpkin going. Okay, they are not exactly eaten fresh in the winter and spring, but they are easy to store and their flavour improves after picking – and they make a refreshing change from greens. They need quite a long growing season so if you’re sowing now, check the varieties carefully to make sure they’re fast growing ones that will mature in time, and that they’re suitable for storing.
What to plant in May for winter food
This month is also a time to plant out many seedlings and tubers that will provide food in the colder months. These include:
- Maincrop potatoes (to eat from store)
- Brussels sprouts
- Winter squash and pumpkins
Seakale is a perennial vegetable, so it needs a permanent spot in the garden or on an allotment. It can be sown as seeds in early spring, or the cuttings/thongs can be planted out in late May or June. It can be forced like rhubarb to provide blanched shoots and edible flower buds in March, April and May.
If you want to grow anything on the ‘What to plant in May’ list above but you haven’t raised any seedlings yourself, you may be able to get some by swapping with neighbours or fellow allotmenteers, or at a plant swapping event. You can also buy plug plants from commercial growers, but this can be expensive. For cheap maincrop potato tubers, scour your local pound shops as they usually still have some in stock.
There are also plenty of things to sow and plant in the autumn to ensure a supply of food throughout the winter and early spring, but I’ll write about them later in the year.
*If you aren’t familiar with the hungry gap, it’s about a two-month stretch in the spring where most crops are either finished or haven’t got started properly yet. It was traditionally a time when people lived off stored and preserved foods, and foraged for the few fresh shoots they could find.
Are you sowing or planting anything now for the winter months? What are your plans?