Carolyn Singer: A cool May — planting tender crops on Memorial Day weekend |

Carolyn Singer: A cool May — planting tender crops on Memorial Day weekend

Peonies prefer a cool May.
Photo by Carolyn Singer |

I see by the calendar that it is almost the end of May. Sure doesn’t feel like it.

In my garden, peonies are still blooming, their beauty undiminished by the usual late spring heat spell.

The native bleeding heart is also enjoying the mild spring, gradually fading blooms yet attracting swallowtail butterflies outside my kitchen window.

This year it’s certainly a good spring for peas, both edible and ornamental. They thrive in cooler weather. Hot weather often shortens their productivity, although a deep mulch of decomposing straw extends the harvest.

However, this is probably the latest in 39 years that my tomatoes are not already planted into the fertile soil of my vegetable garden.

I will follow the tradition of planting Memorial Day weekend this year. At least the “Carolyn’s Mix Plus” (with poultry manure) from Rare Earth has had several weeks to mellow. I would not be surprised if its nitrogen content was low after all the rain we have had.

Safe planting dates for tender crops vary considerably in the Sierra foothills. Your elevation plays a dominant role, closely followed by microclimates. My vegetable garden is situated in one of the coldest areas of my property. The latest spring frost in my gardening history here? June 13th. But that doesn’t keep me from being optimistic each year.

Soil fertility is also a factor. When the soil is loose (friable), “in good tilth”, it will warm more quickly when daytime and night temperatures increase. Unamended clay soil remains cold longer. Better you should add compost this weekend and wait a week to plant.

Vegetables needing as much summer warmth as possible for as long as possible should be planted now. Winter squash (including pumpkins) may be seeded directly into the soil where they will spend the summer. We each have our favorites. Mine include ‘Sunshine’ kabocha (said to be the best winter squash for storing) and any one of the many available strains of buttercup.

Cucurbits include a lengthy list of edible and ornamental plants. All are heavy feeders, producing the most fruits grown in rich soil with adequate natural phosphorus. Even amendments such as poultry manure, higher in nitrogen, do not need to mellow. Cucumbers, zucchini and other summer squash, winter squash and gourds all thrive in fertile soil.

This year I am again growing ‘Raven’ zucchini. I prefer its compact growth habit. Starting the seed indoors in April, I have shared plants with a friend who gardens on a rooftop, a couple who garden in raised beds west of Grass Valley, and my own son, who is now raising a few vegetables in planters in his Carmichael front yard (which used to be a lawn!!!).

I am also trying for the first time ‘Delta’ semi-crookneck, another summer squash that is reported to be compact and prolific. This will be my experiment for summer 2016. So many local gardeners are growing edibles in raised beds, the discovery of summer squash that do not overtake the rest of the garden is essential.

With all the planning and focus May requires, I appreciate the quieter moments in the garden. Birds are becoming more active now that their serious nesting is winding down. This week Bullock’s orioles arrived, their stay at the feeder unaffected by my presence a few feet away as I sit in the window seat. The tiny oak titmice are regular visitors, amusing me by throwing seed over their heads as they feed.

Below the feeder, a pair of quail has discovered the abundance of fallen seed. They keep the ground clean. My hope (wishful thinking?) is that the availability of seed will distract them from eating the young chard seedlings and other greens I have just planted in the edible garden.

Carolyn has gardened organically in Nevada County since 1977. She is the author of the award-winning “The Seasoned Gardener, 5 decades of sustainable and practical garden wisdom”, and two volumes of “Deer in My Garden” (deer-resistant plants), available locally. Send your gardening questions and comments to

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