The Vegetable Garden In May: Sowing, Thinning and Early Pests

May is the vegetable grower’s busiest month for most parts of the country.

The seeds of the early hardy crops that were sown a month or so ago will have germinated and made sufficient growth to be thinned out—an operation which cannot be postponed without disastrous results.

Growing Vegetable GardenPin

And as the ground warms up and the danger of late frosts recedes, planting of the tender vegetables—those which will not withstand even a slight freeze can be started.

Then, too, a few insect pests may be encountered early in the season, and these must be watched for and given battle as soon as they appear.

And such time as the gardener may have after attending to these duties will be required for cultivating and otherwise tending his growing plants.

Yes, May is indeed a busy time for the vegetable grower. It is still enjoyable, too, for it is the pleasantest season of the year for garden work, and some of the products of his earlier efforts will be ready for harvesting.

Garden Operation Of Thinning 

The one garden operation that the beginner is most likely to neglect, or to do inadequately, is thinning out such crops that are sown and grown in rows. 

Because seed germination is at best an uncertain matter, it is necessary to sow seeds of such vegetables like lettuce, spinach, beets, carrots, onions, and the like, much more thickly than the plants can be grown.

With lettuce, for instance, several seeds are sown to the inch, whereas the plants, to develop appropriately, require from 6″ to 12″ inches to develop full-size heads.

The sooner thinning can begin after the plants are safely up and established—that is, when the second or third true sets of leaves have started to develop, the better.

If thinning is delayed beyond this point, the job becomes much more difficult and time-consuming.

Also, the plants’ roots that are to be left must be disturbed to a greater degree.

In the home vegetable patch, thinning is usually done in two bites.

Plants are thinned out first to about half the required distance. By the time the second thinning is required, such vegetables as may be used in an immature state will be large enough to be taken to the kitchen.

You do not know how delicious these vegetables can be unless you have eaten baby beets (cooked with the tender tops on), fingerling carrots, and half-grown spinach.

Some others, parsnips, and salsify, for instance, do not yield this bonus, so these are thinned out to the total distance at one time.

Peas, on the other hand, seldom require thinning.

As the thinning is done, any weeds which may have started in the row are removed.

Take care to get them out by the roots. Otherwise, they will sprout again and be four times as difficult to remove.

After thinning and weeding, cultivate the soil between the rows using a light hand hoe, a scuffle hoe, or a hand cultivator.

This will loosen the packed soil and leave the surface loose and in condition to absorb and hold rain.

While the soil is still cold (early in the season), nitrogen may not be available to the hungry plant roots even if present in a sufficient supply.

Therefore, it is advisable to sprinkle nitrate of soda or aluminum sulphate along the rows, using about 2 pounds per 100 square feet.

Apply just before it rains, if possible. Otherwise, be very careful not to get any on the foliage.

This extra nitrogen is an excellent booster for leaf vegetables such as spinach and lettuce. It’s also helpful in giving root crops a strong start.

If peas are being grown, get a brush or other support in place before they begin to fall over.

Two Types Of Tender Crops

The tender vegetables are of two types:

  • Those grown from seed
  • Those of which plants are set out

The former includes corn, beans, and various vine crops, while the latter includes tomato, eggplant, and peppers.

Corn can be planted when temperatures no longer fall below freezing, while bush beans are about a week later.

Lima beans and the vine crops (squash, cucumbers, and melons) are heat-lovers, and nothing is gained by planting them before the soil has warmed up.

The use of paper or plastic tents (sold as Hotkaps, Plant Domes, etc.) enables the gardener to plant a week or two earlier.

This gives them a running start in northern sections and protection from insect pests during their early growth.

An extra row or two of early corn or beans can be produced by planting in a furrow 3” to 4” inches deep and covering the seed only 1” to 2” inches.

If a frost threatens after seeds have sprouted, loose soil hoed over them will afford temporary protection.

Succession Plantings

Succession plantings of such early vegetables as lettuce, radishes, and peas may be made in regions where temperatures remain relatively cool.

New Zealand spinach, a hot weather plant, may be pinch-hit for spinach where midsummer weather is scorching, and second plantings of beets and carrots should go in toward the end of the month.

Setting Out Tender Plants

Getting a good start with the tender vegetables set out as growing plants (tomato, eggplant, and pepper) depends on their treatment for the week or two after they are out.

At this season of the year, sudden spells of heat and high winds are likely to be encountered. Therefore, try to do your planting just before or during a showery day.

If planting must be done during unfavorable weather, do the job late in the afternoon.

Water bottoms of planting holes thoroughly before setting out plants, and protect tops from the hot sun with newspaper tents, open at both ends to permit free circulation of air.

Plants that wilt badly after planting will eventually recover, but the severe check may delay first pickings for a week or more.

Providing Support

To economize on space and get better fruits, tomatoes in the home garden are usually provided some support.

Have the supports in place before setting out the plants, whether this is a trellis, wires, or individual stakes.

The job can be done in much less time and without the danger of injuring the plants.

It is wise to provide strong support as the weight of the vines is considerable.

Early Pests And Diseases

While the majority of plant pests and diseases are not likely to appear before warm weather, there are a few early-season ones that the vegetable gardener should be on the watch for.

Among these are the following:


Aphids or plant lice of several species are soft-bodied sucking insects that usually appear first at the growing tips of stems and on the undersides of leaves.

The spring varieties are usually green or black.

Watch peas, cabbage, and broad beans for any curling or twisted leaves. To control, spray or dust with pyrethrum.

Soft-Bodied Fat Worm

Suppose you find a newly set cabbage or tomato plant or a juicy seedling neatly cut off above ground level.

In that case, the culprit is likely to be a dull, dirt-colored, soft-bodied fat worm, up to 2” inches long, that carries on this nefarious sabotaging activity during the night.

An early morning search in the surface soil around the stem will usually reveal him. 

However, there are likely to be others, so applying poison cutworm bait at once is well. 

This can be bought or concocted at home by mixing 1 tablespoon of neem oil and molasses with one cupful of bran.

Tar paper collars set at least 1” inch deep in the soil around newly set out plants are also effective.

Flea Beetles

Flea beetles are small, dark insects that appear early in the season and hop gaily about on tomato, eggplant, cabbage, and other vegetables, puncturing tiny holes in the leaves.

To control flea beetles, dust them with rotenone.

Root Maggots

Root maggots are most troublesome to the cabbage group and onions.

Plants that wilt suddenly and come up at the slightest pull indicate their presence. 

They are small, dirty white maggots that destroy the feeding roots or eat their way into fleshy underground stems or bulbs.

Cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower plants may be protected by fitting 3-inch disks or squares of tar paper around the stems at ground level at the time of planting.

Another control is to make a slight depression about the plant or along the row and drench the soil with a neem oil solution (one teaspoonful to one gallon of water) using one cupful to two plants or 3′ feet of row.