Our first real garden harvest of the growing season is the abundant and lush beauty that washes over our landscape in May. This feast for the senses nourishes us just as much as the fruit and calorie-dense staple crops that come later on.
What’s most amazing to me is that before I began homesteading, I had no idea what caused this magnificent spring greening to explode like living fireworks. Now, I know it’s the unseen forces, particularly the microscopic ones lurking in our soil.
Soil Life… Activate!
Many people think the sudden shift from winter gray to glorious spring green happens because there’s more daylight. And that has a little bit to do with it. But the main cause of the seemingly sudden spring leafing is the warming soil temperatures.
All the bacteria and fungi in soil, that feed the cultivated plants we like to grow, require warm soil conditions to do their best work. As the soil warms, they begin providing more nutrients to the plant root zones.
Plants take that as a cue to begin photosynthesizing more. They combine those soil nutrients with the carbon they extract from the atmosphere to make leaves and new stems. They also send a sugary syrup of carbon exudates into the soil. That causes that soil life to provide even more nutrients around the root zone in appreciation.
Nitrogen rich spring rains, and flashes of lightening that free up nitrogen in the soil, further spur on new plant growth.
Birds and mammals, flying and scurrying around in the warmer weather, deposit more manure and other matter under plants. Those carbon syrup supercharged soil life quickly break down those wildlife deposits into more food for plants.
Plants, rich in nutrients and covered with foliage, step up their photosynthesis to new levels sending more carbon to the soil, building deeper roots, and putting on more above-ground growth.
It feels like nature is rejoicing because all the life forms in this rich and complex system are having a blast, serving a meaningful purpose, and “making hay while the sun shines” or, more aptly, as the soil warms.
May on the Homestead
Personally, though, this is my month to relax and enjoy the wonderous events unfolding all around me. I spend more time sipping tea in the garden than I do working in it.
Over fall and winter, I amended the soil with compost. I resolved a few drainage issues and did some additional terracing to prevent erosion problems. I planted new perennials to fill gaps in the soil network. I also kept the soil stocked with cover crops until I planted my first round of vegetables to cut down on weeds.
My seeds and such were ordered and delivered months ago, before the spring rush. My planting calendar evolved naturally over the last 8 years. So, now as nature wakes, I only have a few small tasks to attend to this month.
I’ll be starting warm season seeds in the garden and gathering the weeds I’ve let grow for the compost pile or to give to the chickens and ducks. I’ll use the electric mower once or twice on our paths and the rows between our grape vines.
As the already planted lettuce, other cool season greens, peas, and root vegetables like radish, turnips, and beets start to size up, there’ll be some light harvesting to do for meals.
If it doesn’t rain, I’ll have to fill the watering cans and deep water the vegetable beds once or twice a week. I also have a few beds still full of cover crops that need mowing down to make room for mid-month tomatoes and other heat-loving plants.
Mostly though, May is my time to enjoy the show. Fruit blossoms give way to fruit. Herbs size up and invite me to cut and dry them for the sheer pleasure of doing such a simple and beautiful task. The first strawberries attract me with their ripe red color.
Seedlings size up, occupy their beds, and make disturbing weed seedlings a minor chore. Weeds, that I let grow, make flowers. I cut those for bouquets before they set seeds.
The pasture fills in. Goats need less attention from me as they pass the day eating and napping on goat hill.
Chickens chase insects that flit around their run. They sprawl and sun themselves in self-made dust baths. Ducks sleep the days away in shady corners and splash with delight each time I turn on the hose to refresh their pond.
June and July are busier than May in the garden. Warmer temperatures dry the soil faster, so I’ll need to water more. Plus, as soil temperatures warm up, soil life still hankering for the flood of carbon exudates that came in May, will begin putting nutrients around the roots of heat-loving seedlings (like weeds) to trigger them to grow. That means, I’ll have to do more weed mowing and compost making in those months.
Thankfully, I’ll be relaxed and ready for a bit more work after my May break!
If you just started a new garden, you’ll likely have more work in May than I’ve described. The “May break” comes once you’ve got your soil in good shape, lots of perennials planted, and know when to plant what and where.
It took me a few years before I was able to treat May like a long and lovely vacation. But each year that you garden, or keep livestock on your homestead, the early spring workload gets a bit lighter.
Even if May is not a total vacation from homestead chores, it can still feel like one if you allow yourself to be nourished by the delightful feast for your senses taking place all around you!