Planting a Summer Garden in May

Learn the basics of when and how to plant a bountiful summer garden.
By Anna Hess
May 9, 2013
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“The Weekend Homesteader,” by Anna Hess, offers exciting and inventive homesteading projects for every month of the year.
Cover Courtesy Skyhorse Publishing
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The Weekend Homesteader (Skyhorse Publishing, 2013), by Anna Hess, guides readers to self-sufficiency, month by month. Whether it's January or June you'll find exciting, short projects that help you dip your toes into the vast ocean of homesteading without getting overwhelmed. If you need to fit homesteading into a few hours each weekend and would like to have fun doing it, these projects will be right up your alley, no matter if you live on a 40-acre farm, own a postage-stamp lawn in suburbia, or call a high-rise home. The following excerpt comes from chapter two, “May: (November Down Under),” and offers tips on planting a successful summer garden.

Buy this book in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Weekend Homesteader.

In April, you should have prepared the soil for your summer garden and decided what to plant, so now you just need to put those seeds and sets in the ground.

When to Plant

I can’t tell you to plant on a certain day, because people living in different parts of the world have different climates and should plant at different times. The most important factor to consider for most of you will be your frost-free date — the calendar day after which you’re unlikely to see any further weather below freezing until the fall.

In the United States, state extension agents are a good source for accurate local information. These government offices often provide free classes, grants, and information about farming and home economics.

At the least, they should be able to tell you your frost-free date, and those of you in the southernmost states (Texas or Florida, for example) will want to pick the extension agent's brain further since you won’t be following the same spring/summer/fall planting schedule presented in the book.

You should plant the okra, zucchini, summer squash, green beans, tomatoes, and basil right after your frost-free date. Swiss chard can be started more than a month earlier, but there’s no problem with direct-seeding it now, and mint can be planted at just about any time.

How to Plant

After all this preparation, planting itself is absurdly simple:

Gently rake the mulch off the area you want to plant. If you created a kill mulch, this step consists of raking off the top mulch layer to expose the weed-free compost. You may find it simplest to clear mulch off the entire bed and wait to replace it until your seedlings are up, or you might just push the mulch away from the rows you’re currently planting. Either way, be sure that mulch can’t blow on top of young seedlings and kill them.

Make a furrow in the soil of the proper depth. Your seed packet will tell you how deep to plant your seeds, but a good rule of thumb is to put the seeds about the same depth into the soil as the diameter of the seed. Tiny seeds like those of lettuce can be scattered directly onto the soil surface, but bigger seeds like those of okra will do better a short distance underground. For very shallow furrows, lay down your hoe and gently press the handle into the soft ground to make an indentation. For slightly deeper furrows, pull the corner of your hoe’s blade through the dirt to make a shallow trench.

Place your seeds in the ground. Again, follow the directions on the seed packet for spacing information (although you might decide to experiment with placing the plants a bit closer together in your fertile raised beds). Tomatoes and squash are so big that they take up the whole width of the bed, but you’ll have room for two, three, or more rows of most crops. I tend to plant seeds precisely where I want them and fill in any gaps later with other crops rather than thinning, skipping a time-consuming and (if you’re soft-hearted) emotionally difficult task.

Fill the furrow with soil and tamp it in place. I gently use the flat side of my hoe to compress the soil on top of the seeds.

The instructions above assume that you’re starting your plants from seed, which is what I recommend for every one of the easy plants listed except for tomatoes and mint. You will see squash plants at the store when you go in to pick up your tomato sets, but resist the temptation — squashes grow so quickly from seed that you won’t see much difference between seeds and sets except in your wallet. In later years, you can grow your own tomato sets, too, but for now it’s worth a little extra cash to get a jump on the season.

Succession Planting

Many summer vegetables are planted once and then enjoyed until cold weather hits. However, some (like bush beans and sweet corn) do best for just a few weeks at a time, while yet other vegetables (like cucumbers and summer squash) may succumb to pests and diseases long before the summer is through. Succession planting allows you to enjoy short-lived crops throughout the summer rather than suffering from a glut for three weeks and then a famine for three months.

I plant new beds of succession crops biweekly starting two weeks before the frost-free date and ending in mid-to-late July. The earliest beds are a gamble — some years they escape the frost and give me the neighborhood’s first sweet corn; other years my plants get nipped, and I’m out a few dollars worth of seeds. Very late plantings are also a risk since they may not have time to mature before the first fall frost. If you want to be scientific about the last day to plant a summer crop, take the days to maturity off the seed packet, add two weeks (since crops grow slower as days shorten in late summer), and count that many days back from your average first frost date in the fall.

In addition to providing a constant supply of food, succession planting can be used to make your garden match your busy schedule.

For example, a school teacher who goes on vacation from mid-June to early August might plan all her cucumbers to ripen during that time period so she can pickle at her leisure. On the other hand, if you know you’re going to be out of town for the entire month of September, don’t plant any late beans that will just rot on the vine.


This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Weekend Homesteader: A Twelve-Month Guide to Self-Sufficiency by Anna Hess and published by Skyhorse Publishing, 2012. Buy this book from our store: The Weekend Homesteader: A Twelve-Month Guide to Self-Sufficiency.


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