High phytonutrient potatoes colorful all the way through: Plant by mid-May, harvest by late October — season-dependent. Photo: Judy Isacoff

NATURE’S TURN: Back to the land in May – polyculture feeds body and spirit

Mostly cool weather is predicted for early May, ideal for continuing to prepare ground and sow cool-weather varieties, albeit at a faster clip.

May 4 – 17, 2020

For the seasoned and new gardener: traditional favorites, wild plants and cultivars; vegetables, fruits, flowers; cover crops; annuals, biennials and perennials

Fresh, new life: chives, April 28, 2020. Photo: Judy Isacoff

Mount Washington — Gardeners eager to prepare ground for planting responded to a stretch of balmy weather and thawed earth about a week after spring equinox. I was among those who followed the urge – or urging on seed packets – to sow frost-hardy crops as soon as the ground could be worked. By the end of March, I had broadcast seeds of cold-season salad greens. On April 4 and 5, I dropped sugar snap pea seed into inch-deep holes made with a dibble. This was 10 days to two weeks earlier than other years, which, as it turned out, brought home the true meaning of April Fools. Mostly cool weather is predicted for early May, ideal for continuing to prepare ground and sow cool-weather varieties, albeit at a faster clip. A mid-month warm-up will lead into preparations for warm season vegetables and flowers.

Redwing storage onion plantlets dusted with wood ash. Overwintered crimson clover cover crop middle. Winter rye cover crop cut for mulch, in progress. Dappled with melting snow. Photo: Judy Isacoff

At 1,700 feet of elevation, three beautiful snowstorms blanketed my gardens during April. None of the seed has sprouted. Onion plants, spaced 3 inches apart in rows about 12 inches apart two weeks ago, are holding on. Meanwhile, vibrant leaves of perennial lovage, rhubarb and French sorrel (Rumex scutatus) are unfurling. Egyptian onions (Allium proliferum) and onion chives convey the essence of tender new life and hardiness. All of these traditional plants are among the first edibles; they all invite successive harvests. In full bloom, self-sown Johnny Jump-Ups (Viola tricolor) offer edible flowers. Perennial pulmonaria and self-sown pale corydalis, cold-tolerant flowering plants, are among the hummingbirds’ first forage.

Johnny Jump-Up edge, crimson clover cover crop, April 28, 2020. Photo: Judy Isacoff

The leaves of camas, its name derived from the Native American “kamas” or “quamash, are among the first to appear in my polyculture garden. My enthusiasm for the plant began when I learned that its bulb was used by Native Americans, early explorers and settlers as a food source. After many years, a few bulbs of Camassia leichtlinii have reproduced to many dozens – enough to consider digging them for food. From late May into early June, 2- to 3-feet-tall stems bearing showy violet flower spikes attract many pollinators, including hummingbirds.

Camas (Camassia leichtlinii) with crimson clover, April 28, 2020. Photo: Judy Isacoff

In the photograph, above, notice camas plants growing in crimson clover. For optimum soil health, cover crops grew or were dormant on all annual beds through the winter. In all seasons, cover crops interplanted with production crops protect the soil, feed and shelter soil organisms, and serve as beneficial companions to crop plants. Alternatively, all open ground should be mulched (as in the photo of the onion bed) to protect the ground, conserve water and prevent weed competition. Crimson clover in bloom is spectacular.

Crimson clover in bloom and seed, June 14, 2019. Photo: Judy Isacoff

For a guide to many edibles to be sown in May, please go to my recent column, “Sprinting to spring: early vegetable varieties for optimum nutrition.”

Camas with bumblebee, May 30, 2018. Photo: Judy Isacoff

Resources & destinations

Windy Hill Farm and Garden Shop, Stockbridge Road, Great Barrington

Ward’s Nursery and Garden Store, Main Street, Great Barrington

Berkshire Botanical Garden online plant sale began May 1, pick-up May 7-8 and 11-12 https://www.berkshirebotanical.org/events/online-plant-sale
New schedule of online classes – https://www.berkshirebotanical.org/events

Perennial onion – https://www.egyptianwalkingonion.com/
Japanese plum, ume, umeboshi plum https://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2013.html
Camassia leichtlinii, large camas http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?kempercode=q550
Crimson clover – https://www.johnnyseeds.com/farm-seed/legumes/clovers/crimson-clover-cover-crop-seed-982.html

Authoritative author and lecturer – http://www.leereich.com/ and https://gardenandhappy.com/polyculture/