my garden chores for may 2014

Margaret's garden clogs and trowelRECALCITRANT is the politest word I’m using to describe spring so far, and looking at the national weather map, I’m probably not alone in muttering various other stronger things under my breath. Panic mode is setting in with my first garden Open Day looming (you coming on May 10?; get details)—but it’s important (she says, mostly talking to herself) to steer around panic and just soldier on. Like we discussed in April: priorities, or else.

To get ready for visitors, for instance, I need to focus most of all on weeding, edging, mulching (and now mowing, suddenly)—but if I have time I want to make best use of moist conditions to do some dividing of perennials, too. I’d love to turn the compost heap, but that takes days, and extra-cold and windy weather is limiting good outdoor workdays, so maybe that less time-sensitive task will have to wait. You get the idea. Again: priorities.

Feeling like what you need most is help with reworking design issues? Landscape architect Thomas Rainer recently offered me some valuable tips on reducing lawn areas and massing plants for visual impact, and designer and nursery owner Katherine Tracey told us how to critique our own yards. If you’re feeling stuck, I suggest both those articles as a start; I found their advice reassuring, and it’s helping me focus.

vegetable garden

MAKING NEW BEDS? A nature-inspired method for raised-bed building, using fallen branches and logs, is called hugelkultur—and it’s fascinating, and effective, if you’re expanding your growing area.

TUBERS AND SLIPS: Are the white potatoes in the ground? Sweet potatoes can go in this month, too.

MY SEED-STARTING CALCULATOR will tell you when to sow what, indoors and out, in spring. Also for reference: My 20 top seed-starting FAQs.

SOW (OR SOW MORE) CARROTS, beets, radishes, salad greens, dill. With salad greens, select heat-resistant varieties now for best results if they’ll bump into warmer weather in your zone. Direct-sow more kale and chard, tooor start kale indoors, like this, to give it an extra-strong start.

IF YOU LIKE CILANTRO, plant a short row every couple of weeks for a constant supply because most varieties bolt pretty fast (eventually yielding coriander seeds). Or try one of the substitutes in this story.

DIRECT-SOW BEANS at mid-month and beyond (assuming your frost date is late May, like mine); sow a short row every two weeks, and also sow pole beans for an even later crop. Maybe try heirloom beans for drying, too? Wait till month’s end, when the weather is settled, to sow summer and winter squash, cucumbers, melons, or start indoors at the first of month and set out at end.

I LOVE VEGETABLE SOUP, and freeze dozens of containers of it for year-round use, so yes, I’m growing the ingredients of a soup garden.

HOW ARE THE MELONS going? Follow these tips for best results.

IMPORTANT: HARDEN OFF all homegrown vegetable seedlings before transplanting, bringing them in and out for a week before setting them free for good.

WHEN SHOPPING FOR SEEDLINGS of tomatoes (or really anything), pick stocky young plants about 4 inches high and wide—bigger isn’t better.  Having trouble with your homegrown transplants? Why seedlings stretch out and get spindly.

HEAT-LOVERS LIKE tomatoes and basil, eggplants and peppers go out after frost danger is past. Use my tomato tips and tricks for best results, and be sure to follow these tomato-hygiene steps for best disease resistance and overall vigor all season long.

KEEP ASPARAGUS PICKED to keep it producing; don’t harvest from new plantings the first year or two in the ground. Need some asparagus recipes? (Current favorite here: Easy Asparagus-Parmesan Bake.) Another food-garden early-bird: Rhubarb is nicest when tender stems are used.

WATER GARLIC during dry spells for biggest bulbs (and did you feed it?). Though many people wonder all spring about when to harvest, typically that’s in high summer sometime, around July here. Not now!

MULCH VEGETABLES with baled or chopped straw, partially rotted leaves, or other available organic materials. Mulching 101.

flower garden

PREPARE NEW BEDS by smothering grass or weeds with layers of recycled corrugated cardboard or thick layers of newspaper, then put mulch on top.

ONCE EXISTING BEDS ARE CLEANED UP, topdress according to label directions with an all-natural organic fertilizer and a layer of finished compost. Wait to apply mulch until the soil warms thoroughly.

ORDER MULCH in bulk this year from a local source that ages it properly first; forget the bagged stuff for use on beds. My mulch mantra.

WHEN WORKING IN BEDS and borders, be careful not to clean up too roughly; desirable emerging self-sown annuals and biennials (larkspur, nicotiana, clary sage, Verbena bonariensis, perilla, Angelica gigas, etc.) can be disturbed unless you pay attention.

DAFFODILS NOT BLOOMING? Here’s why bulbs fail to flower well.

DEADHEAD SPRING BULBS as blooms fade, but leave foliage intact to wither and ripen the bulbs naturally. I mow my daffodil drifts around July 4th, for example, not sooner. Deadhead spring-flowering perennials unless they have showy seedheads, or you want to collect seed later (non-hybrids only).

TENDER BULBS started indoors last month for a headstart (like cannas) can go into the ground after frost danger passes. If you didn’t get dahlias, cannas, caladiums and such going indoors, plant now, inserting support stakes (if needed, as with dahlias) at planting time to avoid piercing bulbs later.

SOAK NASTURTIUM and morning glory seeds overnight, then sow. Zinnias and marigolds and other familiar summery annuals can be direct sown now, or start in cellpacks and set them out after a month to six weeks. I’m growing calendula, too–it’s edible, beautiful, and popular with beneficial insects.

TAKE ADVANTAGE of any bouts of cooler, moister weather to divide and move perennials. Water in well, and keep an eye out all season to watch that they don’t stress.

EDGE BEDS to make a clean line and define them. A clean edge makes a real difference, along with an inch and a half or two of good, fine- to medium-textured organic mulch. No baked-potato-sized chips, please, and no orange-dyed mulch. My Mulch FAQs.

ARE YOU POTTING UP? Container gardens can provide lots of seasonal color, but don’t just use annuals. Hosta pot? Why not? A 101 on container gardening.

WITH FLOWER (AND VEGETABLE) SEEDLINGS in 6-packs, I like to “buy green,” avoiding annuals that are flowering madly in their tiny cells. Younger, fresher plants are best, and often less stressed. They will catch up.

WORRIED ABOUT IMPATIENS DISEASE? Downy mildew continued to be a problem last year, and natinwide, the numbers of impatiens produced are way down. (Here’s the lowdown on downy mildew risk from the archive.)


DON’T BAG OR RAKE clippings; let them lie on the lawn to return Nitrogen to the soil.

IF THE LAWN GREENED UP well, no fertilizer is needed; I skip it (and spare myself the extra mowing, while helping the environment). If growth or greening was sluggish, consider applying an all-natural organic fertilizer in fall, when lawn grasses take best advantage of fertilizing to grow strong root systems. Crabgrass control without chemicals.

compost heap

DON’T LET THE HEAP DRY out completely, or it will not “cook.” If it wasn’t turned to aerate earlier this season, do so now to hasten decomposition. Pre-shredding with your mower can also speed things along. Use finished, screened material to topdress beds.

trees and shrubs

NOT SURE what to prune when, or how? The Pruning FAQ page may have the answers you need. Hint: Right after bloom is usually a good time for spring-flowering shrubs. Another hint: Always removed dead, damaged and diseased wood from trees and shrubs as it appears.

water gardens

MUCK OUT water gardens, removing any remaining winter gear like de-icers (remember my fall regimen for water-garden care) and getting pumps and filters going again, following all my spring water-garden tips.


HOUSEPLANTS can spend the summer outdoors starting late this month, in a sheltered location with filtered bright light (not direct sun). Pinch back and repot those that need it as you transition them, and begin regular feeding if you didn’t already in earlier spring.


On using this list in your garden: The monthly A Way to Garden chores and based on my Zone 5B Berkshire MA/Hudson Valley NY location; adjust accordingly.

  1. Rachelle says:

    My father came up with the adjective “deceitful” to describe this spring. Here in central WI, it certainly applies! We are in the same zone as the Denver Botanical Garden and from pictures posted by other bloggers, it is hard to reconcile my gray-brown yard with the bloom and Chihuly glass exhibits in theirs.

    A friend gardener just 100 miles north had “chunky rain” yesterday…didn’t want to spread that four letter word around.

  2. Lorie says:

    Saying “thank you” a little late for the splendid interview of Leslie Halleck by Ken Druse. I had the privilege of meeting him and he IS his landscape. But what joy to listen to Leslie Halleck and her fresh and youthful view of how she sees it all. On a miserably cold rainy day, when it was hard to finally admit to how much of my “evergreen” material has been lost to the cold dry winter, that little gift from you just made my heart sing.
    Hoping the weather treats you well for your open house.

  3. Tim says:

    Downy mildew is a nightmare. Grew grapes for years, but unless you’re out there spraying every 7-10 days between late April to early October in zone 5, even organically with pepper spray, you can lose a crop almost overnight.

  4. Dd says:

    I saw a hugelkultur at the common ground fair last year and can’t wait to try it. Should be perfect for pumpkins. Thanks for the info.

  5. MJ says:

    I’m always so grateful for your garden chores. Once the firstf of the month comes around, I have my mini freak out because I’m overwhelmed and behind. Then I read your chores and it helps to organize my mind. This spring I’m especially behind from all this rain and wind and November temps! But, I’m also grateful for my garden that is doing so much on its own, pushing flowers out and filling in green. Stunned that my lillies are coming back after being ravaged by the red leaf beetles. Lesson of the year, perseverance.

  6. Maude Ciardi says:

    I live in Eastern Ohio. This winter killed all the ivy in this area. I mean it is dead. ,everywhere. It also killed many holly shrubs. Ivy that had grown for years is completely dead. It is so invasive, that it might be a good thing. How did the ivy in your area do ?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Maude. I have more winterburn than I have ever seen in almost 30 years here — on conifers, on rhodies, on evergreen vines such as you mention. Many Northeastern garden friends and readers have lost conifers and other evergreens, so it is not only you and there!

  7. Hi Margaret…..I miss the frog stories. Did they all make it through the winter???
    My garden is at the stage that everything needs to be divided! Huge hostas…iris,etc.

    I finally got rid of most of the wild violet. It was everywhere…even in the gravel patio. etc.
    I hope your visiting day went well. Best from Anne

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