Margaret's garden clogs and trowelREMEMBER, amid the frenzy: There is nothing wrong that some good-quality mulch won’t improve visually (while helping build soil beneath as a bonus). I’m spreading it as fast as I can, with my first 2015 garden Open Day looming (you coming May 9?; get details). Whether guests are due or not, mulching is a key May chore, along with weeding—but more creative-feeling to-do’s are on the list, too, I promise.

new feature for 2015: regional links

THE ORGANIC-GARDENING approach and the how-to tips I offer apply most anywhere–pruning a rose or sowing a tomato seed is similar, wherever the rose or tomato may grow. But the when is not the same. To adjust timing: My garden is in Zone 5B, in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA) area, where frost can persist well into May and return in October. You may need next month’s chores, or last month’s (the archive is here). For more Zone-specific advice, I’ve rounded up a links to calendars and checklists from around the nation (and the U.K.). But read on first, because I’m betting there’s something here for you, wherever you may dig, weed, or prune.

FIRST, A RECAP: In April, I offered 10 steps to get the season’s cleanup started, so if you’re feeling a little behind, refer to the April garden calendar for a fast review.

mulch, and living mulch

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. To reduce work and weeds in my biggest shrub borders, I use a lot of “living mulch,” a.k.a. groundcovers, but not the usual boring ones like ivy. My 10 top groundcover choices, plus a 101 on underplanting.

tick-disease prevention

IT’S TICK AWARENESS MONTH. How much (beyond general fear and loathing) do you know about ticks? For example: that a tick isn’t born infected with Lyme or other disease, and that we should thank fox, opossums and even raccoons for their roles in reducing tick populations? Learn more about ticks’ life cycle and tick-borne diseases, with a leading disease ecologist’s advice.

weed control

AN OUNCE of prevention, and all that. Knowing how to name your weeds is the first step in control—in understanding their life cycles and when and how best to tackle them. It starts with weed identification.

shortcuts to tomato and seed advice

TOO BUSY to even read on, but need help with these hot May topics: growing your best tomato, or starting things from seed? (Those links will get you to the distilled version of each.)

help with design tweaks

NEED DESIGN INSPIRATION? Landscape architect Thomas Rainer offered me some valuable tips on reducing lawn areas and massing plants for visual impact, and designer and nursery owner Kathy Tracey told us how to critique our own yards. If you’re feeling stuck, I suggest both those articles as a start; their advice is 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. How to grow cucurbits like a pro.

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

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.

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.

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, when some leaves, but not all, have died back. Not now!

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

flower garden

SHOP IN YOUR OWN BEDS: Before I mulch an area, and before things get too far along, I’m practicing use-what-you’ve-got gardening, plucking out seedlings and other “extra goodies” from cracks and crevices, edges of beds, the driveway, and moving them into better homes where they will make more impact. Free.

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.

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 if needed (a soil test can tell you), but more important, a layer of finished compost. Wait to apply mulch until the soil warms thoroughly.

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.

ANNUAL VINES make me (and in many cases, hummingbirds and butterflies) smile in high summer-to-fall. Growing annual vines.

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.

DIVIDE TRILLIUM when they’re in flower. Really. divide trillium. More of my favorite early spring wildflowers for shade, all easy to grow.

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. Again: 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.


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

REMOVE FINISHED COMPOST from the bottom of the heap and make room for incoming debris, then screen it before using to remove twigs and stones. Turn and moisten remaining partially broken-down contents to aerate and get things cooking. Use finished compost to topdress beds before applying mulch in a few weeks. (My Compost FAQ page explains it all, or read how expert Lee Reich makes his amazing black gold.)

DON’T LET THE HEAP DRY out completely, or it will not “cook.” Pre-shredding with your mower can also speed things along.

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, such as lilacs. 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 my Zone, in a sheltered location with filtered bright light (not direct sun in most cases). Pinch back and repot those that need it as you transition them, and begin regular feeding if you didn’t already in earlier spring.

need help in other regions?

AGAIN: I’m in the Northeast, in Zone 5B. For more Zone-specific advice, I’ve rounded up a new page of links to calendars and checklists from around the nation.

  1. Kathy says:

    Hi, Margaret,
    Thank you for your always timely advice and inspiration! I just have a couple of questions about mulch that I didn’t see addressed in your FAQ’s: First, I don’t like to put the typical mulch in the flowerbeds next to the house because I’ve heard it could be a fire hazard or attract termites. I’ve wondered if I should just top dress with a good garden soil, or do you have any other recommendations? Also, our local garden center has started carrying organic mushroom compost. I understand it doesn’t add nutrients to the soil, but would it work as a mulch?

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