the may garden chores
EACH MAY I ADVISE us all to remember, amid the frenzy, that 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, but I have to say:
Winters ain’t what they used to be (for better or worse). In 2019-20, it was mostly nothing–and then it was endlessly wet and cold here lately, complete with snow and sleet and hail, well into what I thought would be “spring.” In 2018-19, I feel like we froze and thawed more times than I could count. What will the next one be like?
Whichever the pattern, onward I always mulch, along with aggressive weeding—two top chores of the month of May…and trying to restore sanity to the still-soggy garden with a lot of edging as well. But more creative-feeling to-do’s are on the list, too, I promise.
garden elsewhere? 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 cleanup started; if you’re behind (who isn’t?), refer to the April garden calendar for a fast review.
IT’S LYME DISEASE AWARENESS MONTH, though one prominent tick researcher I know says it should be moved up since they are virtually always active. 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. Also: What avenues of tick control are researchers exploring for the areas right around our homes? This interview explains.
Most of all: Be extra-vigilant, with scrupulous body checks immediately after each outdoor adventure (plus: leave those potentially tick-carrying clothes outside, or throw them in a hot dryer at once for 10-plus minutes to kill any hitchhikers). The Tick Encounter website at University of Rhode Island offers details on protecting yourself. The CDC says that showering within two hours of coming indoors helps reduce risk of infection.
mulch, and living mulch (a.k.a. groundcovers)
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 FAQs On my vegetables the last few years, I’ve been using last year’s (and older) shredded leaves that I shred before composting in their very own pile. Free!
OR, PLANT SOME LIVING MULCH: Designer Claudia West, co-author with Thomas Rainer of “Plating in a Post-Wild World,” says “plants are the mulch.” Yes! Read her ideas on that. On a purely functional basis, 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.
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. (A good weed encyclopedia can’t hurt, either; my favorite has photos of each weed even at the seedling stage, so I can attack early with confidence.)
TIME TO SOLARIZE? Sometimes an area is just too weedy, or a piece of lawn wants converting to a bed. Solarizing (with clear plastic) or tarping (with dark plastic) may do the trick. Here’s how. (If the weeds in a spot aren’t too tough–like maybe just lawn grass–or even after solarizing, I also employ the recyclables corrugated cardboard and newsprint to good weed-smothering effect.)
shortcuts to tomato and seed advice
TOO BUSY to even read on, but need help with these hot May topics: growing your best tomato (16 things I know), or starting things from seed? (Those links will get you to the distilled version of each.) For more on tomatoes:
- 16 top things I know about growing tomatoes
- How to grow the best-tasting tomato
- Growing healthy tomatoes (staking and pruning)
- Fighting late blight and other tomato diseases
Here are other shortcut links to growing various popular crops:
- How to grow beets
- How to grow Brassicas
- How to grow spinach
- Try 8 heat-resistant spinach substitutes
- How to grow carrots
- Top tips for growing all root crops
- How to grow kale
- How to grow melons
- How to grow tomatoes
- How to grow onions
- How to grow peppers
- How to grow squash, cucumbers
- Grains and pseudo-grains (quinoa, sorghum, millet…)
- Oddball vegetables you might not have tried
help with garden-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 Katherine Tracey told us how to critique our own yards. Or are you in need of help developing your own signature garden style? Susan Morrison has advice. If you’re feeling stuck, I suggest those articles as a start; their wisdom is helping me focus.
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.
GETTING ORGANIZED: My friend Joe Lamp’l has the most orderly, great-looking vegetable garden…in part thanks to his creative use of so-called livestock panels of wire fencing that he transforms into supports, planting grids and more. Like this.
EVER TRY STRAW-BALE gardening? Craig LeHoullier tells us why you might want to, and how to get set up for success at this link.
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, too—or start kale indoors, like this, to give it an extra-strong start.
IF YOU LIKE CILANTRO, sow 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 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 up North here where I am. 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.
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.
IMPORTANT: HARDEN OFF all homegrown vegetable seedlings before transplanting, bringing them in and out for a week before setting them free for good.
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.
ARE YOU POTTING UP? Here’s how I think when designing container combinations, plus various tactical tips.
POTTED GARDENS can provide lots of seasonal color, but don’t just use annuals in them. Hosta pot? Why not?
WHEN USING REALLY BIG POTS, you may not need to fill them with costly potting medium all the way to the bottom. Here’s how I recycle trash to save on soil.
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.
DIVIDING PERENNIALS (and the occasional shrub) was the topic of a popular conversation Ken Druse and I had on the weekly podcast. Read the transcript or listen in.
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.
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. Director of Horticulture Louis Bauer of Wave Hill public garden in NYC talked about that, too, in this conversation.
ANNUAL VINES make me (and in many cases, hummingbirds and butterflies) smile in high summer-to-fall. Growing annual vines.
SPEAKING OF ANNUALS…Just as with many vegetables, a single sowing won’t take you from early season to late fall. Organic flower farmer Jenny Elliott explains why she makes succession sowings of many familiar flowers.
PERENNIAL VINES have garden uses beyond the expected trellis-climbing role. Ideas for vines off the trellis—over walls, up into shrubs and trees, in pots, and more.
DAFFODILS NOT BLOOMING? Here’s why bulbs fail to flower well. (The non-winter here seems to have resulted in markedly reduced bloom, and some late temperatures in the teens felled what was already blooming. Ugh.)
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, unless you’re feeling daring and want to see what parental traits the offspring revert to).
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.
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.
WANT MORE WILDLIFE, including birds? Here’s how to create a habitat garden, and also a Q&A with wildlife ecologist Doug Tallamy of the University of Delaware on creating backyard habitat. Speaking of wildlife magnets: Will this be the year you add water, whether in-ground or simply an easy, seasonal trough like this? In his 2020 book “Nature’s Best Hope,” Tallamy offers these latest tips.
ENCOURAGE POLLINATORS by getting to know more about them, with help from the Xerces Society in this interview, or in these other stories:
SICK OF MOWING? Less lawn means space for more diverse plantings, and therefore support of more wildlife diversity from insects on up. Do you want to mow differently (as I did the last three years to good result)?
SICK OF DEER? Maybe it’s time to plan for upgrades in deer control. If by this point in winter you have tired of deer damage, perhaps this will be the year you fence the yard, or at least a key area, using one of these approaches. Also: deer-thwarting advice from Ohio State’s wildlife expert, applicable no matter where you garden.
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. Also: Crabgrass control without chemicals.
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.)
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.
MUCK OUT water gardens if you didn’t yet, to avoid buildup of debris that can feed algae development and taint water, 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 links to calendars and checklists from around the nation.