the may garden chores

Margaret's garden clogs and trowelEACH 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). This last one featured a lot of wind (the new normal) and chaotic up-and-down patterns (also becoming more the thing), not unlike the previous ones of recent years. I feel like we froze and thawed more times than I could count, too, never staying frozen long, and “mud season” seems to be much longer lately. And so on. What will the next one be like?

Whatever it delivered, onward I always mulch, along with aggressive weeding—two top chores of the merry-and-not-so month of May…and trying to restore sanity 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.

fallen behind?

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.

tick-disease prevention

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). Bard College professor Dr. Felicia Keesing had suggestions.

The Tick Encounter website at University of Rhode Island offers details on protecting yourself, too. 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 mantra. 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! (Note: I “leave the leaves” in most garden areas each fall to benefit beneficial insects and other wildlife, but do remove leaves from the lawns and a few key garden areas.)

OR, PLANT SOME LIVING MULCH: 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. Even better: native groundcovers.

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. (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.

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:

Here are other shortcut links to growing various popular crops:

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.

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.

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.

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

container gardens

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

wildlife-garden ideas

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?

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.

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 if you didn’t yet, to avoid buildup of heavy 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.


Categorieschores by month
  1. Lorie says:

    It is sad to face up to the results of what unfavorable seasons can do to the “what didn’t make it” count…even harder to face up to the cost of replacement, but it’s what we do…and move on.
    Last fall, when I couldn’t, from a knee replacement, I had “others” plant a goodly number of alliums from Brent and Becky. It was meant to produce a visual “year” after the surgery. Now is the payoff both visually and mentally. The alliums are up and willing to put on a glorious show..if it will EVER stop raining!!! If only we could spread out the moisture according to our wills.

  2. Alan Grossberg says:

    Anyone living north of NYC should be in no hurry to mulch. The object is to let the soil temps warm up…and the weather will not co-operate until after May 15th. The coming week will be miserably chilly and wet for the entire eastern half of the U.S.

  3. I’m on board with the container gardens these days! Can’t get enough of them. Not sure if it’s just the cute factor or just the fact that I don’t have to bend over but I like the contained look. And I love plants absolutely stuffed into a pot. Flower bling =)

  4. Lisa Scannell says:

    We’ve noticed that many of our flowering shrubs, while flowering, have a much more subdued scent then they previously did. Could that be related to the winter that wasn’t? I’m in Michigan where it was also very mild. It’s most noticeable with our Korean Spice, which used to be almost overwhelmingly strong. On the other hand we have a neighbor with the same shrubs that seem to have the normal strong scent. This year you have to get right up in there to smell much at all despite there being plenty of blooms. I am new to the gardening game and would love any advice. These are my husband’s favorite and he’s been mourning the loss of their fragrance.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Lisa. Scent is affected by various factors, I believe, and though I have read that a warming world may actually mean more scent in some cases, more or less scent in a given year can also just be the weather conditions when it blooms (temperature, humidity, wind strength/direction, etc.). So I don’t know with certainty. Here when it bloomed it was cooler than “normal” and I attributed that to the lesser-seeming scent of the viburnum.

  5. Cindy T says:

    Hi, Margaret, I met you in Deerfield at the workshop you did, which was fabulous.

    I’m wondering what to do about ticks in my yard–and what you do.

    We are strongly advised to reduce their prevalence in our yards in addition to body checks and gear/repellent. We have maple trees with leaf litter under them to keep the poison ivy down and provide the trees with their own compost. I often spread some of the leaves around in my garden in fall and spring–and ticks bite me when I am careless about wearing all that gear in hot weather. (I just learned that my lawn-mowing father wears not only sleeves and pants tucked into gloves and socks, but a doo rag and goggles!) I also have lots of straw in my garden, and I don’t know if ticks are hanging out in that.

    Gardening organically sure involves lots of debris. And yes, we have brush and wood piles, and we are advised that those should be stacked neatly in the drying sun – but of course we relegate them to shady edges on our tiny lot. Reliable sources advise us to clear every bit of debris from our yard and to entertain the idea of a stone or wood chip barrier running all around it!

    I have chickens, which may eat ticks, but I keep most of them penned up so they won’t eat or dig up said garden.

    It’s too bad that they pulled that Lyme vaccine from the market – gardeners could sure use it. Again, looking forward to hearing what you do. And to visiting your garden at some point soon!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Cindy. I confess I am totally dedicated to one strategy, which is BODY CHECKS. I spend my days crawling around in leaf litter, weeding or edging or planting in my big shrub borders and such, so I can’t keep them off me, or stay away from them.

      I must rely on removing any ticks in fairly short order that find their way on to me or bite me; again, I can’t avoid contact with ticks. I have a very strict routine about not wearing or even bringing outdoor clothes into the house (not even briefly). I plan my chores so that the ones with the highest potential exposure are toward the end of the day, when I also shower immediately upon coming indoors.

      Using repellents is highly recommended, whether Permethrin to impregnate the fabric of your clothing, which lasts through multiple washings I believe (never put it directly on skin) or DEET … all the experts say to do use repellents, like this scientist and also the CDC , as part of a multi-stage approach to prevention of infection.

      I am also very strict about rodent control to hopefully reduce the number of animals in my immediate environment who can potentially infect the ticks with disease (since the ticks are born disease-free, and it is really mice and chipmunks who transmit the infection to them). More on that.

      Like I said, it’s tedious, and scary, but I try to be vigilant with the body checks!

  6. Cynthia Kling says:

    Interesting weed story, thanks Margaret. I do have one nit to pick, though. Dandelions. For 9000 years, these were considered important medicinal herbs and used in just about every culture in the world. They made their way to the US when the Puritans brought them as medicinal plants, probably on the Mayflower, then the Native Americans added them to their apothecary. I remember my great grandmother had tons of them in her freezer became they are totally edible and full of vitamins.

    In about 1900, Scott’s realized they could sell a grass seed that did not contain dandelions and they became America’s enemy weed, especially if you were after a golf course lawn. Of course Scotts and other companies didn’t care that these were important flowers for the bees and other insects and now we still consider them terrible weeds – check out the first two photos in your story and the #1 question posed to the doctor.

    Yes, they can hop around and spread in a yard but I have noticed that they are much more behaved than any other weed I have and now I leave about half of them, or more, for the insects b/c I care about saving the bees. If you weren’t aware, thought you might be interested. Thanks again for great site.

    1. margaret says:

      I am not a dandelion hater, promise — and I never use broadleaf pre-emergent chemicals (or anything by Scotts or its divisions). I do have some that bloom in the upper field that gets mown less frequently, and they are all around the greater environment here (rural/farm/etc.). I do find they are hard to manage around in areas I wish to mow, however, near the house, so I dig them from those spots.

  7. Catherine L Hackert says:

    Hi Margret!
    I have a question. I just put down a 2″ or so layer of mulch. Bulk stuff, blackish. I want to plant some flower seeds out there. Should I pull back the mulch to get to the soil or just throw the seeds on top of the mulch.? These a seeds that come in a pack for shady spaces. Only 1/4″ of cover on the seeds.

  8. Kirsty Buchanan says:

    My lilies have started to come up (in Corning, NY) but they are already swarming with little red beetles. What do you recommend to prevent them? The leaves are riddles with tiny holes.

  9. Beverly says:

    The “Say no to dyed red bark mulch” doodle makes me think of a house in town – it’s a beautifully renovated Victorian set on a hill. They chose great paint combinations and have a lovely wrought iron bridge crossing a brook, And bright red mulch. Ew.

  10. Carol Kellt says:

    Not quite a tick story, but… Brought in a large handful of (delicious, horseradish-tasting) giant red mustard leaves from the raised bed garden last week, and set them down on the counter next to the sink. When I picked them up a couple of minutes later to rinse them off, I saw a tiny, tiny critter left behind on the counter. Looked like a tick – horrors! But then I looked closer – and reached for my hand lens magnifier to look even closer. With its very (proportionately) large pincers, it resembled a tiny little crab! No tick I ever met or heard of in all of my 7 decades was so equipped, so I went a-Googling. I now have learned a new (to me!) arachnid: the pseudoscorpion! And best of all, it’s one of the Good Guys! I released him back outside into a leaf-mulched bed where my spring ephemerals grow. Have you ever encountered these, Margaret?

  11. Penny Boehle says:

    I just read your interview about ticks. One thing I’m curious that wasn’t specially addressed is the effect the use of pesticides for tick control on our beneficial insects. Do you know the answer to that? Also i was surprised by the comment about the lone star ticks because i find them more than any other these days here at the Jersey shore

  12. Marta says:

    Too many links. I feel like I have ADD when I read this. I think less would be more. (As it is, it’s not really a list….more of a stream of consciousness)

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