my garden chores: may 2011

shoes-trowel2MAY IS MULTIPLE-CHOICE MONTH: Deadhead the spring bulbs, or edge the beds they’re growing in? Divide that overgrown drift of some perennial, or pot up the annuals for a summertime show ahead? Mow or mulch? Scream or cry (which in a late, wet spring like I’ve had here, seems the only choice many days, I’ll admit)? Well, maybe start here, and avoid that last panic-induced pairing:

May Chores Podcast: Listen to the May chores in a podcast, from my weekly WHDD Robin Hood Radio broadcast. You can get all my podcasts, including the May 2, 2011 one that includes this information, free on iTunes.


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

CONTINUE SOWING CARROTS, beets, radishes, salad greens, dill. With salad greens, select heat-resistant varieties now for best results as they’ll bump into warmer weather. A primer on when to start what seeds.

DIRECT-SOW BEANS at mid-month and beyond; sow a short row every two weeks, and also sow pole beans for an even later crop. 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. My 20 top seed-starting FAQs.

WHEN SHOPPING FOR SEEDLINGS of tomatoes (or really anything), pick stocky young plants about 4 inches high and wide—bigger isn’t better.

HEAT-LOVERS LIKE tomatoes go out after frost danger is past, but many people make a ritual of it on Memorial Day weekend (technically a tad early here). Use these tomato tips and tricks for best results. Eggplants and peppers can go out then, too. Harden off vegetable seedlings before transplanting, bringing them in and out for a few days before setting them free for good.

KEEP ASPARAGUS PICKED to keep it producing; don’t harvest the first year or two in the ground. Need some asparagus recipes? Rhubarb is nicest when tender stems are used, I think, long before they get gigantic. Water garlic during dry spells for biggest bulbs (and did you feed it?).

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


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. Deadhead spring-flowering perennials unless they have showy seedheads, or you want to collect seed later (non-hybrids only).

WITH FLOWER SEEDLINGS in 6-packs, “buy green,” as in don’t buy annuals that are flowering madly in tiny cells. Younger, fresher plants are best. They will catch up.

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.

IF TULIPS WERE WEAK-BLOOMING this year, bulbs may be exhausted. Tulips are less perennial than, say, daffodils (though even those can get exhausted or overcrowded, too). If spent, lift tulips and make a list of what you will order fresh, placing markers in the garden to note where to plant what in fall.

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.

ONCE BEDS ARE CLEANED UP, topdress according to label directions with an all-natural organic fertilizer and a layer of finished compost if you didn’t yet. Apply mulch.

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

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

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.

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


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

IF 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.


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.


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.


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. Terri says:

    I only wish I had discovered your website along about February! I haven’t finished the March or April chores… aaigh! I don’t know where to start. (I’m in zone 5A, Northern Illinios. So I think I should be mostly following your schedule.)

    It doesn’t help that I’m 2 weeks into a 3-week virus… I can do a little, but then I have to get back into the recliner.

  2. Becky says:

    So much to do in the garden, so little time and so much rain. I have to say that all of the rain has produced some beautiful results.

  3. Rae says:

    I don’t know when I will be able to do anything! Every bed is bordered in mushy grass from all the rain. The soil in the beds is much too wet to clean up yet. Here it is May 1 and it seems like here in the Cleveland, OH, area it is the middle of March. Too chilly, also.

  4. ann says:

    Northwest North Dakota has snow and 60 mile per hour wind with blizzard causing power outages so May is off to a late start this spring. My daffodils were blooming but are under snow and robins are so glad to have rose hips for breakast this morning cause earthworms are under a foot of white fluffy snow..But, I am glad I have wonderful excuse for not cleaning up yard, and it looks as good as the rest of our town..

  5. kk says:

    And don’t forget to hoop or set up frames for peonies and the like – YIKES! I got mine in the nick of time – and it was a total pain with the stems being so tall.

    1. Margaret says:

      Thanks, Susan, and welcome! Very nice of you to stop in and say so. Perfect timing for your arrival…lots of garden season lies just ahead. :) See you soon again, I hope.

  6. Deborah Hamilton says:

    Thanks for your lists and for the referral to May Sarton. I spent this May Day here in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia planting later blooming azaleas, hydrangeas, rhododendrons, and bedding plants. I’ve taken your advice about slopes and plan to plant blue, black, and rasp berry bushes later this week. Now if I can just keep the critters from eating everything that I plant, life will be excellent! The Hawthorn trees are getting ready to bloom and the Dogwoods are just lovely. The Redbud peaked ten days ago….my, it was fabulous this year. The mile- long gravel road that leads to my house was lined with them! Thanks again for sharing with us.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Custom Seamstress. Better to stick to a few things and feel good when they are done than to be a chicken with her head cut off (as I often find myself!). :)

  7. shira says:

    Here in Connecticut 6a, thing are running so far behind I don’t know what to do!!! The only things that seem to be thriving are the weeds!

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