shoes-trowel2I ALWAYS SAY THAT MAY IS MULTIPLE-CHOICE MONTH, but in 2012 I’m renaming it Mayhem Month, since that’s what it feels like after the hot-windy-dry-then-frozen April From Hell. It will be mayhem getting the garden ready for open days and workshops and such that begin in less than two weeks (you coming?), but here’s the to-do list I’m using as my guide to get me there:

May Chores Podcast

Listen to the May chores in a podcast, from my weekly WHDD Robin Hood Radio broadcast. You can also get all my podcasts, including the April 30, 2012 one that includes this information, free on iTunes or from the Stitcher app.

I KNOW: There are a lot of choices, whether to 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 this crazy 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:


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. I’m sowing kale and chard, too.

CUCUMBERS and their relatives (melons, squash, gourds) can be sown indoors and set out a month later after frost danger passes, or direct-seeded after mid-month.  A primer on when to start what seeds.

IF YOU LIKE CILANTRO, plant a short row every couple of weeks for a constant supply. Or try one of the substitutes in this story on herb-growing.

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. This year I’m trying to grow 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. 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 and basil 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? (Oh, and my latest: Easy Asparagus-Parmesan Bake.) Another early-bird: 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, I like to “buy green,” as in not worrying if I’m  buying annuals that aren’t flowering madly in their tiny cells. Younger, fresher plants are best, and often less stressed. 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? All my container-garden ideas are here.


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. Tara Dillard says:

    What a list, shoot me.

    My garden has been in magazines, books, on TV. Have NEVER had a chore list like yours. Never will.

    Make my living Landscape Designing & contracting. Several clients have been on tours, in magazines, in books, on TV.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  2. Deborah Banks says:

    It amazes me how much you do in your vegetable garden, in addition to having such a great garden of shrubs, perennials, etc. How do you keep moving all day? Seriously, I mean. When I spend all day weeding and mowing, etc, I can barely put one foot in front of the other to walk the dogs at the end of the day. Are you lifting weights in your spare time and drinking protein shakes at lunch, or hriing all the 14 year olds in the neighborhood? What’s your secret?

    1. margaret says:

      You made me laugh, Deborah. There is the occasional teenager on a weekend day, and my old friend Susan (used to be my next-door neighbor), who works for clients and has gardened with me twice a week for 10+ years, but you are correct: hard to walk at the end of the day. Seriously, I try to vary what I do (an hour of something crouching, an hour of something upright, etc.) because what really does me in is when I crouch all day, or rake all day, or something repetitive like that. The garden is way too big and I am not as young as I used to be!

  3. Terri H. says:

    Wouldn’t you know, I turned my ankle yesterday and can hardly put weight on that foot! ARRGH
    Maybe I can do some things that entail crawling along the beds…

  4. Denise says:


    This months list was extra helpful for some reason. Maybe because we are earlier here and most of the items on the list are done already – morale bust ;). I love your list they are good reminders and including pruning instructions for the whole season puts things in context. Great work as usual.

  5. Carol Derfner says:

    Well! Margaret, I feel so much better to know that you have a couple aches and pains after some time in the garden. You look so perky!! FYI – I slept with my hot water bottle last night …

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Carol. I have had my professional-style heating pad surgically attached. Seemed the only way to go at this point. :) Yes, I am achy all over, but on we must go, right? Getting there…making some headway finally. Love seeing clean edges and fresh mulch gradually taking over the messy spots.

  6. Dawn says:

    Ah! This is great!!! Time to go get my fingers dirty. I was thinking of trying something new in the vegetable garden – it never occurred to me to try asparagus. Thanks for the tip about waiting 1-2 years to harvest. Yet one more thing I’ve learned from your wonderful blog!

  7. Jen says:

    Margaret have you ever had trouble sowing radishes and chard? I sowed mine in April and have nothing to show for it. :(

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Jen. With chard, yes — which often takes 2 weeks to germinate here — but radishes are usually forceful and fast little things. So many factors can affect seed germination: age of the seed (was it leftover stuff?), temperature of the soil, soil moisture (if it crusts over because it gets hot/dry/windy some seed cannot poke through) and so on. A bout of heat (when soil is over 80ish) can thwart germination. (With larger seed I’d add “stolen by chipmunks or crows” but not radishes/chard probably.) Any of those things possibly at the root of the problem?

  8. Jen says:

    I think it was a little dry here in Connecticut -maybe I wasn’t as good about watering as I thought. The seed was new, but I now realize I had trouble with spinach too. Is it too late to try again?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Jen. Seeds need even and consistent moisture throughout the germination period or they may perish…so vulnerable during this phase. Use a heat-tolerant (“summer”) variety of spinach and yes, plenty of time to re-try the rest.

  9. Pat says:

    Do not ask for whom the to-do list tolls. It tolls for thee – with no regard for aging backs, arthritic knees, declining energy. I was told once that as I got older, my increased “wisdom” would compensate for my degenerating body. Hah. But keeping on is the only way to garden. It doesn’t ever end — and that’s the beauty.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Pat, and yes, you are so right. Wise and creaky, right? :) Nice to see you and do say hello again soon.

  10. AC says:

    I find that if I do one of these chores every few days, then I feel caught up. Lately I’m remowing the grass clippings a few times to keep the lawn fed. It works nicely!

  11. Jen says:

    Hi Margaret
    I should probably save this question for your June chores list, but I was wondering… I saw that there are scapes on my garlic already… what do you plant in their spot after the garlic is harvested?

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