my may garden chores

chores-logoY OWZA. THAT’S THE BOTANICAL LATIN TERM for the state we gardeners find ourselves in right about now. May is when the signs of advanced mental illness strike even the strongest and most experienced among us, but a May that begins after nearly a week of record late-April heat: Yowza. I’ve mowed twice already (the first mowing is usually about May 5); the dandelions are everywhere, jumbo-sized, and in full bloom; cool-season crops like spinach and bok choy are operating under protest and will probably perish, and thousands of Narcissus want deadheading. So what to do? Well, maybe start here:


CONTINUE SOWING CARROTS, beets, radishes, lettuce, dill. With salad greens, select heat-resistant varieties now for best results.

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.

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. 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.


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 order new now. Order bulbs this month to take advantage of industry discounts (see Sources in right-hand sidebar of every page for bulb vendors).

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, Verbena bonariensis, perilla) can be disturbed unless you pay attention.

PREPARE NEWS 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?


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 to outside, and begin regular feeding if you didn’t already in earlier spring.


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.


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. If you are in a colder spot, try last month’s list. Warmer climate? Try a peek at next month’s.

  1. Rosella says:

    If the lawn mowers don’t come today, I will need a compass to get to the street. Thanks for the reminder about deadheading the narcissus, all 500 of them. I think I will go back to bed!

  2. Country Gardener says:

    When you list everything this way, it becomes exceedingly clear why May is the most exhausting month of the year.

  3. Deirdre says:

    Washington State University did a study twenty some years ago on daffodils. They found that daffodils cut down six weeks after bloom did as well or better than daffodils left to ripen completely. In my garden, six weeks is when they go flop. I’ve been cutting my daffs when they flop for more than twenty years. They do splendidly.

  4. chigal says:

    Whee! You have dandelions already? So much for Zone 5B, and all the more reason for me to heed your advice to put tomato seedlings out later than I usually do.

  5. Fred from Loudonville, NY says:

    Soon I will start cutting off the spent heads of the daffodils, just below the “onion skin” part, under their heads. I once read an article by a man that grew daffodils for the florist trade. He said the energy of the daffodil was stored in the stem. Daffodils that had been picked with their full stems, produced less flowers the next year, than the ones that had their stems left in place.

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Fred. I think this is right. For years I spent *hours* cutting down the flower stalk to the base, leaving only the foliage…and then I said the heck with this and started just snapping off the flowerhead only…and I think it it much better. Thanks for bringing this up. See you soon.

  6. Laura says:

    Hi, Can you recommend a good organic mulch? I’ve heard that most mulches sold at big box stores are treated with lots of chemicals. I ended up using large nugget pine bark in my front yard, but want to use only organic in my back yard where I have my vegetable garden and lots of herbs. Any suggestions?
    Love your blog!

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Laura, and here’s a mulch answer I gave this week on the Forums that I think will help. No big chips! See you soon again.

  7. squirrelgardens says:

    Thanks for the list. We are one zone down from you so this is the Honey Do list for next week. Nice to compare the chores because feeling a little overwhelmed or underwhelmed with lack of green. Love your site.

  8. commonweeder says:

    I like it that there are some things on my list like DON’T fertilize the lawn. My flowery mead does fine without that. This year I planted more from seed and even though it is cooler up here in the Massachusetts hills, we did have that heat wave and it is time for lots of transplanting, and moving wood chips from the town’s public pile to my new Potager paths. No time for lollygagging.

  9. bfish says:

    Re: cleaning up beds carefully to avoid disturbing self-sown plants — I agree with you that perilla is desirable but not sure we have too much company! Perhaps in your colder climate it’s orderly, but here in southern Virginia it’s incredibly tenacious. Those babies pop up in areas ranging from full shade to full sun and it’s even moved down the street (and I’m talking about from the far back of our acre lot to front yards several houses away). But, gotta have that purple!

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