the may garden chores: 2013

Margaret's garden clogs and trowelMAYDAY–OR SHOULD I SAY ‘MAYHEM,’ as in: Somebody rescue me by helping with the edging, weeding, mulching required to get ready for the first Open Days of the season (May 11 this year—you coming?).  Most important, though, of course, is not to get too swept away by the to-do list, since May is also one of the garden’s most extraordinary months here in Zone 5B and elsewhere, with lots to sit back and savor.

Yes, there are a lot of chores vying for attention:  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 and so on.  But let’s not get crazy—let’s go area by area through the list:

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.

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

MY NEW SEED-STARTING TOOL will tell you when to sow what, indoors and out. Also for reference: My 20 top seed-starting FAQs.

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. Direct-sow more kale and chard, too.

IF YOU LIKE CILANTRO, plant 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; sow a short row every two weeks, and also sow pole beans for an even later crop. Maybe try 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.

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.

HOW ARE THE MELONS going? Follow these tips for best results.

IMPORTANT: HARDEN OFF all homegrown vegetable seedlings before transplanting, bringing them in and out for a week before setting them free for good.

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 long.

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. Not now!

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

flower garden

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 and a layer of finished compost. Wait to apply mulch until the soil warms thoroughly.

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.

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.

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).

DAFFODILS NOT BLOOMING? Here’s why bulbs fail to flower well.

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.

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.

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. My Mulch FAQs.

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.

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.

WORRIED ABOUT IMPATIENS DISEASE? Here’s the lowdown on downy mildew risk this year.


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.

compost heap

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.

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. 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. diane ash says:

    I normally wait until June (I garden in northern N.H.) to apply mulch to my perennial beds , but the summer-like weather and lack of rain this spring has me applying mulch to my driest beds now. Are you doing the same? Good luck with next weekend’s open garden day….my sister and I attended the June day last year and plan on attending in August this year.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Diane. I water deeply (or wait until after deep soaking rains) and then apply mulch — usually in the first half of May. So I am 3/4 mulched at the moment, all of it the last 2 weeks. I never mulch dry soil, but as I say always water well first. This year I have had to do that with every bed first. Slow going with a home well (not city water!) and a sprinkler or two at a time.

  2. diane ash says:

    Thank you for the information. I am doing a rain dance as we speak (albeit only in my head as I am recovering from a broken foot). Thank you again.

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