Picture a gardening day: A warm sun is shining on your bare arms. Your sharpened shovel lifts soft soil as you plant the first tomatoes into a weed-free bed. Flowering flats of marigolds and begonias sit nearby, awaiting your tasteful placement. The birds are chirping …
It’s May, at last!
Here is the darker picture: The month of May isn’t all merry. There are hard rainfalls, thunderstorms, and some frosty nights. The rain gives the weeds a big head start and washes out the seeds you planted. Your clay soil remains cakey and too wet to walk on. On the first warm days the wind blasts you so it isn’t fun to be out there, and the small biting flies attack your ankles and ears. And you forgot to sharpen your shovel.
“Why do I do this?” you think.
Work with reality
In mid- to late spring, gardeners must be flexible about the chores and the pleasures of gardening. May presents both extremes, from the euphoric joy of that balmy day to the misery of cold, wet weather (often on the only day you have free to work outside).
Here is my guidance for gardening in the real world. It’s all about timing and the order of things.
1. Pick up the remaining debris, while not walking on wet soil. Let twigs, small leaves, and evergreen needles remain in place where plants will soon hide them. (Organic matter decomposes and adds to the soil.)
2. Look at the design of your yard. See the shape of beds and lawn – while the plants are small and bare. Use a rope or hose to configure new or established beds. If you take out sod, use it to patch bare spots or start a compost pile.
3. Improve the soil. If your plants were disappointing last year, get a soil test from a nursery or Cooperative Extension. Mix compost into heavy soil. If acid-loving plants such as rhododendrons look yellowish and sickly, use sulfur-based acidic soil amendments. Fill new beds with top-quality garden soil (not just any old topsoil). Apply slow-release organic fertilizer if performance has been poor.
4. Remove or block weeds. Home gardeners do not need herbicides. Pull or dig perennial weeds such as mugworts and dandelions. (Many so-called weeds have value for ourselves or other creatures, but you may not want them everywhere.) If you can’t dig them out, you might smother large patches of persistent weeds (goutweed, creeping Charlie, lesser celandine). Use thick black plastic, cardboard, and newspaper, covered by more attractive mulch.
5. Be careful around perennials. Some are very slow to show up so do not walk or dig around their fragile crowns. If you are renovating an area, lift and repot perennial clumps to hold for future placement.
6. Ease up on the mulch. Don’t crowd the base of woody plants with mulch, don’t touch the tree trunks with it and keep it off the emerging perennials. Mulch is good for blocking weeds, retaining soil moisture and making a neat appearance, but too much can smother plants or keep rain from reaching roots. Gardeners can wait until summer to mulch (and don’t have to do it at all).
7. Shop with timing in mind. Scout garden centers early, but understand: They may not have received plant shipments and cannot get all plants out of winter storage yet. Many plants aren’t hardened-off and ready for outdoor temperatures. Garden centers cannot and should not provide every tender annual and vegetable yet. If they sell them to you, it should be with information about hardiness.
8. The order of planting. Plant woody plants any time the soil is workable – and do it properly, with wide holes or improved beds. Plant hardened-off perennials when the soil crumbles in your hands. Plant cold-season vegetables asap (salad greens) but wait until the soil feels like 55 degrees for warm-season vegetables (tomatoes, vine crops, beans) and tender annuals. Decorate with cool-weather annuals meanwhile.
9. Care for the bulbs. (The cool weeks provided a great bulb show this year!) Two choices as flowering bulbs decline: Cut back the flower stalks but let the leaves grow until they finally yellow. Or lift and pot the plants to care for them in a less visible spot.
10. Prepare tools and hoses. Clean and sharpen (including lawn mower blades) tools. Test hoses for leaks.
All this – from the chores to the celebrations – is gardening and it all begins in May.
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant and author of the newly published book, “Buffalo-Style Gardens” (St. Lynn’s Press, $24.95), along with Jim Charlier.