Garden Chores for May

April 28, 2013

TAKE A TIP FROM THE NESTING ROBINS — May isn’t the month to snooze! Indeed, garden-work we accomplish now will determine the success we’ll have for the rest of the growing season. Need a little guidance? I follow this routine:

Weed, Feed, and Mulch. Get out every weed from the flower beds, apply an organic, balanced plant food, and then spread a 2-to-3-inch layer of mulch. Remember that mulch is our greatest ally for conserving moisture, inhibiting weeds and improving soil quality.

Pruning. If you have let shrubs get out of hand, do a big pruning job now on the already-finished early spring bloomers, like forsythia and quince.

Groundcovers. Water deeply as needed. Weed and fertilize pachysandra, ivy, and vinca minor; once weed-choked, groundcovers are difficult to get right again. Also, thin out or take cuttings now to extend coverage elsewhere.

Hostas. Divide and transplant these jewels of the shade. If you want gold-washed types to brighten a dark spot, I can heartily recommend ‘Paul’s Glory,’ ‘Wide Brim,’ and ‘Frances Williams.’ These three have done wonders for my dimly-lit Woodland Garden.

Iris. If the season is dry, give plantings a deep soaking to improve flower quality. If borers were a problem last year, cut off any punctured leaves well below noticeable points of attack. You might plant, as I have, Pyrethrum as a companion for iris. Not only does pyrethrum provide beautiful, daisy-like flowers for cutting — it repels the iris borer, too.

Roses. Cut out suckers (canes with seven instead of five leaflets) close to the main stem below the soil line. Train canes of climbing roses, like ‘Zephirine Droughin’, above, to grow horizontally; this will force a bevy of new, vertical flowering stems to emerge.

Boxwood. Shear to desired shape (this is a job I hire out). Be sure to save at least some of the trimmings; these, inserted in soil, will form new boxwood plants in about six week’s time.

Hardy Bulbs. Feed while hyacinths, tulips, narcissus, and etc. are still in growth and making embryo flowers for next year. Cut off faded flowers for tidiness, but don’t remove foliage until it dies down naturally.

Winter-Sown Perennials. Plant these out before they get too big for their milk-jug containers.

Seeds To Sow. When soil has warmed up (and don’t be in too big a hurry if you live in the Northeast — frosts often occur here as late as May 17), sow the tender annuals — marigold, nasturtium, salvia, zinnia.

Rhubarb. Stems are ready for picking now; why not dice them up for something sumputious, like my mother’s custardy rhubarb pie? Or, try one of these rhubarb reveries which were submitted by A Garden for the House readers.

Tomatoes and Other Indoor-Started Seedlings. Begin the hardening-off process this month. On warm days, set seedlings in a shaded, sheltered position for one hour. Then gradually increase outdoor time and exposure to sun over a matter of weeks. Follow these tomato tips for an extra extravagant harvest.

Salad Greens. Continue to sow lettuce and spinach at 2-week intervals.

Frost-hardy vegetables. If you haven’t already, sow your frost-hardy vegetables now. These include broccoli, kale, cauliflower, carrots, beets, and onions. If you buy onion and beet seedlings from the garden center, be sure to separate them first.

Frost-tender vegetables. In zone 5-b, wait until Memorial Day weekend to direct-sow beans, cucumbers, summer- and winter-squash. These rarely benefit from an early start.

Radishes. It pays to edge beds of direct-sown veggies with radishes. Radishes emerge very quickly, and thus insects attack the radish foliage, and leave the other seedlings in the bed alone. Try this — it really works.

In the Northeast, it’s wise to wait until Memorial Day weekend to arrange windowboxes and hanging baskets. Be sure to locate these near a hose; they demand water daily (twice daily in periods of high heat). I fertilize mine with every watering.
Window garden subjects are growing fast these spring days and so require plenty of food, water, and fresh air. Watch for signs of trouble after the long indoor winter. Get after any infestation promptly; many plants are somewhat tired now and not in shape to cope with pests. Begin to discard the plants that didn’t perform well for you. Wait until June to bring the “keepers” outdoors.

African violets. If plants are getting long-necked, remove them from their pots, slice off some of the lowest roots and try to return to the same pots, setting plants low enough in the soil to cover the bare necks. Remove suckers for better flowering.

Cyclamen. If the last buds have opened, retire this plant to any cool, out-of-sight place, but water often enough to let the corm mature properly and not die of drought. Once the foliage has completely withered, withhold all water. Here is my complete guide to growing and re-blooming this gorgeous houseplant.

Ferns. These are busy making new fronds now. Water freely, but don’t let the pots in decorative jardinieres stand in water. My tips for propagating and growing the Boston Fern and Rabbits-foot Fern.

Geraniums. Prune to encourage low, stocky growth, but don’t cut back so hard you remove a lot of flowering wood.

Spider Plant. For more of these, cut off and pot the new little plantlets danging at the ends of pendant stems.

Enjoy the Birds! Birds are at their most active now; take time from your garden chores to observe their nervous, and often humorous, nest-building antics.

If you find my monthly “what-to-do-when” lists helpful, by all means let me know. As always, I love to hear from you.

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Related Posts:
Transplanting Winter-Sown Seedlings
Organic Way to Beautiful Roses
Strawberry Souffle


  1. Naomi Shelton says:

    Kevin, Yes, indeed, I find your monthly “what-to-do-when” lists extremely helpful. I’ve grown lots of houseplants but am not very knowledgeable about gardening. I am enthusiastic about it , though, and would like to have more success than I’ve had in the past. So thank you so much for this section of your web-site. I find I am consulting it regularly and becoming quite dependent on it.

  2. Naomi – So glad you find these to-do lists helpful. Music to my ears.

  3. Gloria Duy says:

    I’ll get my husband right on it! In fact I signed him up for your newsletter!
    PS Don’t judge me too harshly, he’s retired and I work a full and part time job!

  4. cyndi says:

    Love the list…great for inspiration and direction.

  5. sandra says:

    I love your lists. I usually add the chores for the month to my garden journal that I keep. Thank you for your information and the hard work of putting it together. I learn at least one thing, and usually more, with each of your posts.

  6. badger gardener says:

    My winter sown tomatoes, eggplants, and watermelon have not sprouted yet. I’m starting to worry that they won’t be ready for planting come Memorial Day. Our growing season is already so short in WI I wonder if I’ll get much of a harvest from these this summer. Time will tell.
    Hyacinth is blooming now and the first flowers of forsythia just opened today. Everything is quite behind schedule. We don’t even have dandelion flowers yet, although I have been busy pulling up the plants with my “weed hound”. Yes, they can be lovely, but when they go to seed I remember why I don’t like them in my yard. With all of the rain I’ve been able to get many of them up with tap root intact which is immensely satisfying. I am going to review your former dandelion post and try out the greens this year in the kitchen.

  7. Trudi Dido says:

    the site for starting rabbits foot fern has disappeared, fyi….. A friend brought me seedlings for Italy’s San Marzano tomatoes . and I foolishly put them out . danged if we didn’t get a late (for us in Ga ) frost . So they are gone. I did find some seeds for the same variety and will try again though. We’ve also had a late spring down here, but now the weeds are popping out all over. I don’t mind the dandelions but the man who cuts our lawn lives across the street and they drive him crazy . I’m gonna have to watch him carefully or he will sneak some weed killer onto the lawn . He does not “get’ the idea that we eat from the garden and do NOT want poison in our food. Bless his heart. ( I’ve learned that is a southern saying for dang his hide) Since you have rhubarb growing ,I will come north to visit. My grandmother used to treat the kids to rhubarb pie when we drove up to visit. ahhhh soul food for northerners . Rhubarb and lilacs . I miss ‘em.

  8. Trudi Dido says:

    forgot my manners… I DO love your tips .. I never knew I could cut off roots of african violets and replant them deeper.! I will do it from now on. and teach my friend who is fretting about her leggy ones.. Thanks for the encouragement about getting to the weeding. They seem so inconsequential right now since they are small, Later ..oh my ,they will eat up the place. I will try the newspaper mulch trick this year. I just had to wait to see where the good seedlings were before I cover up the “bad ” ones I look forward to your post so much . It starts my Sunday off with a smile. Thanks!

  9. Riversana says:

    I love your to-do lists. I’m still a new gardener and your lists are helping me learn what I need to do. I’m in zone 7b, but I’m way behind so your lists are quite timely for me! Thank you so much, you’re a fabulous resource!

  10. Brigid says:

    Kevin! I love Frances William hostas. Is it too late for me to plant them now. I totally forgot that I wanted them after seeing them at The Porches in North Adams 2 years ago!

  11. Nancy Shelly says:

    The to-do lists are great reminders. Without them, I’m certain that some tasks would simply be forgotten.

  12. Patrice says:

    I love your blog! A question…what do you use to feed the hardy bulbs? I’ve heard nitrogen isn’t advised. Is that accurate?

  13. Von Dege says:

    WOW! Now that’s a helleva list! I better get on it!
    Your site is very informative :)

  14. Chance says:

    Hi Kevin, what a great site you have. Do you have a Southern California version of you?

    First time homeowner, first time gardener. While I don’t feel overwhelmed, I am operating almost entirely on instinct and google. Which can be contradictory in and of itself!
    Vegetable garden beds are doing great, flower beds not so much. Not sure if it’s the watering, the heat, or the soil. Sometimes the flowers die in just a few days. And some of them are going strong.

    Ok, enough about me. haha. Thanks for your site; I’ll hopefully pick up plenty of tidbits and apply as I can.
    Rock n Roll,

  15. Patrice – I feed my hardy (“Dutch”) bulbs with a low-nitrogen, high-phosphorous formula. Details:

    Chance – Nice to meet you. And yes to rock-n-roll.

  16. Patrice says:

    Thanks, Kevin. I’ll try the 5-10-10 granular formula for the “Dutch” bulbs!

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