My May 2014 Garden Chores

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.

Newspaper Mulching. If you’d like to eliminate your weeding chores for an entire season, do what I do, and apply cardboard or newspaper to garden beds. Top the paper with shredded leaves, weed-free chopped straw, or wood chips. The details.

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

Layering. Wanna increase your stock of Weigela (above) and other flowering shrubs? Layer the stems.

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 my beloved ‘Zephirine Droughin’, above, to grow horizontally; this will force a bevy of new, vertical flowering stems to emerge.

Boxwood. Shear these alluring shrubs 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 hyacinths, tulips, narcissus, and etc. while they 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. And if your daffodils made a poor showing this spring, you will probably find the reason in this post.

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, and etc.

Rhubarb. Stems are ready for picking this month; why not dice them up for something sumptuous, 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 as a consequence, insects attack the radish foliage, and leave the other seedlings in the bed alone. Try this — it really works.

Chives. If you have the common variety in  your garden, my advice is to make this screamingly-delicious pesto.

In the Northeast, it’s wise to wait until Memorial Day weekend to arrange window boxes 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.
Because window garden subjects are growing fast these spring days, they 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. I wait until June to bring my “keepers” outdoors.

African violets. If plants are getting long-necked, remove them from their pots, slice off some of the lowest roots and return to the same pots, setting plants low enough in the soil to cover the bare necks. And be sure to read my African Violet tutorial.

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 (Pelargoniums). Prune to encourage low, stocky growth, but don’t cut back so hard that you remove a lot of flowering wood. The pink in my music room window (above), which I achieved from cuttings taken last August, bloomed and bloomed all winter long. They are eagerly awaiting a  holiday outdoors.

Enjoy the Birds! Birds are at their most active now; take time from your garden chores to observe their nervous, and sometimes 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
Perfect, Easy-to-Peel Hard-Cooked Eggs


  1. Christine F says:

    i am going to Cancun for my daughter’s wedding the first week of May so I will return to this land of no sun (NYS) tanned, refreshed and ready to attack all of these chores. (it will stop raining by then right?)

  2. Gay sullivan says:

    I’m with you Christine! We just returned from Aruba and I am itching to get outside and start ….after it stops raining!! After all , tomorrow is May 1st!!

  3. I LOVE your monthly to do and appreciate the reminders. It’s most helpful where we are almost in the same zone.

  4. Love the robin pic too. It just sings spring!

  5. Whittni says:

    Hello! I love your blog! Question: I have buried my bulbs under chicken wire because of problems with deer, rabbits, and rodents. You mention feeding the bulbs while the leaves are still absorbing nutrients. Could you recommend a good fertilizer that I could use (and not have to dig up the bulbs)? I have a granular one from Home Depot but it says not to let the food have contact with the bulb…thanks!

  6. Jackie Peschong says:

    Kevin, if I plant chrysanthemum throughout my tall bearded iris beds, I might get rid of the borers???

  7. Diane Richards says:

    I would love to receive your monthly what to do when list.
    Thank you

  8. Liz Odland says:

    This list is so helpful! I look forward to receiving all of them!

  9. Your blog is such a great combination of gardening tips and recipes. I find it hard to decide whether to cook, bake, or weed the garden. Now that spring is pretty much here, i think the garden chores must come first!

  10. Love the “To do list”
    It reminds me to GET GOING OUTSIDE!
    Rake old leaves, mend things,pull weeds that have underground invasive roots. If you don’t get all the roots, you get 5 times as many weeds next year! Or more!
    But, I need a few more boxwood plants, so I will snip some branches and insert into the soil for FREE PLANTS. (I was going to buy some, Thanks!).

  11. I do not see the pink pelargonium in the window picture above.

  12. Sandra says:

    Yes, it is very helpful. Inspires me to get to work.

  13. Dori – Whoops! I forgot to add the Pelargonium picture. It’s there now.

  14. Michelle says:

    I love your garden to-do lists! Your April list reminded me to stake my peonies, and now they have fully grown through the stakes and should bloom soon! I will enjoy them much more this year since they won’t be falling all over the place.

  15. Karen Waldrip says:

    Help! I live in SWFL and the bunnies thoroughly enjoyed my herb garden this winter. They’re all named Thumper as I can’t tell them apart. Anyway, I tried marigolds, garlic cloves, coyote urine granules, other stuff I can’t remember. They apparently don’t savor garlic chives and rosemary but devoured all the rest, even the marigolds. . Any thoughts?

  16. Love your website!
    What do you feed your daffodils/ other bulbs?

  17. Rose Connors says:

    Love your info on monthly choirs. I just love your site..

  18. Rose Connors says:

    Need info on hydrangea,s

  19. Hi Whitnee and Julee – I feed my bulbs with Espoma’s organic “Bulb Tone.” Just scatter around the plants, and let the rain (or your sprinkler) water it in. No need to dig up the bulbs, unless you are dividing them.

  20. Hi – I have dozens of hosta, one of my all time favorites is Queen Josephine. Lovely!! I love your newsletter. Keep them coming.

  21. Susan L. Golden says:

    Finally, growth in my milk jugs!!! It is so much fun to have a head start on these plants for my new flower gardens. I even got strawberry ‘seeds’ to sprout! Now if only my house plants looked better.The new growth is prolific on my miniature Schefflera, but it keeps dying just a couple days after showing! I know they will bounce back on the porch this summer, but I’m afraid they won’t make it until then. Even they are sick of gray rainy days! Happy gardening to all! 🙂

  22. Denise says:

    Thank you very much. Your garden routine is very helpful. I love your newsletter especially pictures of your African violets and gardens

  23. Very helpful – thank you!

  24. Sam (female) says:

    Have just discovered Kevin…wow…wish I had long ago. Question though…if I were to put newspapers in the flower beds to keep out the weeds, would it also keep the flowers that reseed each summer from appearing in all their splendor??

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