MAY IS A FRAGRANT MONTH, when the bearded irises, snowy viburnums (like ‘Cayuga,’ pictured above) and glorious old lilacs perfume the air. But it is also a manic time, for now the garden begs us to move in twenty directions at once. Where to begin? Here is my schedule for the month:
Weed, Feed, and Mulch. Get out every weed from the flower beds; apply a plant food high in phosphorus (I use a 4-12-4 formula). Then spread a 2-to-3-inch layer of mulch. Mulch is your greatest ally for conserving moisture and inhibiting weeds. I obtain great quantities of mulch for free — and so can you.
Pruning. If you have let shrubs get out of hand, do a big pruning job now on the early spring bloomers, like forsythia and quince.
Groundcovers. Water deeply as needed. Weed and fertilize pachysandra, ivy, and vinca minor; once weed-chocked, 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 variegated types to brighten a dark spot, I recommend the gold-washed ‘Paul’s Glory,’ ‘Wide Brim,’ and ‘Frances Williams.’
Iris. If the season is dry, give plantings a deep soaking to improve flower quality. If borers were a problem last year, dust plants with pyrethrum, then 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 to grow horizontally; this will force a bevy of new, vertical flowering stems to emerge.
Boxwood. Shear to desired shape (I leave the job to a professional). Be sure to save at least some of the trimmings; these, inserted in soil, will form new boxwood plants in only six week’s time.
Hardy Bulbs. Feed while hyacinths, tulips, narcissus, etc. are still in growth and making embryo flowers for next year. (I use superphosphate and wood ashes). 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 (don’ be in too big a hurry; frosts can occur here as late as May 17), sow the tender annuals — marigold, nasturtium, salvia, zinnia. Sow summer squash and other tender vegetables Memorial Day weekend.
Rhubarb. Stems are ready for picking now; either eat them raw, dipped in sugar, or dice them up for my mother’s delicious, custardy, rhubarb pie.
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.
Lawn Weeds. If nothing else, pick dandelion flowers; big problems arise if you let these go to seed.
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.
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