May gardening

Mary Ann Ryan
Adams County Master Gardener Coordinator

(5/1) Finally itís May! February, March and April have been so unpredictable. Warm temperatures in February faked us all out thinking it was spring, March brought us cold temperatures and some snow, reminding us that, indeed, winter was not yet over, and April, teasing us with nice weather, but could we trust it? But now the month of May is welcoming spring. The time of year we gardeners are all waiting for. Like many gardeners, Iíve created this to-do list throughout the late winter months, just waiting for an opportunity to celebrate the gardening season!

List of my gardening chores:

Soil test. Knowing the soil pH helps greatly in growing just about every kind of plant. This will help in determining what amendments you may need to add if itís a vegetable garden, and what shrubs, trees and perennials you can select if planting a landscape.

The soil test will also give recommendations for fertilization needs according to the crop you are growing. Soil test kits are available at your local extension office.

Find my gardening tools! I have a few tried and true gardening tools that I use everywhere in the garden, be it the vegetables, perennials or containers. Throughout the gardening season, Iím pretty good at putting the tools back where they belong, but my husband tends to use my tools and they seem to disappear! (Always blame it on the spouse!) A good search and garden shed clean-out is at the top of my chore list. This is the perfect start to the season: organizing and cleaning out!

Cut back perennials. I always let my perennials and grasses stand for the winter months. They provide a needed food source and shelter for birds and insects. But as these plants begin to grow again, the stalks of last seasonsí growth must be removed for an attractive garden.

Edge planting beds. This is probably my least favorite spring chore, as it certainly can be a back breaker. However, edging the beds gives the gardens a clean, neat look. Use a square tipped shovel for best results, and this will give you a straight edge.

Mulch. As you clean up the shrub and perennial beds, add a bit of mulch to help with weed control for the season. Apply it no thicker that three inches and remember to keep away from the base of plants.

Prune broken branches from trees and shrubs. The snow is gone and buds have begun to push. Flowers on trees have faded to fresh, new leaves for the season. We can easily see what has been damaged or is dead on our trees and shrubs and this is the perfect time to clean up those branches.

Pruning these branches lead to a healthier plant. Remember to cut branches to just outside the branch collar. This is the wrinkly part at the base of any branch. Donít cut into the collar otherwise the wound will not callous over and heal. If a cut is made into that collar zone, disease and insect issues are much more likely.

Start some vegetable seeds inside. If you havenít yet started tomato and pepper seeds indoors, it can be done now. This offers us more varieties than what is being sold in the garden centers. This will allow ample time to grow transplants ready for the garden in late spring. When the soil is warm (recommended soil temperature is above 60 degrees) the transplants can be planted in the garden, usually by the end of May. Below 50 degrees and the growth of the plants will be impaired.

Donít jump the gun on the warm season vegetables, annuals and herbs. When visiting garden centers, youíll see big tomato plants, maybe some impatiens, or basil. These crops are warm season plants, and if planted in the garden too soon, will lead to disappointment. Remember the last frost date is May 15, and many years frost has occurred at this time, or later. So be patient.

Work the soil in the vegetable garden. Iíve worked on the soil in my vegetable garden for many years. Adding compost year after year has made for great soil that just needs loosened in the spring with a pitch fork, and Iím ready to plant. But before I do that, weeds must be removed. Some of the winter annuals like henbit, chickweed and speedwell are all happily growing where the veggies need to be. They enjoyed the wonderful February, germinating early and becoming strong plants in my garden. A good weeding is imperative before loosening the soil and planting seeds.

Plant "cole" transplants and "cool" season crops. Soil temperature requirements for crops like cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower are 40 degrees. Cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts and kale are called "cole" crops. Itís best to use transplants if growing these vegetables. Starting from seed this late will result in a summer crop, and they donít like the summer heat, forcing them to bolt or taste bitter.

As soon as the soil is workable, "cool" crops can also be planted. Lettuce, arugula, spinach, beets, radishes, and peas all prefer cooler temperatures and are, therefore, considered "cool" crops. These vegetables can all be direct sown as seeds into the garden.

Most of the cool season crops do very well in containers too. When planting in containers, use a soilless mix, not garden soil. The mix allows for good drainage in containers and does not carry pathogens. If trying to garden in a container, be sure to fertilize frequently as nutrients in containers run through the pot quickly. My sister grew lettuce in a container on her shady deck last year and had great success. Last season I grew cabbage and kale in containers and it turned out great! Iíve just planted another crop of kale and spinach in my containers for this season Ė and they not only can be eaten, but look quite pretty too mixed with some pansies!

Pull weeds. And so it begins. Lucky for me, I donít typically mind pulling weeds; I usually find it relaxing. The winter annual weeds that are found in the vegetable garden will also be lurking in the perennial garden. May just begins the season long chore of weed control.

Plant strawberries. I ordered strawberries this year and have planted them in the ground. The strawberry patch that I had was about three years old and Iím pretty sure a skunk dug up the plants last fall. A new location in the fenced in garden will be there home for a few years. Thereís nothing quite like fresh strawberries from your own patch! Although we wonít be getting any berries this year, since itís the first year, next year weíll be looking forward to a bang up crop!

Visit the local garden center. Although I enjoy all the tasks on my chore list (except edging the beds), this one has got to be on the top! Checking out new cultivars of trees, shrubs and perennials is lots of fun. Itís always interesting to see whatís new in the industry and try to grow some new plants to see what theyíll do.

Plant cool tolerant annuals (because I know Iíll buy some). While visiting the garden center, I know pansies will be out in full force. Who can pass up a couple of market packs? Planted in containers, they welcome spring to the deck and patio. There are other cool season annuals that can be mixed in these containers for additional interest. Plants like nemesia, snapdragon, lobelia, and osteospermum are options that can be mixed with pansies to add texture and additional color. Petunias and Calibrachoa (often called million bells) do pretty well as early annuals too. Just be sure to wait till after the last frost date (May 15!) before planting things like New Guinea impatiens, flowering tobacco, and salvias.

Re-visit perennial garden design created during the winter. Usually after visiting the garden center, lots of new ideas surface. Trying to determine how or where to plant some of those new introductions may take a little re-do. When adding plants that are new or different, be sure you do the research first. Thereís nothing worse than planting something new and having it suffer, die, or get too big because the placement and selection was wrong.

Maybe you have a chore list of your own. If not, make the list and get gardening!

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