Roots and Shoots: What to Do in the Garden Now

By Pamela Doan

We’re coming up on that final frost date on May 15, and it should be safe to plant tender annuals, perennials and vegetables that aren’t cold hardy. I’m sure we’re all enjoying our first harvest of early spring and moving on to a second round of vegetables, right? Well, maybe not all of us got a head start. But it doesn’t matter, do what you can.

I have four dozen tomato seedlings incubating under lights in my basement and 18 basil plants looking forward to fresh air, but credit for that goes to another member of my household. Thanks, dear. Bring on the warm weather. Here are some things to get done this month.

Hit up the plant sales organized by garden clubs, master gardeners, local farms and nonprofits. It’s a positive way to support your community, get advice from other gardeners and learn about gardening. Most of the sales have native plant options and good plants for pollinators and birds.

Lilacs, a common landscape planting in this area, should be pruned soon after the blooms are finished. Cut away suckers and up to a third of the tallest, thickest branches. They set their blooms over the summer and later pruning can be done, but it won’t flower next year. Forsythia and other spring blooming woody plants can be pruned after blooming, too. Hydrangea is the exception. Be sure you know the specifications for your cultivar because they set blooms at different times.

May is a good time to tend to lawns that need perking up. Most lawn seed germinates when temperatures average about 50 degrees. Seed and overseed areas to fill in bare spots. Since grass seed needs daily watering, plant around the rainy days in the forecast to get a good soaking after it’s on the ground. Thick grass will keep down weeds. If you need to fertilize, do it at the end of the month before it gets hot.

Columbine is a lovely spring flower that self-seeds and attracts pollinators. (Photo by P. Doan)

Is there ever a bad time to mulch? No, there is not. Mulch is a gardener’s best friend. While we’ve had a wetish spring, patterns trend toward hot, dry summers and periods of drought have occurred for the past few years. Don’t wait until you’re in it to prepare your plants. Which leads again to mulch: a layer of organic matter like wood chips or shredded leaves that covers the ground will hold in moisture and inhibit weeds. Use it around trees, shrubs, flowers and vegetables. Make sure not to bury the trunk or stem and avoid mounding it too close, i.e., no “volcano-style” mulching. Give the plant space to grow.

Most established perennials, especially those that are native here, don’t require special fertilizers or nutrients. They can thrive if they’re in the right growing conditions for their light and water needs. Top dressing the soil with compost should suffice to keep them happy.

Even though it seems like it’s the right time to plant tomatoes, wait another week or two. These are real warm weather vegetables and they will grow faster when the temperature stays above 55 to 60 degrees. We aren’t there yet but should be soon. Consider tomato planting a Memorial Day weekend activity.

Plant seeds for squash, pumpkins, corn and other vegetables that are harvested in mid-late summer or fall.

Considered perennial vegetables? Asparagus, sunchokes or Jerusalem artichokes, rhubarb, and ramps are possibilities. Once I get more sunlight in my yard to grow vegetables, I’m planting asparagus. It takes a few years to produce and no one is getting any younger.

Spring weeding means less work all summer. By removing unwanted plants now, you can prevent them from going to seed and making more weeds all season. Identifying and understanding the life cycle of a weed can help you be more effective at controlling it. This is particularly helpful in vegetable gardening, where weeds can crowd out and inhibit the growth of plants.

Set up for composting. This is the best season to gather materials. There are many ways to do it, just find the system that works best for your needs. Compost is a free source of nutrients for your plants and takes all those fruit and vegetable scraps, the coffee grounds and egg shells, the grass clippings and tree leaves, the plant material, out of the waste stream. It is recycling and reusing at its most basic.