May in the Garden

In my garden, May just has to be the most beautiful month of the year. The trees finally get heir new leaves. Lilacs bloom mid-month along with most of the woodland native plants, such as trillium, Virginia bluebells and Jack-in-the-pulpit. Peonies and iris begin at the end of the month.

The Most beautiful Month in the Garden

Be sure to jot down the names of any bulbs you see blooming at public gardens. You will never remember when ordering next August. Take photos, too.

Wilted plants usually need water, but if there has been ample rain outdoors, the opposite problem may be the case. Too much water can cause root-rot and a loss of oxygen that way. If a plant is in a pot, you may be able to un-pot it and let the roots dry out a bit. This plant may need clay instead of plastic for a container. If this happens outdoors, the plant is probably a goner. You might try and dig some air holes in the ground around the plant, but not much will help.

Plants more often wilt from a lack of oxygen than a lack of water. When the soil is compacted, the plant's tender feeder roots and root hairs suffocate. The problem is compounded when the well-meaning gardener assumes this is a sign of water stress and immediately irrigates. Well-aerated soil, enriched with organic matter, allows air and water to circulate freely about the root system creating a vigorous plant.

Although the weather may seem settled, don’t risk putting out house plants or tender vegetables until all danger of frost has past. Check with your local County extension service agent for the frost-free date in your area. The date in my New Jersey garden is towards the end of the month, so I try and wait until Memorial Day to put plants outside.

Transplanting little seedlings is a bit tough. These have to hardened off. The idea is to acclimatize them to wind and sun gradually, to toughen their cells and avoid damage. The old method is to bring the plants out for one hour the first day, two the next, and so on for a week or longer. That’s a lot of work. If you have a cold frame, that can be helpful. Row cover, spun-fiber fabric designed for this purpose, can be laid over metal hoops above transplanted seedlings. A similar technique can be helpful for transplanting young shrubs to full sun. Prop up a few stakes and make a tent of white row cover fabric. I’ve recycled some old polyester curtains that were left in my house when I bought it.

Do any transplanting on cloudy days. If rain is forecasted, all the better. You can also put a bushel basket over a small transplant if frost is predicted.
Frost is like frozen dew. We have had some cold snaps when the temperature has dipped to 33 degrees F, and there has been no damage. Concurrently, frost at 42 degrees F, has wiped some things out. A covering above the plants always helps.

You may be interested in planting a screen of shrubs to hide something (like your neighbors). Rather than planting a shrub such as mock orange, which blooms for about a half hour in June – consider making what I call a “bio-hedge.” This is a planting that encourages birds by providing shelter and food in the form of berries and seeds. I always use native plants when it comes to berries shrubs, as the birds will eat the fruit and deposit the seeds elsewhere. That can be a big problem if the plants used are non-native and potentially invasive.

Bird enthusiasts know that the animals need food, shelter from weather, safety from predators and nesting sites. If you provide these, you’ll have many birds visiting your garden and some living there, as well.

Do your best to keep other animals, such as squirrels and in our area, bears, from feeders. And put feeders where they will be safe from neighborhood cats, as well.

I had quite a bit of success eliminating slugs and earwigs in my Brooklyn, NY garden by trapping them – not with beer – but with old boards laid on the path at night. The animals go there for shelter and in the morning, they will be under the boards. It’s a little gross. I knock the slugs into the pond where the fish happily gobble them up.

You can make a house for toads if they are in your area, by leaving a clay pot, turned upside down, in a sheltered spot. Dig a little groove in the soil as an entrance.

Earthworms are nearly always welcome tot he garden, but in Brooklyn, where the garden is like one giant container, the worms do a lot of damage. Sometimes, the soil is so overworked, that shrubs topple right out of the ground and topple over. This is a problem. Commercial fertilizers that are like salt repel worms, burning them and driving them away, but I do not use the preparations anymore. I’ll get back with an answer when I find one.

A cool way to mulch perennials in a new bed is to plant them from pots and turn the empty pot over the plant. Then you can apply the mulch and when you remove the pot, an open area will be left around all the plants. Mulch should never touch the stem of any plant. Don’t use peat moss as mulch. It steals moisture from the soil and then when it dries out, it is impossible to remoisten. It also packs down and keeps air from getting to plant roots. Mulch should always be open, coarse and allow water to percolate down to the soil and oxygen, as well. If you use wood mulch, such as bark chips or sawdust, add a nitrogen fertilizer, such as cow manure tea or fish emulsion. The microorganisms that break down the wood use nitrogen and will steal it from the soil, and thereby, your plants.

Avoid using peat moss as mulch. It tends to form a tight mat, virtually impermeable to light rain once it becomes dry. It is best mixed in with soil as a conditioner.

An old husband’s tale claims that peonies will not open unless ants are present. That is not rue. Ants feed on sweet sap on peony buds and cause no harm. They may keep some other insects off the peonies, but this positive effect would be negligible.

After lilacs bloom, deadhead them. Remove all the faded flower spikes before fruit develops. Do this on lilacs (and Rhododendron) and you will have better and more flowers next year. Developing fruit takes energy away from leaf, root growth and the formation of next year’s flower buds.

Edited by Chris McGrath

About the Author
Dirt Lovers Diary with host Ken Druse. Ken may be the best-known garden writer in America. He's written seventeen garden books, and two have won best book of the year awards from the American Horticultural Society. Ken has also written hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles on gardening and been a popular television guest on programs such as Martha Stewart and the Liberty Garden as well as hosting hist weekly podcast Real Dirt.
Also connect with Ken on his Facebook page.