Ear to the Ground: The Insider Dirt to Gardening in Upstate NY

Almanac: May – June 2019

by cathym on May 8, 2019

Here come the seedlings

“So much to do, so little time” could be the mantra for this time of the year. How lucky gardeners are whose work is such a joy! 

When buying plants, choose compact, healthy specimens with unopened buds, or plan to remove the flowers before planting so energy goes into establishing good roots. Check for chewing and puncture wounds on both sides of leaves. And yes… read the plant tags. Place plants in the soil at the proper depth. Keep in mind “right plant, right place” to avoid disappointment later. Be sure to spider (spread) out the roots. And don’t forget to try at least one new plant! Consider a native to help pollinators and birds.

Grew plants from seed? Be sure to harden them off and to place collars around them so cut worms don’t make you cry after all your work. Direct-sowing seeds into the garden soil? Be sure to thin the seedlings to prevent crowding and competition for light, water, and food.

Still have foliage from spring bulbs? Leave it so the leaves can re-nourish the bulbs for next year. Your annuals and perennials planted nearby will soon hide them. Want to divide or move your spring bulbs? Do it after the foliage dies.

In early May to early June you can cut back perennials such asphlox, bee balm, sedum, asters, and goldenrod by one-third to one-half. (This is called the “Chelsea Chop,” named after the flower show that takes place at this time in London.) The plants will flower later and be more compact. You might try only cutting back some of them so there are blooms over a longer period of time. While you are pruning you can cut back spring flowering perennials such as pulmonaria, brunnera, and perennial geraniums after they bloom. They will reward you with fresh leaves and sometimes more flowers. And while you are pruning cut back to the ground one-third of the oldest stems of weigela, forsythias, and spiraea. Then remove the wilted seed heads from azaleas and rhododendrons so energy goes to the foliage rather than to the making of seeds.

While you are at it, place stakes next to taller flowering plants or put other supports over them so they can grow up through them without damage to foliage and flowers later in the season. Rethink at least one of your gardens. Begin to make changes now. 

Check the Cornell Recommended Vegetable list for suggested and disease resistant varieties of vegetables and fruits. When the soil is warm, about 50 degrees Fahrenheit (soil, not air!), you will be able to plant tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers (all relatives, by the way) as well as cole crops, beans, and root crops. If May was too warm you can try reseeding spinach. Be sure to try Swiss chard both for its edibility and its beauty. This is also a good time to plant dahlias, gladiolas, lilies, begonias, and cannas.

Continue to cut or snap off your asparagus spears at ground level. Remove rhubarb flower stalks so the plant energy doesn’t go to the seeds. Pull each edible stalk from the base and twist to harvest, but don’t harvest more than half of the stalks. 

Need to move a tree or shrub? Evaluate the new site to make sure it will have the best growing conditions for success: the right light, soil pH, and exposure. Ideally you will have pruned the roots several months ago to encourage the tree or shrub to produce some new feeder roots. Make sure the root ball is not dry and is covered during the move. Prepare the new hole in advance of the move. (See Cornell University Information Bulletin 24 for more information.) Keep newly planted trees, shrubs, vegetables, perennials, and flowers well watered (about one inch per week). This is also a good time to make softwood cuttings, before plant tissue hardens.

Put diatomaceous earth at the base of your hostas. Since slugs can climb up the leaves from the ground you may consider pruning back hosta leaves that arch to touch the ground. 

Still have a lawn? Mow lawn at least three inches high. This encourages deeper, healthier root growth. Leave grass clippings on the lawn toreturn nutrients to the soil. You can skip a spring lawn feeding if desired as the late autumn feeding is far more important. A top dressing of compost is an excellent and natural fertilizer. For optimal pre-emergent crabgrass control, do not apply until soil is close to 60 degrees. Crabgrass doesn’t germinate until the soil temperature two inches deep is between 60 and 64 degrees. Applying when the ground is too cold is a waste of money and chemicals. 

Don’t let your vegetable and garden waste go to waste! If you are not composting this is a good time to start. Consider worm composting for indoors or begin composting outdoors. When it is finished you will be thrilled when adding your compost to all of your garden beds as well as a quarter inch to your lawn.

Thin out excess immature fruit from your fruit trees to ensure fruit of a reasonable size and to keep the trees strong. Then gradually move your houseplants outdoors when night temperatures are above 50 degrees. 

Whew! If you do all this, you will have an incredible garden. 

—Carol Ann Harlos and Lyn Chimera, Master Gardeners, Erie County

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