With the danger of frost just about over, mid-May is the perfect time to get gardens prepped for planting and to trim up shrubs and bushes. Gardeners have plenty of projects to keep them busy before putting the first flower or seedling into the ground.
Margaret Barnes of Trumbull, who earned certified master gardener status through the UConn Extension program, says spring is the time to cut back ornamental grasses to six inches and stalks on perennials. “Clean your beds from any overwintering weeds and pull back mulch so the sun can warm the soil,” she recommends. “Divide overcrowded perennials, like hosta and daylily. Put in your peony supports and pot up some hardy pansies for some early color — they are not bothered by late frost. You may direct-sow carrots, radishes, lettuce, spinach, snow peas, and beets.”
Kevin Clark, assistant manager at Gilbertie’s Herbs and Garden Center in Westport, recommends that gardeners prepare the soil well before planting, and that they rake out any rotted material from the previous year. “They should be turning over the soil, and once they turn it over, they can amend it,” he said, noting that depending on what one is planting, adding manure, compost or peat will add needed nutrients to the soil. Soil testing can be done to see what additives are needed.
Gerbert & Sons, a landscaping business in Stamford, posts a gardening timeline online to advise gardeners. In May-June, gardeners can stake tall-growing herbaceous plants, move bedding plants to frames and put a layer of compost around roses, shrubs and trees to aid in moisture retention during summer’s heat. “Flowering shrubs such as lilac and forsythia should be pruned as soon as they finish flowering to encourage a late flush of flower, and you should also be removing seed pods from rhododendrons and azalea,” the timeline suggests.
John Carlson of Homefront Farmers in Ridgefield, said that after May 15 is the time to plant summer vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, squash, and cucumbers. “When planting, make sure to rotate your crops — especially tomatoes — to reduce their risk of infection from soil-borne fungal diseases. It’s also very important to follow spacing guidelines; seedlings may look tiny when planted, but the spacing ensures they get the space, sun and air flow necessary when they are fully grown.”
Lee Ganim, aka “That Garden Guy” of Ganim’s Garden Center & Florist LLC in Fairfield, says his greatest fear was of a possible late frost this year in the upper areas of Connecticut. Most everything can be planted after May 15 except for tender annuals and tomatoes, and he suggests people wait till June to plant those. Regarding soil preparation, he recommends organic blends often found at small independent garden centers, noting that chicken and turkey manure are especially good among fertilizers.
“They (chickens) are not fed a lot of weed like cows, so they have a more controlled diet and you get a better, higher quality manure,” he says.
May is also a good time to buy and plant shrubs and trees, he explains. “They are coming fresh out of the nursery,” instead of having spent a long layover there. “They will probably acclimate quicker and you want to enjoy the blooms, you don’t want to get it after it blooms.”
Buying new plants is always fun, but gardeners can also get free plants by dividing what they already have. “Spring is great time to dig and divide your overcrowded perennials,” master gardener Barnes states. “Wait for the plants to show new growth and then dig them, being careful to retain as many roots as possible. Hostas are an easy plant to divide. Use a sharp trowel and split the plant in half or thirds, depending on its size.”
Hostas may be divided in spring or fall. The same is true for aster, black-eyed Susans, daylilies, coneflowers, daisies, phlox, Siberian iris, and yarrow, she said. Perennials needing to be divided by hand include coral bells, creeping jenny, geranium, lamb’s ears, sedum, and violets. “This is done by digging the plant up and carefully feeling the natural separation in the root systems with your fingers. It is simple to divide your ornamental grasses, too. Just take a sharp spade and split the mother plant.”
Certain perennials do not take well to dividing, however, including alyssum, carnation, delphinium, euphorbia, foxglove, lavender, rosemary, Russian sage, sea hollies, and trillium.
Elizabeth Craig, a Wilton-based master gardener, suggests that gardeners also think about protecting butterflies, birds and bees by adding native plants and creating a bloom diversity that pollinators need. The plants in your garden determine how many species of birds, butterflies and other desirable pollinators can live there, she says. She recommends adding native plants and trees beneficial to pollinators, like crocuses, asters, sunflowers, goldenrod, oak trees, and the American basswood (linden), aka the “bee tree.”
Kris Barker, owner of The Gardener’s Center and Florist in Darien, addresses the issue of drought in relation to plants. “With water scarcity becoming an increasing concern, utilizing drought-tolerant plants has been the new savvy way to garden,” he explains. “Two of the best ways to do this are to incorporate native plants and succulents in your landscape. Succulents, like sedum and sempervivum, store water in their leaves to use in the event of a water shortage. Many varieties can go 30 days or more without a drink. They also require little to no added nutrients to thrive.”
Native plants have the upper hand by having already been conditioned to our local area, according to Barker. “Consequently, once they are established, they also require little supplemental food and water,” he concludes.
For gardening advice, people may talk with a master gardener at UConn Fairfield County Extension at 203-207-3262.