Things to Do in the May Garden

By Barbara Gyarmathy, Master Gardener

“Some of what happens to nature is beyond our control. But not our backyards. This is where we can do our bit to help the insects, butterflies, birds and animals that are necessary to life. The key word is habitat. It’s being lost all over the world, and with it, the biodiversity that’s essential to life on the planet. It’s up to us to put it back. One backyard at a time.”

— Carolyn Ulrich, Editor, Chicagoland Gardening Magazine

Non-native plant species provide on average 68% less food for insects and birds than native plants, and the good news is no yard is too small to go with earth-friendly native plants.

Consider these possibilities: Stachys ‘Hummelo’ (Perennial Plant Association’s Plant of the Year in 2019), Allium ‘Millenium’ (Plant of the Year 2018); monarda and milkweeds for our monarch butterflies and Calamintha nepetha for our bees; Little Blue Stem and Prairie Dropseed are favorite grasses; tithonia and zinnias are unsurpassed annuals providing both the nectar and habitat necessary for healthy native ecology.

Soon, a wide variety of native plants will be available in Beverly/Morgan Park when the second location for City Grange opens at 1818 W. 99th St. City Grange, Chicago’s only independent social-enterprise gardening company, offers organic and pesticide-free plants and seeds, soil and other gardening supplies.  City Grange has expanded it delivery zone to include Beverly/Morgan Park and they are offering online gardening classes. Find info at

So now is the time to make your dream garden a reality. What tasks are at hand?

Continue to look for winter injury on trees and shrubs. Winter injury can occur on almost any plant, particularly those subject to drought stress, drying winds and plants growing outside their adapted range. Boxwood, azalea, rhododendron, arborvitae, juniper and many fruit trees are susceptible to winter kill. Leaves are usually the first to die, followed by buds and then the smaller twigs. Prune out twigs and branches that have not leafed out or consider removing extensively damaged plants.

Annuals and perennials can be planted in mid to late May. This is also the time to plant summer and fall-flowering bulbs such as dahlias, cannas, tuberous begonias, caladium, crocosmia, freesia, gladiolus or calla lilies.

When space is limited, consider implementing “edible landscaping.” Edible plants can be tucked into traditional ornamental landscapes. For example, add colorful lettuces, red mustard, or Swiss chard to your flower bed alongside annuals. Create edible containers that mingle with containers of tropical or annuals. The edibles will blend in best if you select dwarf varieties.

Apply mulch around plants when soil has warmed, usually late May. Never apply more than 2 inches and keep mulch pulled away from the plant crowns to prevent insect or disease problems. Consider planting closer, so less mulch is used.

Pinch off a ½ inch of the stems of chrysanthemums, asters, phlox, bee balm and sedum when they reach 6-7 inches tall. Pinching back shoots through June will increase the health of the plant and keep it from becoming straggly.

Remove spent flowers from spring bulbs, but allow bulb foliage to die back naturally. Leaves make food resources, which are stored in the bulbs for next year.

After mid-May:

Plant transplants of tomatoes, peppers and eggplant. Choose disease resistant varieties. Stake or cage plants and allow proper spacing.

Plants seeds of cucumbers and squash. Train these vining vegetables to some type of support such as existing fences, poles, wire cages and trellises.

Plant a selection of warm-season herbs including basil, rosemary, parsley and cilantro.

Prune spring-flowering shrubs right after they bloom (before next year’s buds are being formed).

And enjoy. The sunshine and increase in temperatures are so welcome by now. The scent of the fresh earth and listening to the flocks of geese flying overhead will diminish stress!


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