As busy as bees
We pierce the warming topsoil
With dreams of freshness
May is one of the busiest months in the garden. Temperatures have warmed enough for us to begin planting in earnest. Weeds, pests, and beneficial insects are out in force. And it's gorgeous outside!
Aerate the soil
Our San Francisco Bay Area soil is heavy clay. This means it can hold on to lots of water and nutrients, but it can be difficult for roots, earthworms, and soil microorganisms. You can hire a professional aerator to come in with their heavy equipment to punch plugs out of your soil. While the machine creates its own soil compaction, the plugs really do make a big difference in soil health. Or, you can do what I do, which is to contact your local tree trimmer and ask for a load of tree trimmings. It won’t be the pretty bagged variety, but it will contain chipped twigs, leaves, stems and branches that can be spread on top of the soil as a mulch that will profoundly improve your soil structure. In 2012, when we bought our home, the soil was more like concrete. Now, thanks to mulches of tree trimmings, my soil is rich and black, loose, and filled with earthworms and beneficial microorganisms. For free.
Bees are very active in May. There is simply so much pollen and nectar to collect! Sometimes, a honey bee colony may swarm. If you see a swarm, don’t panic. As in any other time when working around bees, remain calm, move gently, and give them their space. Contact your local Bee Guild or Master Gardeners to have swarms removed.
Bulbs and other flowers
If flowering bulbs were looking crowded during the recent bloom time, delay digging them up to separate until after all the foliage is completely dry. Bulbs pull important nutrients from these leaves to help start up again next spring. Bulbs that are dug up and separated can be replanted in a new location, gifted to friends, or stored in a cool, dry, dark location until fall. If you want fall blooms, plant now.
They are countless varieties of plants that perform well in containers. Do them all a favor in May and get them off that soon-to-be hot concrete patio. Creating even the smallest space under container plants can reduce the roasting effect, which means they will need less water. Speaking of water, warmer temperatures mean container plants will start drying out more quickly. Water as needed.
Many flowers are in full bloom in May. To encourage plants to continue creating blooms, remove spent flowers as soon as they are seen. This also reduces habitat for many pests and diseases. Pinch back borage, petunias, and fuchsias to prevent plants from becoming top heavy.
May is the time fireblight shows itself in the Bay Area. Fireblight is a bacterial disease that makes plants look as though they had been damaged by fire. It attacks apples, pear and quince, most often, but can also infect ornamentals, such as toyon and pyracantha. Very often, the growing tip folds over into a shepherd’s crook shape. Fireblight can kill a mature tree, so complete removal of any diseased tissue is critical. Dip clippers into a 1 part bleach, 9 parts water solution between each cut to prevent reinfection. The final cut should be 8-12 inches below the diseased area.
May should be the time when fruit trees are covered with immature fruits. Thin those fruits now or regret it later. Too much fruit in one place means none of them taste as good as they might have. It also creates habitat for pests and disease. Apples should be thinned to no more than 3 fruits to a cluster, or one fruit for every 6 inches of branch. Apricots and other stone fruits need 4-6” between fruits for optimal growth, flavor, and sweetness. Also, be sure to check apples for codling moth damage.
If you still have a lawn, be sure to water it as early in the morning as possible. That way, the water isn’t lost to evaporation and the grass has time to dry out during the day, reducing the chance of fungal diseases. For the most part, I use water from my washing machine to water my lawn and it has been working very well. Check the lawn for weeds such as spurge, burclover, and whatever happens to invade your neighborhood. When mowing, set the blade height as high as you are comfortable with in summer. Taller grass shades the soil. This reduces evaporation and it makes the soil more comfortable for valuable earthworms and microbes.
Mulch and compost
Compost and mulch are two of the best things to add to any landscape. They add valuable nutrients to the soil, improve soil structure, and stabilize soil temperature. In our heavy clay soil, mulch prevents the baked concrete look we have come to expect in summer. [An important note about soil additives - while it may sound right to add sand to clay soil, to reduce compaction, it ends up creating concrete. Don’t do it!]
Slugs & snails
Slugs and snails can devastate young May seedlings. Applying non-toxic slug and snail bait lightly around new planting areas can save the crop. While there are more effective baits, those made with iron phosphate are not toxic to pets and wildlife and I have found they work well enough.
Before you start applying fertilizers and fungicides, collect a soil sample and send it out to a lab. [I use the UMass lab, but there are many to choose from]. The information provided in soil test results is invaluable. More often than not, your soil does not need more of all the nutrients found in a bag of fertilizer. It may only need some, or, in my case, it only needed iron because it held an excess of everything else. Simply adding more fertilizer can create nutrient imbalances that make it difficult for plants to absorb what they need. Get a soil test. It’s worth it.
This is the most welcome news of the season in the Bay Area. Nearly all summer growing plants (tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, squash, beans, corn, and peppers) can be put in the ground in May. If you are using transplants, be sure harden them off gradually or they may lose much of their vigor and productivity. Hardening-off simply means placing them outdoors in a protected location for a few hours. Slowly increase the time over a couple of weeks. Be sure to stake tomato plants now, while they are small. This can be done in tandem with quarantining new plants. And add straw under melon, squash, and strawberry plants to reduce fungal infection.
If verticillium wilt occurred last year, it is important to plant members of the nightshade family (tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and eggplant) someplace else. Verticillium wilt is a fungal disease that shows as yellowing older leaves, at first. Then, as the disease spreads, wilting occurs. Young plants nearly always die. Since the fungal spores can remain in the soil for 10-15 years, crop rotation is the best prevention.
California’s drought is continuing, despite the fair bit of rain we have received so far. The truth is, the Golden State has always been drought-prone and we would be wise to learn to live accordingly. When water restrictions were first implemented, I vowed to take meaningful steps to reduce our water consumption. As a result, we now use only 25% of the water we used to use! Surprisingly, my garden has not suffered and neither have we. These steps can help you conserve water while still caring for the garden:
Just as young garden plants are really kicking it into high gear in May, so are the weeds. Take my word for it, pulling them while they are small, and before the soil is baked, is much easier than later. Weeds take precious water and nutrients from garden plants. In most cases, the sooner they are gone, the better.
So, put on the hat and sunscreen and get out there in that May garden!