May means that gardening gets real. Here in New York State, we're frost-free, so nothing can stop us from planting! Since it's now or never for a lot of important gardening tasks, we're bringing you a checklist of all the activities you should have going on in your garden.
This will not only help you to get your seeds in the ground at the right time, but also to plan succession sowing for season-long veggies and flowers. The key to a successful planting calendar is knowing your last frost date. You can read more about how to craft a planting guide here.
Now that your soil is ready to be worked, gather your tools. A garden fork, a shovel, a stirrup hoe, an Ika hoe, and a hard rake will do for most home gardeners. Larger plots may call for larger tools. Plants love fertile, well-draining soil, so adding organic compost and fertilizer is a must. Then you can remove any large rocks or debris and use your rake or garden fork to aerate the soil, taking care not to overwork it. Next, let your bed rest for about two weeks. Water it a few times and wait for weeds to germinate so they can be removed before your seeds go in. Find much more detail in Making the Bed: Our Best Tips for Great Germination.
As soon as frost is no longer a threat, the planting possibilities are endless. Think beans, beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, chard, corn, cucumbers, fennel, kale and collards, kohlrabi, lettuce, melons and watermelons, potatoes, radishes, scallions, spinach, summer squash, turnips and rutabagas, and winter squash. And don't forget your tender herbs like basil and parsley and your summer flowers! Direct-sown seeds have different needs for spacing and depth of planting depending on the variety, but all of them like good drainage and a steady supply of moisture. Check out our article on direct sowing for more tips.
Hardening off plants is an oft-overlooked planting step that's helps to reduce transplant shock and acclimatizes plants to outdoor conditions. Bring seedlings outside, for a few hours at a time at first, working up to a full day. Eventually they will be sturdy enough to withstand nighttime temperatures as well, at which point they can be transplanted. For most plants, hardening off for around one week is sufficient.
Making sure a late frost isn't going to sneak up on you is crucial here. Hoops and row cover can help protect them from unseasonable cold. Pick a mild, cloudy afternoon to give your seedlings a smooth transition. Use a trowel or Hori Hori to dig a spot for them, remove them carefully from their containers, and place them at soil level. Gently pat down the ground around them to ensure proper contact between soil and roots. (Tomatoes can actually be planted deeper than other seedlings. To read up on tomato transplanting specifically, click here.) Our Transplanting and Troubleshooting Guide can tell you more.
It may seem early, but as every gardener knows, those pinprick weed seedlings are about to spring up now that the weather is warm. Save yourself trouble later and give your seeds and seedlings an edge by doing some hand weeding or scuffle hoeing. Our Ninja Claws also make great weeding tools for home gardeners. And don't forget to thin your seedlings after they get to be an inch or two tall. Snipping seedlings at the base with scissors instead of pulling them out ensures that the roots of the rest will remain undamaged.
To mulch or not to mulch? For many gardeners, adding a layer of straw or other organic mulch right after direct sowing and transplanting is routine. However, this could actually block sunlight, prevent the soil from warming up, and, especially during wet springs, trap too much moisture and create an ideal habitat for slugs. If you're planting potatoes, mulch can be a great option right now. In midsummer, after the soil has had a chance to warm and the seedlings to grow, it can be very useful to regulate moisture and suppress weeds. Additionally, as it breaks down over time, it adds organic matter to the soil. Mulch is best for larger, vinier plants like tomatoes, eggplants, and squashes. This month, however, consider staying away from mulches like straw, and if you do decide to use it now, create clear lines alongside your seedlings and furrows, not on top of them. If you're looking for a good alternative to protect your veggies from the elements, consider hoops and row cover.