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GARDENER COLUMN: Signs to look for when gardening in May

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Signs to look for when gardening in May

Orioles enjoying the backyard offerings.

“In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.” – Margaret Atwood.

I spent this past weekend cleaning out several of my large perennial beds – I’m a little behind. I don’t have much in the vegetable garden yet, but I was finally able to get in a first planting of peas. Although it is a lot of work to clean out my perennial beds, I greatly enjoy “discovering” what is coming up. Many of my perennials are still sleeping in. According to the Aldo Leopold 2022 Wisconsin Phenology Calendar, we should already have begun to have blooming columbine, wild geranium, jack-in-pulpits, and lilacs. Mine are all up and budding out but I won’t see flowers on mine for several more weeks. We also should have been able to start looking for morel mushrooms. Wild lupine and choke cherry should also start blooming. I’m hoping the wild lupine will be grown enough for when the Karner blue butterfly eggs hatch, as the caterpillars can only survive on lupine plants. The orioles have already or should soon arrive so put out grape jelly and orange halves for them. My niece in the Madison area took several photos of them at her home this week.

While we continue to wait for warmer weather, start hardening off your annual flowers grown inside or place them in cold frames before putting them in the garden. I’m going to move all of my dahlias, begonias, elephant ears, and geraniums out to our unheated greenhouse. They are now taller than the highest setting on my grow lights. Inspect your iris leaves for iris borer larvae; crush the larvae if you find any. As your perennials continue to emerge, inspect your mid-summer and fall-blooming ones to see if they need dividing. If you have Shasta daisies, divide them before they are three inches tall. This is also the time to fertilize your perennials if you see the need to do so. It’s too early for me but if you already have peony buds, you can disbud some of them to encourage large blooms on the rest of the plant. Also put in place any support system now as it’s hard to do it when they are two to three feet tall.

Begin hardening off your vegetable seedlings so they will be ready to transplant into the garden in a couple weeks. The easiest way is to place your seedings outside in a shaded, protected spot on warm days and then bring them in at night. Then each day, increase the amount of sunlight your seedlings receive. Hold off on windy days or when temperatures are below 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Also start reducing the frequency of water to slow their growth, but don’t allow the seedling to wilt. If the air temperature stays above 40 degrees, you can plant broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage. If your soil temp is above 50 degrees F, you can plant snap beans, pole beans, sweet corn, and onion sets. Sweet corn planted earlier in the season tends to have fewer pest problems.

Consider “No Mow May” if allowed where you live. “No Mow May” helps provide pollinators access to scarce, early-season pollen and nectar. I’m not a fan of mowing the lawn, so I fully embrace this. If you do find that you have to mow, don’t mow it until it’s at least 2 inches tall – optimal height is 2½ to 3½ inches. Watch for fire blight on apples and pears. If found, cut the branch 8 to 12 inches below the infection. Sterilize your cutting tool after each cut to prevent spreading the infection. You can still plant fruit trees and finally, fertilize your raspberries if needed. At the end of those tasks, you should smell beautiful – like dirt.

For more information or gardening questions, the University of Wisconsin Madison Division of Extension Sauk County office at 608-355-3250 or email


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