By Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
Dr. Vern Grubinger, Extension Associate Professor
University of Vermont
Did you think that spring would never arrive this year? Well, you were not alone. This past winter was one of the snowiest on record.
The good news is that with a good snow cover all winter long in most locations, perennial plants were protected from freezing and thawing, and the ground did not freeze very deeply. That meant good over-winter survival rates for perennials, and made it possible for some gardeners to get into the garden a little sooner.
If you were not among them, don't despair. It's not too late to handle all the usual spring garden chores from soil testing to seed bed preparation and planting of early crops.
But if it feels dry or crumbles, then get out the tiller or shovel and start breaking up the soil for planting. Your soil test will tell you how much fertilizer and lime you need to work into the soil although all gardens will benefit from addition of peat moss, weed-free compost, and other organic matter.
While just about all vegetables and flowers can be planted in the garden this month, timing is critical. Tender transplants like tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers may not survive if set out too early, and they usually don't grow much when it's cool anyway, so in most locations in Vermont it's best to wait until the end of the month or early June to plant these in the garden.
Pumpkins, squash, melons, and (most) many other vegetables and flowers also are sensitive to frost. Wait until the end of the month to plant these, too, after the soil has warmed up and the average last frost date is well past. Remember, planting on the average last frost date means you've got a 50-50 chance of losing plants to the cold. It's better to plant on the date that is frost-free 90 percent of the time.
You really don't gain anything by planting too early. Even though use of frost protectors will help plants survive, if it's not warm enough plants won't grow, so you might as well set them out later.
Onions and peas--if you didn't plant them in April--as well as lettuce, carrots, root crops (carrots, turnips, beets), and hardy herbs can be planted in early to mid May. So can Cole crops--broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts--though be sure to harden these seedlings off before moving them into the garden.
However, a hard frost can injure all of these crops, so if one is predicted, cover plants with burlap, plastic sheeting, straw, or upside-down containers. Be aware that commercially available products such as hot caps or floating row covers promote faster growth by warming the growing environment during the day but usually offer only a few degrees of frost protection at night.
Resist the urge to cut back the foliage on your spring-blooming flowers after blooms fade. Tulips, daffodils, and other spring bulbs need the nutrients in the foliage to make next year's blossoms. You should, however, remove all the dead wood and stalks from last year's perennial plants, taking care not to break off new growth.
In May we celebrate mothers and veterans. Mother's Day, May 13, is the day to shower your mother with flowers, if not a bouquet or arrangement, then a hanging basket of foliage plants or flowering annuals. Or you could give her a tree, an illustrated gardening book, or even new gardening tools, if she likes to garden.
Memorial Day, which is observed on May 28 this year, is a wonderful time to remember the men and women who fought for this country. Take the time to bring flowers to veterans at nursing homes or to planting pots of flowers to place on gravesites of war heroes in your local cemetery.
Other activities for May: clean up your community on Vermont Green Up Day (May 5); plant perennial fruit crops; set up trickle irrigation in the vegetable garden; aerate your lawn and reseed bare sections.