Michigan Gardening To Do List for May

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Planting time is here! We made it through another long, cold winter, Michigan!

Now, it’s time to get growing.

 

It’s time to get those transplants outside and time for more direct sowing in the garden. Just be sure to keep an eye on the weather forecast and those night time temps. A late freeze can zap your young plants, ruining all of your hard work. Check out our Michigan Frost Dates page to find the average date of the last frost in your area.

Be sure to harden off your transplants by setting them outdoors during the day and bringing them back inside at night for a week or two before you intend to plant them. And keep an eye on the soil moisture to ensure that your transplants do not wilt.

Also, now is a great time to plan out any succession planting you want to do this year. Johnny’s Select Seeds has an excellent succession planting calculator to help you plan ahead and stay on track.

Here is a quick list of sowing dates for many common vegetables:

Sow Indoors

  • Corn – Through May 21 (This usually does better sown directly into the garden, but if you’re trying to get a jump on your planting, you can certainly give it a try. Just try not to disturb the roots too much during transplanting.)
  • Cucumber – Through May 21
  • Melons – May 1 – May 21
  •  Pumpkins – Through May 21

Sow Outdoors

All of the following cool season crops can be sown outdoors during the month of May. Warmer season crops like cucumbers, melons, squash, and tomatoes can be direct sown toward the end of May (or early June) after soil temps rise a bit and the danger of frost passes.

  • Beets
  • Cabbage
  • Carrots
  • Cauliflower
  • Celery
  • Kale
  • Kohlrabi
  • Leaf Lettuces
  • Mustard Greens
  • Onions
  • Parsnips
  • Peas
  • Radish
  • Spinach
  • Swiss Chard
  • Turnips
  •  
Chive Blossoms in Strainer

How to Make Chive Blossom Vinegar

 

The chives in our garden are blooming now, so it is time to make chive blossom vinegar. We love this vinegar in homemade vinaigrette — it gives it a nice, mild onion flavor and plenty of pretty color. And the chive blossom vinegar is REALLY easy to make.

Ingredients:

  • Chive blossoms — as many as you can harvest. They should be at the just-opened phase for maximum flavor.
  • Vinegar — You can experiment here. White wine vinegar and rice wine vinegar are both good choices. White vinegar also works fine if you don’t have the others on hand.
  • Jars/bottles

 

How to Make Chive Blossom Vinegar

Harvest your blossoms, cutting off the stem just below the flower. Wash them well in some cold water to get rid of any dust or insects. Then dry the blossoms really well. You can either lay them out on a towel and blot them well, or put them in a salad spinner and give them a spin. While you’re drying your blossoms, heat your vinegar on medium heat. You don’t want to boil your vinegar; you just want to warm it up so it draws out more of  the chive blossom flavor.

Once the blossoms are dry and the oil is warm, it’s time to put them together. Pack a jar (a mason jar or other glass jar is perfect) with your blossoms, then pour in enough of the warm vinegar to cover the blossoms.

Add your lid, mark the date down somewhere, and set your jar in a cool, dark place for two weeks.

 

When the two weeks are up, pour your vinegar through a mesh strainer to remove the blossoms. Press the blossoms to get all of the vinegary, chive-y goodness out of them. Then pour the finished vinegar into a jar or bottle. Use the vinegar within six months. You’ll want to store your finished vinegar in a dark place – – leaving it out in the light will result in the vinegar losing its pretty pink/purple color. It will still taste fine, but part of the charm of chive blossom vinegar is that lovely color.

I can’t wait to make some vinaigrette with this!

All About Lilacs

 

I’ll admit up front that the lilac is my favorite shrub. It has been since I was a kid, and my grandma had a huge lilac hedge along her alley fence.

The lilac can grow up to twenty feet tall, and blooms in lilac, dark purple, pink, or white. It has dark green heart-shaped foliage, and grows from shoots that come up from the base of the plant. Lilacs prefer full sun, and they do best when planted in an area where they will get decent air circulation. Without good air circulation, lilacs are prone to powdery mildew. They bloom in late spring and early summer.

Lilacs are best planted along a pathway, or next to a porch where you can enjoy their scent the most. They do well as an informal hedge, or as single specimen plantings in a shrub border. I have both a common lilac (Syringa vulgaris) and a dwarf Korean lilac (Syringa meyeri ‘Palibin’) in my yard, with plans to add a few more lilacs as time goes by.

As far as day-to-day care goes, give the lilac about an inch of water per week in its first season, and after it is established it will need little, if any, supplemental water. In early spring, sprinkle about a cup of granular organic fertilizer around the base, and foliar feed with diluted fish emulsion when the buds just start to leaf out. Do whatever pruning is necessary, and you will have a happy, healthy lilac.

Throughout May and June, prune off the spent blooms of your lilacs. This will increase flower production for the following year. You can prune your lilacs after they bloom. It is also a good idea to remove any suckers that come up around the base of the plant. If you have an old, overgrown lilac, you can rejuvenate it in about three years by removing about 1/3 of the thickest, oldest branches each year for three years. By the end of three years, you will have a lilac with young, healthy shoots. Also be sure to remove all of the dead branches from your lilac when you prune.

You can propagate new lilac bushes through layering. It is best to attempt layering in early spring, when the plant is growing its strongest. The best stems to use are those that are flexible, and are the result of the previous year’s growth. About 9 inches or so from the tip of the branch, shave a 1/4-inch slice of bark off of the bottom of the branch. Dip the wound into rooting hormone if you’ve got it. If not, it will still work just fine. Make a 6-inch deep trench in the soil nearby to bend the wounded branch into. Secure the wounded part to the earth, being sure the wound is in good contact with the earth below; this is where the roots for your new lilac will form. You can hold the stem in place with a rock or a stake-whatever you have on hand will work. To keep the foliage tip of the branch growing upright, stake it straight. Fill the trench with soil, and water well. It will take anywhere from 12 to 24 months for the branch to develop roots. Once you see that the tip of the layered branch has a flush of new growth, it means you have roots, and the branch can be severed from the mother plant. Just cut the branch before the buried section, dig it up, and plant your new lilac into its place in the garden. This should be done in either spring or fall.

You can also propagate through taking softwood cuttings. To take softwood cuttings, trim off about 2 to 6 inches of healthy growth. The stem you choose should not just bend (it is too young) and it shouldn’t be super stiff (it’s too old.) It should snap crisply. You should take your cuttings in spring, after the plant has fully leafed out. Dip your cuttings into rooting hormone, and place it into sterile rooting medium, such as sand, perlite, or vermiculite. Water well, and place your cuttings into a clear plastic bag to keep everything moist. Keep the cuttings in a warm place out of direct sunlight. Once your roots are an inch long, you can remove the plastic bag, and keep everything moist. After a week out of the bag, you can plant your lilacs in potting soil. They can be put outside once the weather is mild, and then be kept in a cold frame or greenhouse until the following spring, when you can plant your tiny lilac in the garden.

Personally, I prefer layering, since it doesn’t require quite so much time and attention on the part of the gardener. The advantage of propagating from cuttings, though, is that you can get more plants at a time. But, since I don’t plan on a lilac forest, layering will work just fine.

There is nothing in this world like the perfume of a lilac on a warm spring day. I hope you’ll consider the lilac if you’re looking for a flowering shrub for your yard.

How to Protect Your Garden from a Spring Frost

Whether you push the gardening season or not, here in Michigan there’s always a danger that a late spring frost will wipe out your lovingly planted spring veggies. The earlier you plant, the more likely this is. The easiest way to almost guarantee that you’ll avoid a frost is to resist planting your vegetable garden (or tender annuals or herbs) until after the last spring frost date. Depending upon where you are in the state, that could be anytime between the first week of May to early July.

However, if you just can’t resist getting your garden started as soon as possible, there are still several things you can do to protect your plants if frost (or even snow) is in the forecast.

How to Protect Your Plants from Frost

If we have a prolonged period of freezing temperatures, your plants may be in trouble no matter what you do. However, if it’s just a day or two, with a bit of protection your plants should be able to come through just fine. The best thing to do is place some kind of barrier over your plants to keep cold air, wind, and frost out of them. Some ideas:

  • Plastic milk jug with the bottom cut out off it, placed over individual plants
  • Old-fashioned garden cloches
  • A cold frame placed over part of a bed
  • A low tunnel covered in plastic
  • A plastic tarp, set over stakes to lift it off of the plants
  • A floating row cover (best for when there’s just a chance of light frost)
  • A sheet or blanket (again, this is a good option for a light frost, not for snow or really frigid weather)
  • A drink cooler, overturned over a few plants. Remove it as soon as possible to ensure that your plants get enough light.
  • A cardboard box. Depending on the size this can cover several plants. Remove the box as soon as possible to let your plants get the light they need.

These ideas will help because they use items that most of us have around the house. We might not all have a cold frame, but chances are good that we can come up with a milk jug or cardboard box if we really need one. Keep these ideas in mind, and you’ll be able to save your garden from those annoying late spring frosts that are a common part of gardening in Michigan.

 

Great Plants for Michigan Gardens: Bearded Iris

Bearded irises are the stars of my perennial garden in May. Their tall, frilly blooms and strap-like foliage add a perfect upright element to the garden, and they come in such a huge variety of colors that you are unlikely to ever get bored growing them.

Where to Plant Bearded Irises

When planting bearded irises, you’ll either be started with dormant rhizomes or potted plants. Either way, you’ll want to plant your irises at least sixteen to eighteen inches apart to allow for plenty of air circulation. If you’re starting with a plant, simply plant it as deeply as it was growing in its container. If you are starting with a rhizome, you really want to make sure you don’t plant too deeply. Burying the rhizome will result in weak bloom or rot. The best way to plant the rhizome is to form a mound of soil in the planting hole. Set the rhizome on the mound, and arrange the roots around it. Then, backfill the hole, covering the roots, but leaving the rhizome exposed. I know — it looks wrong. Do it anyway. Your irises will thank you later with plenty of blooms!

Bearded irises really grow best in full sun. You’ll get the most numerous, larger blooms if they get at least eight hours of sun per day. However, if you have light or dappled shade, they’ll also grow and bloom well for you. Just as important as the amount of sun, however, is the quality of your soil. Bearded irises prefer fertile, well-drained soil. Lean soil will result in less-than-stupendous blooms, and soil that stays too wet will result in your rhizomes rotting over the winter.

Here in our garden, where clay is dominant (as it is in many Michigan gardens, at least if you’re away from the coasts) we’ve found it necessary to amend the soil before planting the rhizomes. Dig out an area, and mix a good amount of finished compost into the native soil. This will help lighten the soil overall for planting, and, if you side dress with compost regularly, over time the soil will improve a great deal. Obviously, you’ll want to avoid planting bearded irises in any low areas of your property — any place that water collects and sits will just spell rot for your rhizomes.

The best time to plant irises in Michigan is in June through September — this allows the plants to get established before winter.

 

How to Grow Bearded Iris

If you’ve planted your bearded irises in good soil in a sunny spot, there’s not much you need to do, day-to-day, to keep them happy. I side-dress my irises with fresh compost every spring, and deadhead them after they’ve finished blooming in May.

One of the most important things you can do for the health of your bearded irises is to make sure you remove all of the spent leaves and flower stalks after they’ve been killed back in fall. If you leave the foliage attached to the rhizomes, it provides the perfect place for iris borers (more about these vile jerks later) to overwinter.

You’ll also want to divide your bearded irises every three to four years to keep them growing strong. Once you start seeing decreased bloom, it’s time to divide. I’ll have more on how to do that in another post.

 

Bearded Iris Pests and Diseases

If bearded irises have a rep for being a little on the fussy side, it’s not their fault — blame the pests that like to plague them instead. The main one, which I alluded to above, is the iris borer. Here it is, in all its grossness:

 

Photo by: Bob Gutowski, Flickr Creative Commons Attribution License.

Iris borers can absolutely destroy your irises. They start on the leaves, boring their way in, down into the rhizomes, and then back out again. They cause a lot of damage, and the holes they make encourage rot as well. The best way to fight them is to not leave leaves and stems available for them to overwinter in. If you find borers in your rhizomes, you can try to cut them out with a knife, then replant the rhizomes as long as there is at least one “eye” left. You can also soak the rhizomes in a bucket of water — the water will drown the borer, and then you can remove any damaged sections of rhizome, and replant.

Aside from iris borers, bearded irises also contend with a few other pests, though these generally don’t cause as much damage as the borers:

  • Slugs
  • Snails
  • Aphids

 

Here in our garden, we have bearded irises planted with shasta daisies, oriental poppies, and alliums, and they bloom together and look wonderful. The shape of their leaves adds a nice, somewhat spiky touch to the garden, so even when they’re not in bloom, they have an impact. And because they come in so many colors and sizes, you can really have a lot of fun coming up with new combinations in your own garden.

 

 

 

Favorite Plants: Bleeding Heart

Bleeding Heart (Lamprocapnos spectabilis, the plant formerly known as Dicentra spectabilis) is one of the highlights of the spring gardening season in our family. Those delicate, dangling pink hearts with their backdrop of ferny foliage are so romantic and old-fashioned looking. I vow every year that I’m going to plant a few more. Hopefully, this year will be the year.

Here are ten tidbits about bleeding heart:

1. Hardy in zones 3 through 9.

2. You can find bleeding hearts that bloom in pink, white, or red.

3. Bleeding heart goes dormant in the heat of summer. The foliage turns yellow and starts to die back. It’s a good idea to have a container or some annuals ready to fill the space once this starts happening, or you’ll have a gap in your garden.

4. You can grow bleeding heart from seed. You need to start with freshly ripened seed, and sow in a cold frame. I’ve also heard of people winter sowing them, but I haven’t tried that yet.

5. Bleeding heart grows best in light shade (sunny mornings and shady afternoons are optimal) but will also grow well in part-shade and even full shade.

6. Bleeding heart prefers evenly moist soil, especially while blooming. In fact, if you keep the soil moist, you’ll extend the bloom period for your bleeding hearts, possibly as late as mid-summer.

7. Bleeding heart rarely, if ever, needs dividing. I’ve had mine for eight years, and it’s still growing strong without division.

8. Mulch your bleeding heart well to help maintain that all-important soil moisture.

9. Bleeding heart is also known as Lady in a Bath, Lyre Flower, or Dutchman’s Trousers.

10. The most common folklore behind the bleeding heart is, of course, a tale of unrequited love. Here is one lovely variation of the story of the bleeding heart, told with parts of the flower itself.

If you’ve got a moist, shady spot in your yard, and a bit of a romantic streak, this may be the perfect plant to add to your garden. And if you have kids, they will love exploring the flowers with you.

 

Best Spring Perennials for Michigan: Bergenia

These gorgeous plants are grown as much for their foliage, which forms a pretty little rosette, and their flowers. Blooming in shades of white, pink, red, and purple, held aloft on sturdy maroon stems, they are a unique addition to the spring garden.

Where to Plant Bergenia:

Bergenia grows best in full sun to partial shade, in moist, rich soil. It is a good idea to plant them in groups of three or more plants for a nice display of color. Plant them 10 to 20 inches apart.

Bergenia looks great at the front of a border or along a walkway. Even when it’s not blooming, the rosettes of shiny green leaves will give you something attractive to look at.

Growing Bergenia:

Bergenia are actually pretty carefree plants. Other than making sure to water properly while they’re getting established, they can be left pretty much on their own. You’ll want to deadhead them after bloom, and divide regularly (see section on propagating Bergenia, below) to keep the plants growing strong. Once established, Bergenia are fairly drought-resistant, though you will want to give them some water (an inch or so per week) during an extended hot, dry spell.

Bergenia Pests and Diseases:

The most common pests you’ll encounter when growing Bergenia are slugs. If you start noticing holes in the foliage, look underneath the leaves and near the soil surface for the slimy pests, and hand-pick regularly to remove them. You can also try sprinkling coffee grounds or crushed eggshells around your plants to deter the slugs.

Propagating Bergenia:

You can start bergenia from seed, but it doesn’t always grow true from seed. It is better to start with plants or (if you’re lucky) rhizome divisions from another gardener.

You can dig and divide Bergenia by cutting and transplanting extra rhizomes in other spots in the garden. When making divisions, just make sure that at least one leaf shoot is attached to each section. Bergenia should be divided every two to three years to maintain the plants’ vigor.

Good Partners for Bergenia:

Ferns and irises both provide nice contrasts to the round, shiny foliage of Bergenia. Other good companions include spring-blooming bulbs such as scilla, snowdrops, or crocus.