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Mistakes gardeners are making now they'll pay for later this summer

It's difficult to pull plants you've grown from seed, but for these beans to thrive, they'll have to be thinned soon. (Photos: Kathy Morrison)

Gardeners can't rest because Mother Nature doesn't, either

May makes gardening seem easy. The plants are green and pretty, the flowers are sprouting and budding, the trees wave their fresh green leaves in the breeze. What a lovely month.

A mulch of newspaper and straw keeps the soil around
this tomato plant from drying out too quickly.
But the biggest mistake a gardener can make right now is to think that the garden, once planted, is done, "set," if you will.

Mother Nature works 24 hours a day, and humans don't. The garden is evolving every second. The humans have to be on their toes to keep up, especially in beautiful May.

Here are a few mistakes gardeners make now that they will regret later:

1. Not mulching. The heat's coming and those vegetable plants are going to be cooked (and the soil baked) without a good layer of leaves, straw, wood chips, shredded bark or whatever you've got. (I save newspaper all winter, then use that as the bottom layer, and pile straw on top.)

This garden would benefit from some mulch now, before the weather heats up.
2. Using hay as mulch instead of straw. There's a difference: Hay is green and full of seeds -- which will sprout in your well-watered garden and suck up the nutrients. Straw is yellow to gold and is hollow. It breaks down nicely later. (
Here's a great post from Debbie last year on mulch and other ways to keep tomatoes productive in heat.)

3. Not thinning sprouts. Awww, those little plants are so cute -- must I pull them out? The answer is yes, if you want to see a decent crop or keep your flowers from being too crowded to grow properly. Learn to be ruthless. Check the seed packet for advice on thinning. (A corollary to this is setting transplants too close together. Yes, that squash is going to overrun that pepper plant in a few weeks. Give them both some space.)

The zinnias are up! Now they should be thinned.
4. Not planting for pollinators. Any vegetable garden should include room for pollinator plants. The bees and other insects do the heavy lifting when it comes to creating the crops, especially tomatoes, squash and melons.  Flowering herbs, zinnias, sunflowers and native plants such as salvia or buckwheat will attract pollinators, as well as hummingbirds. ( Here's a full post I wrote on enticing pollinators to the garden.)

5. Not checking the garden often enough. As noted, Mother Nature's a 24/7 worker. A gardener who doesn't "make the rounds" to observe the garden at least once a day is going to eventually find some rude surprises, from overgrown zucchini to collapsed alyssum, and everything in between. Master gardeners also tell me that many garden problems that clients bring them could have been caught and corrected much earlier in the plant's life. If only someone had noticed! So being a close observer of one's own garden is the best way to protect the plants, and the time already invested in them.

Note to newsletter subscribers: We're having issues again. With any luck, this one arrives on time, with Debbie's Wednesday post also attached.


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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of June 4:

Because of the comfortable weather, it’s not too late to set out tomato and pepper seedlings as well as squash and melon plants. They’ll appreciate this not-too-hot weather. Just remember to water.

* From seed, plant corn, pumpkins, radishes, melons, squash and sunflowers.

* Plant basil to go with your tomatoes.

* Transplant summer annuals such as petunias, marigolds and zinnias.

* It’s also a good time to transplant perennial flowers including astilbe, columbine, coneflowers, coreopsis, dahlias, rudbeckia, salvia and verbena.

* Let the grass grow longer. Set the mower blades high to reduce stress on your lawn during summer heat. To cut down on evaporation, water your lawn deeply during the wee hours of the morning, between 2 and 8 a.m.

* Tie up vines and stake tall plants such as gladiolus and lilies. That gives their heavy flowers some support.

* Dig and divide crowded bulbs after the tops have died down.

* Feed summer flowers with a slow-release fertilizer.

* Mulch, mulch, mulch! This “blanket” keeps moisture in the soil longer and helps your plants cope during hot weather.

* Thin grapes on the vine for bigger, better clusters later this summer.

* Cut back fruit-bearing canes on berries.

* Feed camellias, azaleas and other acid-loving plants.

* Trim off dead flowers from rose bushes to keep them blooming through the summer. Roses also benefit from deep watering and feeding now. A top dressing of aged compost will keep them happy. It feeds as well as keeps roots moist.

* Pinch back chrysanthemums for bushier plants with many more flowers in September.

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