May is planting month, even in the coldest reaches of Vermont, for everything from garden vegetables and flowers to trees and shrubs.
Planting starts with preparation of the soil, including a soil test to determine the soil's pH, or acid level, and nutrient needs. Most vegetables prefer a soil pH of 6 to 7, which is key to "unlocking" nutrients in the soil.
Soil testing kits are available at all University of Vermont (UVM) Extension offices and many garden centers and feed stores. The test costs $10, payable when you send in the sample. You can request information on organic fertilers in addition to the chemical fertilizer recommendations that are provided.
Organic matter content of the soil can be tested for an additional $3. Minor element analysis is a $5 test.
Before roto-tilling or spading your garden, check the soil for moisture. If it is too wet, working it will harm the soil structure. Test by squeezing a handful of soil. If it sticks together in a ball, it's too wet to work. Crumbly soil can be tilled and planted.
Turn the soil to a depth of eight to ten inches, thoroughly incorporating any leftover plant residues or manure you've added. Break up any clumps. Remove stones and sticks, then rake smooth from the soil surface to create a good seed bed.
A good rule of thumb, if you're a beginning gardener, is to follow the planting directions found on the back of the seed packet or in a gardening guide. For transplants, make sure they're hardened off properly before setting them out in the garden.
To harden off, gradually expose your tender seedlings to colder temperatures by using a cold frame or by bringing your plants outside for several hours a day. Remember to cover them at night or bring them back inside. Don't let them freeze! Reducing water and fertilizer also helps harden of plants.
In early May you can plant lettuce, spinach, peas, beans, hardy herbs, root crops (carrots, turnips, onions, beets), and cole crops (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage). Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, sweet corn, and cucurbits (squash family) should not be planted until Memorial Day or later unless you plan to be deligent about using frost protection.
Several types of protection are available including various "floating" row covers made of spun polyester material that can be placed directly on plants. Paper or cardboard hot caps allow water and light to penetrate and can be left on until flowers need pollination. Newspaper, burlap, heavy plastic, or hot caps fashioned from plastic gallon milk jugs also can be used for nighttime protection.
Other activities for May: fertilize lawns and reseed bare spots; prune summer flowering shrubs; start a butterfly garden.
Green Mountain Gardeners Leonard Perry and Vern Grubinger are with the University of Vermont Extension Service in Burlington, Vt.