University City

Gardening: May gives a break between rain and heat

In May, University City swings on the garden gate. We come in cool and rainy – and go out roasting in the summer heat. But we have a lot to enjoy in between those times.

Vegetable gardeners get to reap a luscious bounty of spring vegetables: sugar snap peas, crunchy lettuce, tasty green spinach, beets and broccoli. Keep these cool-season crops watered and weeded.

When the snow peas show signs of heat fatigue – as they will when summer comes on – dig them right into the bed to enrich the soil.

As cool-season vegetables come out of the garden, it’s time to keep up the action with warm-season crops: beans, black-eyed peas, cantaloupe, squash, melons, pumpkins, cucumbers, sweet corn, okra, tropical greens, basil, tomatoes, eggplants and peppers.

Now is also the time for planting flowers such as asters, cleome, coreopsis, cosmos, flowering tobacco, marigolds, petunias, sunflowers, Tithonia (“Mexican sunflower”) and zinnias (all types). Continue setting out wax begonias, impatiens and other shade lovers this month, too.

Prune flowering trees and shrubs after they bloom, and then spread a fresh inch of compost, followed by mulch. Don’t wait on azaleas and other spring bloomers; do this chore now to minimize the temptation to cut them later in the year and potentially diminish future blooms.

Give pansies a proper burial in the compost pile when their service is completed. They have brightened up many a dark winter day and deserve our gratitude.

Slugs and snails will create huge problems this time of year, hot on the heels of one of the worst cankerworm outbreaks I’ve seen in a while. Our streets have looked like a science fiction set for the past couple of weeks.

Next year, we band our trees – no excuses. I hear diatomaceous earth or ashes can help discourage slugs, but hand-picking works most effectively for me. Go out at night with a light, a container, a strong stomach and an iron will.

What about leaving out jar lids full of beer, so slugs will drown themselves? I think good beer has better uses, but lousy beer could be repurposed for this.

Watch out for aphids. They reproduce by parthenogenesis, meaning they can clone themselves. If you look carefully with a magnifier, you can see babies growing inside the babies, growing inside the adults.

Once they get going, it’s hard to stop them. They seem especially attracted to plants that have fleshy growth from too much nitrogen fertilizer, so the first line of defense is to stick to a sensible fertilizer program or, even better, an organic approach that uses compost to feed a healthy soil.

Pesticides aren’t that effective on aphids, but they do a real number on the aphid’s worst enemy: the ladybug. Spraying poison may well be counterproductive.

Interestingly, it isn’t the cute little red beetles that do the most good; it’s their dragonesque larvae, capable of eating their weight in aphids every few hours. They aren’t called “aphid lions” for nothing.

Meanwhile, the aphids have allies, too. Ants will “herd” aphids, taking the sweet nectar from tubes on their backs. The ants protect their “ant cows” by driving off ladybugs and other predators.

Gardeners can take sides in this struggle, however. A strong blast of water from the hose is enough to send aphids flying. Once they’ve been scattered, they don’t last long. It is a good way to solve short-term problems until nature’s balance can re-establish itself. Be especially vigilant around new blooms and buds on roses.

According to our soccer-playing son Ben, soccer fields are looking better these days. May is a sweet spot between the puddles and sluggish growth early in the year, and the heat and stress of summer. For home lawns, keep mowing regularly and leave tall fescue at 3 to 4 inches to keep weeds in check by shading them out.

Now, if we could only figure out a way to apply the sequester to our yards, so we could furlough the weeds.