May Garden Sustainable Maintenance Practices for the Southeast

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July August September Welcome to May, friends!

As promised, Bee Better Naturally launched our first online course. We started with the Monarch butterfly entitled, How YOU can Help the Monarch Butterfly. Check us out! Our course is hosted on Thinkific, but you can access the link through our site under EDUCATION. Look for future sustainable courses.

May brings the end of pine pollen (typically) and the unofficial start of summer with the long Memorial Day weekend. Let the prime gardening season begin!

I’ve heard many mention the pine pollen was particularly bad this year. Even though we had cleansing rains, the pollen persisted. For me, it was so bad, this is the first year of my life that I was affected by the pollen. I hope it was a fluke this year, and that I’ll not suffer next year.

Here’s what you can do in the Southeast garden this month.

 My May seems to be a month of greens—emerging greens, glad greens, gorgeous greens, gold greens. Green becomes the background for summer sizzle. Oh there is some color with the iris, wall flowers, Spanish bluebells, and of course Calycanthus floridus, or more commonly known as the Carolina-allspice. I’m not sure why this large shrub isn’t used more. The flowers in late April last through all of May!

Before the greens arrived, spring was a burst of color with intrepid yellows, stunning fuchsias, plucky purples.

If spring is the place from which all her emotions poured (The Fountainhead by Ann Rand), then she poured her glass with green to ready the Earth for summer.

That’s not to say May is without its merits, but there is a pause in the drama during these likened teenage years.

Green is the perfect experience for peony, phlox, and pink and purple verbena.

Green makes the burgundy foliage pop.

Green refreshes the senses.

Green gladdens the heart.

Summer will soon shock us with reds, yellows, purples, pinks, whites, and, to my good fortune, orange. Orange is my color and it goes very well with green, but then green goes with every color in nature, right? I shall focus on the glory of the blooms against my greens and rest before the summer color turns my glazed eyes into nature’s kaleidoscope.


Admire blooming trees and shrubs. May is bloom time for southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora.) These flowers give so much, and we need to do so little for them in return. I like to pluck a magnolia bloom and float it in a bowl of water near where I read or enjoy the garden at the end of the day. It lasts but a day, but what a day it is.

The Endless Summer hydrangea is the first hydrangea to bloom on old and new growth, with the ability to rebloom all summer long. I planted my Endless Summer in 2005. To encourage reblooming, cut the blooms for drying or to put in vases for a fresh arrangement. This will also encourage the plant to set new buds. Prune rhododendrons and azaleas right after flowering.

Enjoy abundant rose blooms. Roses are in full swing right now. Let your roses flush out; prune hybrid beans less in May so they grow taller. This is usually good advice for the first couple of cuttings. Then you can prune at will, remembering to cut the next five leaflets at an angle. Roses are heavy feeders — in terms of both food and water. Fertilize once a month and give each rose about five gallons of water each week (or about one inch per week). Water in the morning, at the base of the plant to help discourage black spot.

Cherish blooming iris. Oh, the iris are blooming beautifully! After they bloom, cut the flower stalks to tidy up the plant. Recently, I cut some for a friend. She took a whiff and realized, for the first time, bearded irises have a lovely scent — making them enjoyable indoors too. We are having  a good iris year!

Cut the daffodil flower stalks after the blooms is finished. Try to ignore the leaves as the plants naturally dies back.

The herbaceous peonies, Paeonia, are in full bloom! Peonies like moist, well-drained soil and need a cold chilling period in winter to flower reliable. The two most common problems with growing peonies in the south is lack of adequate chilling period in winter and short flowering period when temperatures are high in the spring. Plants should always be planted very shallow with the top of the crown no more than one inch below the surface of the soil and without too much mulch.


Deadhead hellebores, rhododendrons, Spanish bluebells, and iris as needed. May is a good time to pinch back sedums, such as ‘Autumn Joy’. Did  you know you can propagate these pinch backs? Just stick them the soil, if you can keep up with their care, or pot up to be able to watch within a close range.

There are several plants in my garden that are too big for their site, but with spring cutbacks and cutting back up the the fourth of July, you can manage the size, resulting in a stalker plant, but with the same flower power! In May I’ll cutback blue Salvia, Salvia gargantua I find


Plant annuals. With frosts behind us, you can plant annuals with abandonment. Visit public gardens to see the variety available for planting in our area. The JC Raulston Arboretum is an All-American Selection (AAS) display garden, exhibiting the most recent selection winners.

Direct sow zinnia seed at intervals to have cut flowers through fall frost. In the Bee Better Teaching Garden we sow every couple of weeks throughout the summer. We do this right before a rain to make it easier, letting nature watering them in.

Discover a different wisteria. Seeing Chinese wisteria in the wild brings a feeling of wonder. Yes, the color and flowers cascading down from the trees are beautiful, but they aren’t supposed to be there. Think twice about planting one. Instead, consider the rich purple flowers of American wisteria (Wisteria frutescens ‘Amethyst Falls’ ); it blooms a little later the Chinese species, and this native is not invasive!

May is not the ideal time for planting perennials, but they are widely available. If you plan to plant, be prepared to pamper them and water well. Perennials require extra watering to help them get established. Water regularly for the first two to three weeks.


Plant tender summer bulbs. It’s now safe to transplant the amaryllis you grew during the winter. It will not likely bloom again this year but should do so next year.

Now that the soil has warmed (make sure it’s at least 60ºF), plant caladium bulbs or caladiums potted and already in leaf. They like it warm and can be damaged by cool weather, not just a frost. Caladiums are also big feeders, so you’ll need to water and fertilize them consistently during the growing season. Actually, any tender summer bulb, such as cannas, dahlias, ginger lilies, and tuberoses, can be planted now.

Harvest vegetables as needed.

Red Russian kale
Tuscan kale
Baby spinach
Purple frilly mustard
Pea tips
Adelaide carrot
Atlas carrot
Baby radish
Snap peas
English peas
Red pea flowers
Black radish flower
Red, white, yellow bbq onion

Grow edibles. With the last frost of the season behind us, it’s now time to plant tomatoes, basil, peppers, cucumbers, and other tender annuals.

Plant an herb garden. If not for you, then for your gardening friends. The Eastern black Tiger Swallowtail larvae love parsley, fennel, and rue. Let those green worms eat it all. Plant extra if you want some for yourself!

May in my garden is peak lavender bloom time. Each May I’m reminded why I grow lavender; it can look ratty many months of the year. After it flowers, cut back and shape it.


I only every want to speak from experience; these are the fruits I grow in the Bee Ber Teaching Garden. It looks like my fruit trees had good flower production, so I’m excited to see this year’s harvest!

For the longest time, I didn’t know the raspberry variety we grow; I only knew it was prolific. I’m not even sure how I got it; whether it was a sprig shared or something I bought. There are several varieties that might do well in this area, but the Piedmont region of North Carolina isn’t known for growing raspberries. Yet, we do so in abundance. Here are a few listed with Extension:

  • Southland—Fruit in spring and summer, with a small crop again in the fall

  • Dormanred—Highly productive, doesn’t have a true red raspberry flavor and aroma, with an unpleasant aftertaste. Good for cooking and processing. Holds up well frozen. trellis support system required

  • Mandarin—Average fruits with good quality. Nursery stock of Mandarin is limited at the time

  • Heritage—Northern red performs well in the climate of the piedmont region. Fruits in late July and August

    Based on this search, I must have ‘Southland’. It best fits the description of the varieties above. In any case, I plan to pot some up and offer for a donation to those interested. I can guarantee, at least the way I’ve grown them, they are a great producer, good size, tasty, and pest and fungal-free. Good air circulation is key. I also don’t trellis them; rather, instead i let the canes arch. Mind you, I have plenty of room to let this happen.

    All but one of my feeders have been put away until late fall, early winter. I like having feeders where I can see them from the inside, making a cold winter day more enjoyable. During the spring, summer, and fall, I’m outside and don’t necessarily need to see them at a feeder. I can hear them all around, and that brings me great joy! But for those days when I’m cooling off indoors, I like to see them from my Family Room seat.

Waterwise:  With a waterwise design, watering in the absence of rain is a breeze.  My garden at home, the Bee Better Teaching Garden was designed with waterwise principles. I have very little watering to do, and what I do have, is a choice. The Oasis zone is mostly made up of the boxwood collection, all in containers. But the watering is smart. These containers are near a watering source, so moving around a hose isn’t a big deal. Container plantings are the only plants that receive supplemental water in the absence of rain weekly.


Top-dress your garden beds with mulch. Keep your gardens cool, less thirsty, and reduce the amount of weeds. I can write volumes on the benefits of mulch. For my roses, I use mini nuggets, but for my perennial gardens, I used composted leaf mulch. Picking up a load of mulch reminds me how important it is to make sure yard waste is separated from trash. Yard waste not only is good stuff once it is composted,  but the conservation practice is in everyone’s best interest.

Pest control: The Pine Sawfly larvae shows up in May. Pick them off and drop them in a bucket of soapy water. I feed them to my chickens. Sawflies will take down a conifer!

Click here to learn more about safely controlling mosquitoes.

Organic: Right now, I don’t have to add much to the plants. In general, I don’t add fertilizers. I’m not really into having the first or the biggest. I just want healthy plants, and believe the breakdown of the compost leaf mulch is enough. Or at least it has for the last 30 years since I’ve been in Raleigh. If you want to fertilizer, follow these guidelines:

Fertilize sustainably. To encourage flowering, use a fertilizer low in nitrogen and high in phosphorus. Fertilizer’s three main ingredients are nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, or NPK.

  • 10-10-10 means there is an equal proportion N, P, and K.

  • Hydrangeas like a low N and a high P; thus a combination of 10-40-10 would be ideal, as it would be for any flower-focused plant.

My general rule is to remember what the numbers means. The first number, nitrogen helps from the top of the plant to the bottom. As such, N is for the green, P is for the bloom, and K is for the root or up and down and all around.

To refresh your understanding of pH, it refers to the acidity of the soil and is measured by the number of hydrogen ions present in the soil. It’s a logarithmic scale based on the power of 10. As such, a pH of 6 is 10 times more acidic than pH of 7. Thus, even a little change in pH can make a big difference.

  • A pH of 7 is neutral.

  • A pH lower than than 7 is acidic.

  • A ph higher than 7 is alkaline.

Most plants like a pH between 6.5 and 7. Hydrangeas like it more acidic than most plants, particularly if you want blue blooms on your mopheads. Blueberries too want acidic soil. Asparagus prefer an alkaline soil, but we can still grow these in the Raleigh area with the addition of lime.

Cut flowers and bring indoors. Soon the beebalm, Monarda spp. will be in bloom. Bring some inside to enjoy. And those peonies that are so big they flop? Cut and bring inside. Believe this: peony bloom last longer inside than outside. Get the best ban for your buck!

Add a container garden. Every home-area has room for container gardens. Find some fabulous pots and fill them with whatever you fancy. Know the amount of sun you get and when. It matters when you select your plants. Containers tend to dry out faster, so container gardens need to be watered more often. This water tends to cause nutrients to leach out, so contained plants will benefit from an application of a quick-release fertilizer.

Bring peony blooms indoors; in the south, they will last much longer inside than out!

ASK HELEN: Are coffee. grounds good to enrich the soil?

Coffee grounds are rich in Nitrogen. Testing done at NC State University in Raleigh found a NPK analysis of: 2.1:0.3:0.3. They are best used as a nitrogen source in your compost pile.

Since coffee grounds are nitrogen specific, if you want to use these as a fertilizer, you need to balance this out with phosphorus (blood and bone, poultry based manure), and potassium (animal manure). Throw in some liquid seaweed concentrate, lawn clippings, other organic materials as you find them, including worm castings and the leaves, stalks, and roots of current and past crops.

Did you know many coffee houses bag their coffee grounds for gardeners. Check out those local to you!

Until soon,

Helen Yoest