May Gardening Tips for the Midwest

Spring is here and the garden is beckoning. Dig into the growing season by tackling an easy lawn and garden to-do list.

Fill Pots for Quick Color

While it's still a little chilly for outdoor living, decorate entryways using containers brimming with flowers and herbs. You'll turn heads when you focus on bloomers in a complementary shade to your home's exterior.

Frost is still a possibility in much of the Midwest this month. For early-May color, choose plants that withstand chilly spring nights: snapdragons, sweet alyssum, pansy, or fragrant flowering stock.

If you celebrate Mother's Day with hanging baskets, choose annuals like fuchsia and bacopa, which won't wilt during cool nights. Annual sweet potato vines, nasturtium, and impatiens are frost-tender and can't take even a light frost.

Find great annuals in Plant Encyclopedia!

Save money: Put together your own hanging baskets with our plant-by-number ideas!

See a selection of beautiful cool-weather container gardens.

Grow Herbs

Keep fresh herbs handy by tucking them in pots in early spring. Gather leaves to add garden-fresh flavors to meals.

Test Garden Tip: Rosemary, thyme, and lavender hail from dry Mediterranean climes. These herbs thrive in unglazed terra-cotta pots, which are porous and keep soil on the dry side.

Dividing Perennials

Early spring is an ideal time to divide summer- and fall-flowering perennials. Try to tackle the task before plants reach 6 inches tall. Don't forget to water newly transplanted divisions.

Not sure if you need to divide? Ask yourself these questions:

1) Are clumps too big and crowding other plants?

2) Has flowering been reduced during the last growing season(s)?

3) Does new growth ring a dead spot in the middle?

4) Do you want more starts of that perennial?

Get tips for dividing your favorite perennials.

Give Plants a Boost

Some perennials benefit from an extra shot of compost to kick-off the growing season. Heap compost around butterfly bush, delphinium, and clematis. The result will be bigger plants with more blooms.

Test Garden Tip: Insert stakes now for flop-prone favorites: peony, heliopsis, or aster. When planting dahlias, add stakes at planting time to avoid spearing tubers later.

Discover more tips on staking your perennials.


Weed planting beds in spring while offenders are small. Look for creative weeding tools. A small putty knife or Asian hoe makes quick work of weeds. For easiest removal, pull unwanted plants after a rain, when soil is wet.

Throw small weeds in your compost bin; be careful of larger weeds that have gone to seed, however, so you don't end up spreading those weeds when you apply compost later on.

See our Weed Identification Guide.


Continue to plant container-grown trees, shrubs, and perennials. You can give planting bare-root plants a try this month, but it's getting on the late side for much of the region -- and bare-root plants aren't as likely to thrive at this point as the more established container plants.

After your last frost date, you can plant tender summer bulbs outdoors, including gladiolas, cannas, and tuberous begonias.


Once spring rains start, give the compost pile a turn or two. Spreading moisture throughout the pile will jump-start spring decomposition.

Test Garden Tip: Don't mulch planting beds and vegetable gardens until soil has warmed and temperatures have shifted to the point that you need mulch to retain soil moisture and shade weeds. Delaying mulching gives self-sowers a chance to sprout.

Learn more about compost.


By the end of the month or early next month, your soil will have warmed up enough that you can apply a layer of mulch on flower beds and around trees and shrubs. As a rule of thumb, apply this mulch once the tulips have faded. Mulch reduces weeds, conserves moisture, and prevents disease.

Learn about different types of mulch!

Water Gardening

Remove debris and muck from the bottom of a water garden and add it to the compost heap. Start feeding fish again when water temperatures hit 50F or fish are active and eagerly eat food.

Learn more in our water gardening guide.

The May Vegetable Garden

Growing lettuce in containers is an easy way to raise your own salad greens and save some money at the grocery store.

Sow lettuce seeds or seedlings in shallow pots or bowls. Site the pots where they'll receive up to a half-day full sun. Morning sun is ideal. Plant lettuce seeds at a spacing that's tighter than suggested on the seed packet. Add thinnings to the salad bowl. Fertilize plants lightly after harvest to encourage stubs to sprout.

Create a custom salad blend by planting a variety of lettuces -- leaf, romaine, butterhead, etc. Sow a variety of leaf lettuce seeds, including colorful red leaves, for pretty salads.

Extend the harvest using a cut-and-come-again method. As plants mature, use a small pair of scissors to cut off every other plant, leaving a 1-inch stem stub. Fertilize them, then cut remaining plants when they are bigger, again leaving a stem stub to resprout. When you make this cutting, the first stubs will have sprouted and be re-growing. Continue to harvest until plants begin to bolt.

Learn about other great spring greens for home-grown salads.

Check out our fun container garden ideas for spring greens.

Wait until the final frost date has passed before putting seedlings of heat-loving veggies, like eggplants, tomatoes, peppers, or okra, into the garden.

May Lawn Care in the Midwest

Grass can grow quickly in early spring. Don't remove more than one-third the length of grass blades at any one cutting.

If you're using a mulching mower, leave clippings on the lawn. They'll return nutrients to soil.

A sharp mower blade helps prevent turf diseases. Sharp blades make clean cuts; dull blades tear, forming wounds where disease organisms can enter.

See our lawn-care calendar for the Midwest.


Define edges along paths and planting beds. Use a half-moon edger to slice sod, inserting it at a right angle to turf.


Continue to deal with dandelions by spraying or digging. If you're dealing with a bumper crop of dandelions, you'll get best control by waiting and applying an herbicide in fall.


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