The Sauk County Gardener: Time to Dig into Gardening

Jeannie Manis, Sauk County Master Gardeners Association (SCMGA) President

“In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”— Margaret Atwood

May’s arrival was a beautiful warm sunny day. What made it even better was that my favorite nursery was finally open, so my sister and I went to buy my hanging baskets and annual bedding plants. Two and half hours later, we had the pickup bed of my truck full of plants and even the back seat was full. Good thing we didn’t take anyone else with us.

Even though I bought all those flowers, it’s too early to plant those tender annuals or hang the beautiful baskets outside. Baraboo’s last expected hard frost is May 17th and I don’t always do a good job of remembering the check the weather, so I think I’ll wait to plant them. While we wait, there are plenty of tasks that can be done in the meantime.

In your perennial beds, plant any newly-acquired container plants directly into the garden and divide any mid-summer and fall blooming plants. If you planted any from seed and have been growing them in your house, take the time to harden them off before planting them outdoors. If you started them using winter sowing techniques, you can skip the hardening off step. As you pop in those perennials into your beds, take note of where to you can plant spring-bloom bulbs and mark them so you can easily find them in the fall. Add organic matter to your flower bed so they are ready for when you plant your dahlias, cannas and other tender bulbs. You can also fertilize your beds about mid-month. Now is the time to check your iris for iris borer larvae. Crush the larvae if you find any. It’s also time stake or cage your peonies. Pinch off the side blooms to promote bigger flowers. As your spring blooming bulbs start to fade, resist the urge to remove the dying foliage. Your tulips and daffodils need to have their foliage die back naturally so they can have enough energy to produce blooms next spring.

In the vegetable garden, you can continue to plant your cool-weather crops. Plant your broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage when air temps stay consistently above 40 degrees. You can also plant snap beans, pole beans, sweet corn, and onion plants. Sweet corn planted earlier in the season tends to have fewer pest problems. Veggies, particularly those with colorful fruit, can also be planted in your flower beds if you’re tight on space. If you haven’t started already, it’s time to start hardening off your vegetable seedlings like tomatoes and peppers so they are ready to go into the garden when the chance of frost has past. If you already have seedlings in the garden, be prepared to protect them from cool nights. Floating row covers work well but sheets will do in a pinch. I started a new asparagus bed this year next to my strawberries as they are good companions for each other. It is recommended to not harvest any of the spears the first year. Wait at least until the second year but it’s even better if you can wait until year three. It’s a long time to wait but it will be worth it. I will just have to buy some from at our local farmers’ market. You can harvest spears when they are 6-8 inches tall if you already have an established asparagus bed. Speaking of farmers’ markets, they have started up. Consider buying the vegetables you can’t grow in your own garden from your local farmers’ market vendors. While enjoying seasonally fresh and ripe produce, you’ll be supporting local businesses and reducing your carbon footprint.

We put in some new evergreens so I will need to get those mulched to prevent weeds. It’s also time to watch for gypsy moth caterpillars as the weather warms up. Fertilize trees and shrubs with slow-release fertilizer if you weren’t able to earlier in the season. Mow the lawn when the grass is at least more than 2 inches tall. For those that enjoy a beautiful grassy lawn, make sure you have enough lawn fertilizer, so you are prepared to fertilize around Memorial Day. Check your apple and pear trees for fire blight. If you have an infection, cut the branch 8-12 inches below the infection; make sure you sterilize your pruners between each cut to prevent spreading the infection. Protect your fruit trees from frost if they are in bloom; simply spray them with a fine mist before sunrise. Finally, plant fruit trees, strawberries, and grapes and water as needed. With all of those tasks on the docket, I don’t think I have to worry about planting my tender bedding plants before it’s time.

Remember to contact Extension Sauk County if you have any gardening questions. Please send an email to or call the University of Wisconsin Madison Division of Extension Sauk County office at 608-355-3250.