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May To-Do List 

Ah, can you feel it? Summer is in the air, with the birds tweeting, plants bursting into bloom and that inexorable itch to get out in the garden and plant something — anything! The intersection of fine weather and a little less rain has me dusting off my hori-hori in anticipation of planting all those zucchini seedlings I started indoors last month. (I'm enjoying this bliss while it lasts, since in a few months the glut of zucchini will be exciting to no one.) What to do in the garden this month? Read on.

Plant tomatoes, squash and other heat-loving vegetables. It's finally time! If you've been waiting patiently to be able to set out starts of warm season vegetables like tomatoes, corn, zucchini and pumpkins, you can go for it. While old-timers can cite the years when a few late frosts killed everything, we are to the point in the season where it is a very good bet that anything planted will survive. If you live inland where it's still chilly, or if you want to give starts an extra boost, plant them with a wall-o-water or another mini greenhouse-type setup to keep them extra toasty while they get settled.

Harvest rhubarb. The cherry red stems of rhubarb are ready to be harvested, and thank goodness. All of those strawberry rhubarb crumble recipes I've squirreled away from Pinterest can finally be put to good use. To harvest the stalks, just grasp each individual stem at the base of the plant, and pull downward with a gentle twisting motion to break the stalk cleanly away from the crown. While you'll want to cut off most of the huge, inedible leafy portion, I've read that rhubarb stems stay fresh longer in the fridge if you leave about 2 to 3 inches of the leaf at the end of the stalk.

Pick up clematis vines now for the best selection. Potted clematis vines are arriving in the nursery, and now's the time to buy if you want your pick of the litter. Since everybody knows the only reason you plant a hybrid clematis is for the flower, you might feel some trepidation purchasing plants that aren't yet in bloom. But not to worry, growers aren't stupid — pretty much any clematis will have a big, bodacious, life-size tag showing off what the flower will look like. These petite vines are happiest when their roots are in the shade and their shoots are in the sunshine, so plant them behind a dwarf shrub and let them scramble up an obelisk for an attractive vertical accent.

Try this surprising Humboldt County annual. I tend towards a spirit of benign neglect in my home garden, weeding, watering and pruning only when I think of it and when I'm not too busy caring for everyone else's plants. Given that, annuals are usually a bust for me, because by the time it occurs to me to deadhead and fuss with them, they've already gone to seed and become ragged. Not so with the Seniorita Blanca spider flower (Cleome hybrid). While spider flowers are a heat-loving plant that I usually think of as performing best in the southern states, I planted six of these annuals in 4-inch pots last year and was shocked that they grew from nothing to 4 feet tall and bloomed constantly throughout the season with no attention from me beyond walking by and admiring them every day on the way to the chicken coop. Why do they add a Humboldt County touch to the garden? Well, one look at the foliage and you'll see a strong resemblance to another plant favored by locals.

Snap off single shoots from rhododendrons. Gangly, leggy rhododendrons can be seen all around Eureka, and while some of that adolescent-looking awkwardness comes from choosing a poor variety, you can prevent your rhododendron from this dire fate by pinching the single growth shoots this time of year. After blooming, rhododendrons set out three or more shoots from just beneath the old flower head. This is ideal, since the more branches you have, the more foliage will cover your plant. However, some branch tips will only set out a single growth shoot, and these should be pinched or snapped off now to encourage a full habit with more flowers.

Prepare a water source for birds. In Humboldt County, birds don't have trouble finding water throughout most of the year, but you can help them along during our short dry season by providing a consistent, easy-to-drink water source. Whether that's a birdbath, small fountain or pond, just make sure there is a grippy landing spot for them to perch, and that the water isn't so deep as to be dangerous for them. If your existing fountain or pond is made of a slippery material like glazed ceramic, or has steep edges unsuitable for a casual drink or bath, consider adding gravel, cobble or other textured stones to create a beach for birds to stand on and splash.

Attend a garden tour. I've heard of two exciting local garden tours coming up this month. First, if you're up for a visit to Mendocino this weekend, the Garden Conservancy is having its Open Days program, featuring three expansive, beautifully designed private gardens which will be open to the public on May 10 (details on their website). Closer to home, legendary local gardener Pat Wells is opening her garden for a tour on May 25 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. as a benefit for the Trinidad Museum native plant garden. It is $10 per person or $20 per family, and refreshments will be served. The tour is at 1724 Stagecoach Road in Trinidad behind Larrupin Cafe, and tickets will be sold at the gate on the day of the tour. The exquisite planting combinations at the Wells garden have been featured in Fine Gardening, and visiting is an experience you won't forget.

Genevieve Schmidt is a landscape designer and owns a fine landscape maintenance company in Arcata. Visit her on the web at

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Genevieve Schmidt

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