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Make the most of a lovely May

This is indeed a merry month of May. These weeks have also been wonderful for gardening and the weather is perfect for welcoming gardeners from all over the country for the National Garden Clubs convention here in Buffalo.

Everywhere I go I hear your enthusiasm, along with some questions. Here are typical late-spring quandaries, with my advice: Question: Can we plant now?

Answer: Yes, with these caveats. Western New York often experiences occasional frosty nights, even into Memorial Day weekend, so prepare to shelter or cover any tender plants such as non-hardy annuals (impatiens and begonias) and warm weather vegetables (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant).

By "covering," I mean put a sheet, basket, newspaper or even plastic over them on cold nights. Uncover them once the day warms up. Never leave clear plastic on them, as it can create a greenhouse effect and damage the plants. Do not rush to plant tomatoes, though; you're not falling behind. They grow better and develop fewer growth defects if they are planted when the soil is consistently warm (55 degrees).

>Q: Why didn't my lilacs flower much?

A: Some did and some didn't. Some lilac varieties and cultivars bloom early and others later. This year many were hit with sudden frosts or freezing temperatures just when their tender buds were about to open, ruining the flowers and damaging leaf tips. The plants will be fine, but you'll have to wait until next year for flowers.

If you're buying lilacs (now is a good time), analyze their ultimate size and bloom time, since there are many improved types. Now is the time to prune old branches (from their point of origin, not off the top) and fertilize lilacs with a balanced or a high phosphorus (bulb type) fertilizer.

Another reason for not flowering: Lilacs recover slowly after transplanting, so sometimes you'll have to wait three or four years for full flowering after moving a plant. When you transplant, be as gentle as possible, taking a large root mass, and be patient.

>Q: All my neighbors have glorious flowering trees, except us. Which one should I get that will look like theirs?

A: Ah, perception vs. reality. In spring we see gorgeous flowering cherries, magnolias, dogwoods, crab apples and other exotic beauties, and we are struck by a serious condition called "flowering tree envy."

It goes away. Look at the same trees three weeks later to see if their shapes, leaf color, bark and fall color really warrant a key position by your house. The spring flowering trees do serve us well, streetside and in our yards. But some other trees, with lesser bursts of glory, may please you longer in that starring position near the house. Ultimately, mature shape and size, and multiseasonal characteristics are more important than two weeks of flowers.

>Q: We took out an old yew/juniper/maple. What can we plant there?

A: You might want a replacement plant in the same spot, but you shouldn't plunk another one in the same hole without doing some prep work or considering this: In the case of a large tree, with roots far outward into the lawn, you must remove the stump and the largest roots. The old wood will be decomposing, robbing the plant roots of nitrogen, for many years. It would be wiser to plant a new tree somewhere else.

With shrubs or small trees, you can probably remove the whole root system. Then you should still improve the soil in the area. Remove some old soil, loosen up the surrounding soil (where the roots will be going) and work in some compost. Give a new plant a good start. If your old plant was diseased or damaged by pests, get a diagnosis and choose plants that are not prone to the same problems.

>Q: I planted (name a perennial, vine or small shrub) last year, and it's in an important spot. But it sure didn't do much last summer and it still looks puny. What can I do? Replace it?

A: We expect so much of plants! Honestly, it takes most perennials three years to show their best features; vines and shrubs even longer. So, two choices: You can cram plants together for instant impact, knowing you will have to take two-thirds of them out some years later (the expensive way).

Or you can space perennials, vines and shrubs according to their tag recommendations, based on mature size. Then fill up the spaces with annuals while the permanent plants are growing. A great trick for people who need to cover something with a vine: Get the permanent vine started, but use annual vines such as mandevillas, morning glories, sweet peas, or black-eyed Susan vine to cover the area for the first years.

>Q: Here's our dead (XYZ) that we planted last summer. What happened?

A: Sometimes it's difficult to tell, but when we see a root ball that's still in the shape of the pot, we know the roots never started to grow outward. Usually the plant didn't get enough water regularly, from planting time until the ground froze. Or the soil was poor and the hole too small. Sometimes plants die from too much water, usually because of poor drainage. Gardening is an art and a science. Keep learning; keep trying; and enjoy!

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.