The signs of spring right now are real, but can feel illusory when the wind begins to gust or the sun is covered by a passing cloud.
Or we get phone alert that our state is issuing a Stay At Home Order.
But assuming that the earth has not fundamentally changed its course, we should be standing now at the beginning of something wonderful in the Northern Hemisphere. And that is something to be grateful for in the midst of other worries.
Remember that the outside world can have a transformative effect on our mood. Whether you have a tiny patio or a large back garden, I urge you to take your paperwork outside – take a drink outside – take your spouse outside — and enjoy it. Even in a tiny flat you can sit near the window and observe the season unfolding below.
With increased sunlight, warmth and day length, April is traditionally the month when non-gardeners start thinking about gardening. The majority stop thinking about it somewhere in July, but a there are always a few that discover a pastime that will stay with them the rest of their lives.
This year, with the world extremely concerned about job losses, supply chains and the economy in general, there is even more interest in growing food and being outdoors; and I very much hope that we will see more backyard (and front yard!) gardens as a result. The National Garden Bureau has said it’s time for Victory Garden 2.0 and I agree.
There’s a ton of advice out there, but my top two tips are: Grow vegetables and herbs that you enjoy; and, do yourself a very big favor and start small. You will get the most from a garden that doesn’t exhaust you.
One of my favorite Robert Frost poems, ‘Two Tramps in Mud Time,’ captures the essence of April as a transition month and illustrates the joy that can be gained in finding avocation in vocation. In Frost’s case, cutting wood. In mine, and probably yours, gardening.
Below are a few things you can do this month to pursue that glorious vocation, but we’ll start as we have in previous months with a bit of plant lust:
“I should have planted that!” for April’s garden
Carefully observing neighboring gardens month-to-month and putting in some of the wonderful things you see during the next planting season allows you to successfully increase your garden’s display season without having to experiment too much with timing.
Epimedium spp. – (Bladderwort) Epimedium is one of those perennial plants that you come to a little later in your gardening life and wonder why you didn’t know about it sooner.
The answer has much to do with marketing. It’s not a plant that looks fabulous in a four inch pot, and it is usually out of bloom when the Mother’s Day hordes are visiting nurseries and garden centers looking for pretty pots to plant. Consequently, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for Big Box garden centers to carry it, and varieties are generally limited in local nurseries too, which have to carry a lot of pretty pots to make ends meet. Most gardeners come to it either by reading about it, or by seeing it in other people’s gardens and wanting it for their own.
If you’ve got shade – particularly dry shade – epimedium should be on your short list. Over time this perennial forms a mat of semi-evergreen leathery foliage that makes it tough for weeds to get started. In late winter, the gardener should cut the foliage to the ground, and small panicles of flowers and brand new foliage will replace it in early spring.
The flowers come in a huge array of colors — yellow, white, orange, red, lavender etc… and are held in fairy-like panicles above the emerging foliage. The foliage often comes blushed and turns green as the season progresses. In fall, the foliage can turn red, yellow or orange — pulling its weight as a multi-season plant.
As I mentioned, epimedium copes well with dry shade or partial shade, however, it prefers a moister environment and will respond with stronger growth. Over the years I have learned to dig up epimedium clumps in fall or very early spring and divide them manually if I want to increase my supply quickly. Otherwise they tend to expand slowly.
A native of the Mediterranean and Eastern Asia. Very deer resistant.
Outside Tasks for April:
♦ First and foremost: WAIT to pull something out that looks dead. You’d look pretty rough too if you’d been outside for the last few months. A rotten or softened stem is a good indication of death – but for all other “mostly dead” shrubs – just give them a few weeks to prove that they may be “slightly alive.” Sprouting from the base might be your first indication, and takes time.
♦ The same can be said for whacking back shrubs that may have budded early then suffered through a few hard freezes in March. Take a wait and see approach and you may find that blackened buds are also only mostly dead (Miracle Max was a wise man).
♦ A great month to plant trees, both evergreen and deciduous. Though fall gives them a bit more of a root start, early April is still a great choice and is THE choice for trees that are marginally hardy in your zone. Dig those holes wide.
♦ Cool season weeds are out of control. Get them up and out before they set seed and create more of a problem.
♦ Re-mulch pathways and don’t forget to mulch new planting areas well to conserve moisture. Leaf mold, composted manure, compost and straw make excellent organic mulches.
♦ Fertilize vegetable and ornamental beds before planting. I use Espoma Plant Tone and Holly Tone – high-quality organic fertilizers that are a nice mixture of bone/blood meals, alfalfa meal, and a few other micro-nutrients thrown in for good measure. Compost and humus increase the ability of your soil to hold moisture and sustain plant life, but actually contribute very little to the fertility of the soil – which means vegetables with less nutritive content. Look into fertilizing and feeding your soil, not just amending it.
♦ At the beginning of the month, we are still in time to plant peas but not too early to plant kale. If you are a Mid-Atlantic gardener, check out this excellent planting guide from University of MD Extension service – here. You’ll find all the dates you need.
♦ If you decide to plant warm weather plants such as tomatoes and peppers by the end of the month, keep a sharp eye on the weather. The Mid-Atlantic is not immune to late April frosts.
♦ Check fences and gates for broken pickets, hinges and groundhog holes and repair them.
♦ Set out staking for large floppers like peonies so that the plants can grow through the staking – which always looks more natural.
♦ Fertilize established shrubs and roses.
Inside Tasks for April:
♦ You may be sick of many of your winter refugees such as coleus, citrus, schefflera, agave etc… Do not jump the gun and throw them outside as soon as temperatures are feeling a bit warmer -the shock could easily kill them. Keep an eye on overnight temperatures – most pampered plants are not going to handle new digs outside until late April/beginning of May.
♦ Water-forced bulbs should be discarded after flowering. Soil-forced bulbs need some rest and a spa in Switzerland – but a back part of your garden might do just fine as well. Don’t expect much from them for a while.
♦ Inside plants should be fertilized, and now is an excellent time to re-pot them if they have grown pot bound.
“The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day,
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You’re one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you’re two months back in the middle of March.”
– Robert Frost
– from “Two Tramps in Mud Time”