The signs of spring right now are real, but can feel like an illusion when the wind is gusting. But, assuming that the earth has not fundamentally changed its course, we should standing now at the beginning of something wonderful.
April is traditionally the month when non-gardeners start thinking about the garden. Tomatoes go in far too early, new gadgets are purchased, patios are built, and people are treating you a lot better than they were two months ago. Amazing what a bit of sunshine can do.
One of my favorite Robert Frost poems, ‘Two Tramps in Mud Time,’ captures the essence of this 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.
Here are a few things you can do this month to pursue that glorious vocation:
♦ 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. Dig those holes wide.
♦ PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE do not cut back spring flowering shrubs UNTIL THEY HAVE BLOOMED. Keeping this bullet point on the list from last month as the winter weather has played havoc with spring timing.
♦ Winter weeds are making up for lost time and going like gangbusters out there. 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, and have recently been experimenting with Messina’s Fertilixer. 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.
♦ 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”