Margaret's garden clogs and trowelWE ARE NOT POWERLESS over April–even though in most areas, it’s a contender for the busiest month of the garden year. My best advice for how to cope with cleanup and all the rest sounds like the script of a 12-Step pamphlet of slogans: Easy does it. Progress, not perfection. And also this one: It works if you work it. Shall we proceed, then, one chore at a time?

new feature for 2015: regional links

THE ORGANIC-GARDENING approach and the how-to tips I offer apply most anywhere–pruning a rose or sowing a tomato seed is similar, wherever the rose or tomato may grow. But the when is not the same. To help adjust the timing: My garden is in Zone 5B, in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA) area, where frost can persist well into May and return in October. You may need next month’s chores, or last month’s (the archive is here). For more Zone-specific advice, I’ve rounded up a new page of links to calendars and checklists from around the nation (and the U.K.). But read on first, because I’m betting there’s something here for you, wherever you may dig, weed, or prune.

BEFORE we start: Last month I asked if you’d set the tone for your 2015 garden? This year’s mantra is “Be thoughtful, keep weeding,” with the “thoughtful” part standing for “thoughtful organic gardening,” as in thinking carefully before any action is taken. My resolutions. (A year earlier, I’d suggested, “More mulch, no spray,” another way to say: Be kind.)

10 steps to get the season started

I FEEL FRANTIC, but know that being strategic is a smarter attitude in the face of April’s heroic to-do’s. I try to stick to these 10 steps, as I begin erasing winter’s havoc.

  1. Start cleanup near the house. Tidying beds along the most-traveled front walkway early reminds me that I can do this, a little at a time. Walking past a mess every time I go out: not so inspiring. Work out from homebase.
  2. First things first. In the edible garden, why prep the tomato row when you haven’t even planted the peas or spinach? “Spot clean” key areas, so earliest crops can get sown, then double back later if other “must” extra-early chores are still undone.
  3. Similarly: Gently remove matted leaves to uncover early spring ornamentals first, such as spring bulbs and ephemerals, even if you can’t stop to clean the whole bed. Start cutbacks by trimming battered leaves from semi-evergreen perennials, such as hellebores and epimedium and gingers—and with ornamental grasses.
  4. Stay on track with seed-starting. Make a chart of what to sow when, indoors or out, or organize packets week-by-week, in an accordion file or recipe-card box. Move any packet that’s best sown a little at a time ahead two weeks in the filing system after you use it, to plan for a staggered supply of salads, carrots, radishes and such.  (Don’t know when to sow what? The calculator tool will help you.)
  5. Make space in the compost heap for incoming debris you’ll be generating fast. Extract (and preferably screen) finished material from the bottom to topdress beds as you clean them.
  6. Order mulch now, preferably a bulk delivery—skipping all those plastic bags, and ideally choosing a locally produced material. What makes good mulch, and how to use it.
  7. Empty nest boxes of old nests, and maybe add more birdhouses. My nestbox 101 is here, plus here’s how to be a good bluebird landlord.
  8. Muck out water gardens, removing floating de-icers (remember my fall regimen for water-garden care?).  Get pumps and filters going again, following these spring water-garden tips.
  9. While doing all that: Never walk, or work, in mucky soil. I stay off soft and also semi-frozen lawns, too, delaying some chores. I can do the tasks in another week, but I can’t easily fix soil turned to concrete.
  10. Treat yourself to a little color—again, for encouragement. I like big bowls of pansies or violas, for instance, to cheer me on in April, because the list can feel daunting, especially in years when winter sticks around a little too long.

flower garden

ARE POLKA-DOTS dominating your designs—lots of “onesies” (a single plant of each kind, instead of an impactful group or drift)? Divide plants and repeat sweeps elsewhere, rather than buy new one-off’s. Additional DIY garden-design advice.

LOOKING FOR GROUNDCOVERS to tie things together? Start by perusing these workhorses.

COOL-SEASON ANNUALS like pansies and violas can be potted up. I prefer a single variety massed in big, low bowl-like pots (my biggest ones are 30 and 36 inches wide). Remember to have frost protection devices at the ready like this, just in case.

LIKE TUBEROUS BEGONIAS? Get them going indoors for setting outside after the weather settles. Start in trays of moistened vermiculite or fast-draining potting soil, then pot up individually in a month or so. Grow in a bright, warm spot. More on tuberous begonias. Also: I start my cannas that way, though a bit later, and dahlias–especially oldtime varieties.

ANNUAL POPPIES like these can also be sown now, right in the garden. Don’t disturb them during cleanup!

WHEN WORKING IN BEDS and borders, be careful not to clean up too roughly; desirable emerging self-sown annuals and biennials (larkspur, nicotiana, clary sage, Verbena bonariensis, perilla, Angelica gigas, etc.) can be disturbed unless you pay attention.

ONCE BEDS ARE CLEANED UP, topdress according to label directions with an all-natural organic fertilizer in areas that need it (based on soil test results), and a layer of finished compost everywhere. Wait to apply mulch until the soil warms thoroughly. More on creating the best garden soil.

PREPARE NEW BEDS by smothering grass or weeds with layers of recycled corrugated cardboard or thick layers of newspaper, then put mulch on top.

FEED BULBS (including garlic!) with an organic fertilizer labeled for them as green shoots get up and growing. Few blooms on daffodils and other flower bulbs? The answer’s here.

trees and shrubs

QUICK! PRUNE OFF VIBURNUM-BEETLE egg cases before larvae hatch. The anti-viburnum beetle scheme.

PRUNE ROSES just as buds begin to push, removing dead, damaged and diseased canes and opening up the plants to allow light and air; feed. Plant new roses, especially those that come bare-root.

CLEMATIS PRUNING confuses many gardeners, but it’s not as complicated as you think. The 101, with diagrams and a podcast.

HYDRANGEA PRUNING: Prune paniculata hydrangeas and Hydrangea ‘Annabelle’ (not moptop blue types). Cut back Buddleia hard once you see the very first signs of life.

WAIT UNTIL AFTER BLOOM to prune spring-flowering shrubs like lilacs.

I’M PRUNING twig willows now, and trimmings can become whole new shrubs or even a living fence, tunnel or other structures, like this.

WHETHER REJUVENATING or just fine-tuning, all the pruning FAQs are here to help.

vegetable and fruit gardens

HOW I START SEED INDOORS is outlined here, along with why I carry my babies outdoors on fair days. Do you have fresh seed-starting medium (not potting soil–that’s too coarse for seeds) and flats, trays, pots, labels?

STUDY UP on how to grow growing specific vegetables from seed, before you get started. Here are shortcut links to some popular crops:

SPINDLY SEEDLINGS? Prevent stretching and legginess by giving them what they need.

COLD-SEASON TRANSPLANTS like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower can still be sown indoors if you hurry, or store-bought seedlings can go outdoors around month’s end here in Zone 5B. I do Brussels sprouts now, too. Sow spinach, lettuce, arugula and broccoli raab outside, plus carrots, radishes, beets, and dill, and even kale and collards. Repeat short rows or blocks every two weeks for a steady supply of tender pickings. Melons and squash get a headstart indoors here mid-month, like this.

TOMATOES ARE SOWN INDOORS around six weeks before their frost-free set-out date, or around mid-April here for early June planting outdoors. Eggplants and peppers can be sown indoors, too. All my tomato stories are here.

LAST CALL FOR PEAS (sow right in the soil) is early April here in Zone 5B, to avoid running into hot summer weather. I’m planting a rainbow of peas—yellow pods, purple pods, and many with hummingbird-friendly colorful flowers.

FEED GARLIC planted last fall as greens get up and growing (how to grow garlic, which is harvested around July). Want help with other herbs? Try this interview with expert Rosemarie Nichols McGee, or Horizon Herbs’ founder Richo Cech’s take on basils and more.

DID YOUR BASIL FAIL last year? It may have been downy mildew disease. Learn more.

DID YOU ORDER seed potatoes for planting later this month or next? Some gardeners say to plant when the forsythia blooms. What about asparagus crowns to start a bed? Onion and shallot seedlings or sets can take cool weather and go out early, too.

BARE-ROOT CROPS like raspberry bushes, strawberry plants, fruit trees, asparagus, go in upon arrival.

PRUNE GRAPE VINES to no more than four fruiting canes with 7 to 10 buds apiece if you didn’t in March.

CUT OUT CANES OF raspberries that have borne fruit, and any that are thinner than a pencil. Shorten the remaining young canes by at least a foot. How to grow raspberries and gooseberries.

DO YOUR BLUEBERRY bushes need some expert help to fruit better? How to grow blueberries.

wildlife-garden ideas

WANT MORE WILDLIFE, including birds? Here’s how to create a habitat garden, and also a Q&A with wildlife ecologist Doug Tallamy of the University of Delaware on creating backyard habitat. Speaking of wildlife magnets: Will this be the year you add water, whether in-ground or simply an easy, seasonal trough like this?

SICK OF DEER? Maybe it’s time to plan for upgrades in deer control. If by this point in winter you have tired of deer damage, perhaps this will be the year you fence the yard, or at least a key area, using one of these approaches.

SICK OF MOWING? Do you want to mow differently (as I did the last two years to good result, making more semi-wild spots for insects and birds to enjoy)


STAY OFF SOGGY LAWNS, period. Once the ground is firm and dry, lawns need a vigorous raking with a bamboo rake (not plastic) or dethatching with a rented machine, then overseeding as indicated.

HAVE MOWER SERVICED and sharpened before it’s needed. Next time, do it in fall. Fill fuel can; have correct oil on hand.

‘READ’ YOUR LAWN WEEDS to determine what’s really needed this season. Moss means you need lime, for instance. Get off the chemicals this year.

compost heap

REMOVE FINISHED COMPOST from the bottom of the heap and make room for incoming debris, then screen it before using to remove twigs and stones. Turn and moisten remaining partially broken-down contents to aerate and get things cooking. Use finished compost to topdress beds before applying mulch in a few weeks. (My Compost FAQ page explains it all, or read how expert Lee Reich makes his amazing black gold.)

need help in other regions?

AGAIN: I’m in the Northeast, in Zone 5B. For more Zone-specific advice, I’ve rounded up a new page of links to calendars and checklists from around the nation.

  1. Sally Cornish says:

    Thanks for the bluebird tips: I put up my bluebird box yesterday, will go out today and turn it to face South, away from the prevailing North wind!

  2. Linda says:

    Hi Margaret,
    I so look forward to being able to do something in my garden. This year it’s all getting postponed due to at least a foot of snow still lingering. I do find hope in the fact that the other six feet have melted, and there are predictions of temps in the 40s and 50s for the week ahead. Thanks for all the beautiful pictures of your garden. Spring will come!

  3. susan herrman says:

    Hi Margaret,
    Loved the advice about rodent control but just wondering if you have any tips for controlling chipmunks??? They cleaned out my blueberries last year in record time ): Thanks!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Susan. You might want to look at Lee Reich’s “blueberry gazebo” story — which is here at this link — to see the measures he goes to in order to protect his harvest from birds and etc. Netting is a commonly recommended solution — but with the caveat that chippies will usually figure out how to get under/over or just chew through. Many people live trap them and relocate them (which DEC laws usually require you to hire a licensed “nuisance wildlife” handler to do; it’s illegal to move any wildlife without a license). More will move in, but sometimes you can shift the population density for the season. Other people treat them like mice and (need I say more?)… So like squirrels they are a tricky opponent if you have a population surge — barriers work not well if at all.

      1. Karen Zmurchak says:

        I have a friend who had chipmunk problems. She spread red hot pepper sauce in her flower beds. Problem solved.

        1. margaret says:

          Thanks, Karen. With a giant garden I would have to get a truckload of the stuff! But in a small space such repellents can work.

  4. Michelle says:

    I took your advice and tried pansies in a single color in a container. It is such a lovely pick-me-up.

    Yesterday I came upon a quote that I am keeping for those days that April’s long list brings a twinge of anxiety. Others may have heard this, but it was new to me.

    “Hoe while it spring, and enjoy the best anticipations. It is not much matter if things do not turn out well.” Charles Dudley Warner

  5. Dee Nash says:

    Excellent list Margaret. I felt crazy last month. I did finally ask for help. I hired two people to come and help me rid the garden of the leaves–I still have some–and lay more mulch. I have a friend who is an experienced gardener and knows when to ask about pulling something. That did help. I also didn’t start seeds this spring which was difficult for me, but I’ve been concentrating on replacing my roses with new shrubs so I let seeds go by the wayside for this year. I do miss the babies in the house though. Thanks for a great checklist.~~Dee

    1. margaret says:

      Nice to hear from you, Dee. Help needed indeed! Especially as you say for the bulk removal of debris/leaves, and then the mulching. Yikes, here too (not mulching yet, but in a few weeks).

  6. Rosemary says:

    I posted your Andre picture on my facebook page I liked it so much! One olive in 6 olive trees everything else is growing leaves…..

    1. margaret says:

      Managing around soil-borne issues that affect tomatoes includes steps covered in this other article, Dee, under the heading “good tomato hygiene”. Also: If you cannot rotate the tomatoes to another area of the yard, at least add lots of good-quality compost to the soil each year.

  7. dash says:

    Well, the April garden chores will most likely be May garden chores for me…..still 2 feet of snow on the ground with a new 5 inches this week……sigh. Spring coming very late to the North Country this year!

  8. EmsyDoodle says:

    Thanks for this great post. I tend to get so caught up in preparing the ground ready for early cropping of veggies that I forget to take a step back and plant something lovely to look at and pick up some pansies/violas for companion plants and prettying up the vegetable garden.

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks, Emsy; glad it helps. Planted my big pots of pansies on the weekend and somehow it made all the mess around me look a little better. :)

  9. Lauren says:

    Hi Margaret,
    Love your excellent advice and writing! I’m still learning my shady perennial backyard, and wonder when is the best time to divide and plant hostas? My goal is to fill gaps and add lots of green texture this year.

    1. margaret says:

      I have done it from early spring to late fall, Lauren, in Zone 5B. However, I most like to do it early (before the leaves unfurl, but when the tips show themselves so I know where the plant is) or in early fall (when the leaves are spent, anyhow) — both because I just hate to spoil any foliage at the start of the season by being rough with the tender new leaves. But I have even moved them in summer (and watered well, a couple or few times a week all summer long)…not ideal. They are tough. Move them now if you can.

  10. Katherine T. Silverblatt says:

    I sent a question yesterday 4/14. Did you receive it? Because I don’t see it listed here, I’m wondering if it didn’t go through….can I cut back daylily leaves that have gotten damaged by the freeze/thaws and look awful–whitish and wrinkled–and if so, will they still bear new leaves and flower this season? I have so many of them in highly visible places in my garden.
    Katherine in Mill River, MA in the Southern Berkshires

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Katherine. Sorry; I’m the blogger, question-answerer, gardener, podcast-maker etc. over here — too many jobs, so I can’t get to every inquiry right away.

      I am cutting stuff back here in the hopes that it is so early that it can rebound. My place went to 13F two nights in a row week before last and it made quite the mess. The flowers should not be affected by your removing the nasty leaves. Ideally we wouldn’t, but like you I am not keen on looking at all the disfigured foliage in key spots.

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