WE 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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:
- How to grow beets
- How to grow carrots
- How to grow kale
- How to grow melons
- How to grow tomatoes
- How to grow onions
- How to grow peppers
- how to grow potatoes
- how to grow squash and other cucurbits
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.
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.
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.