I’M STICKING to what I say each year at this time: 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 likewise 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.
I know, you may still be wondering “is it spring yet?” as I am, if the weather hasn’t settled. For a read on that based on data, not anecdotes, the USA National Phenology Network’s maps are worth a visit. They call the process of tracking the progress of spring “Springcasting,” and here is how it works.
As the weather allows, shall we proceed, then, one chore at a time? I’ve got 10 strategic steps for getting started, plus the longer list to get you through the whole month.
garden in another zone? 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.
10 strategic steps to get the season started
I FEEL FRANTIC EVERY APRIL, but know that being strategic is a smarter attitude in the face of the month’s heroic to-do’s. I try to stick to the 10 steps below—at least on days that it isn’t snowing, as may still happen, something it did on April 1, 2017, no kidding (and on April 1, 2018, for instance, my garden was about 40 percent covered in the stuff). In 2023 we look to be pretty much past the stuff, with only the occasional flurries and such; a giant snow less than two weeks ago melted on the last days of March.
First, a caveat on timing: To support beneficial insects, “wait until after several 50-degree-Fahrenheit spring days to clean up again,” advised The Habitat Network (a former project from Cornell and the Nature Conservancy). Doug Tallamy of University of Delaware, author of “Nature’s Best Hope,” likewise stresses leaving leaf litter in place in fall, and not being too quick to tidy up in spring. Some overwintering insects, notably bees and certain butterflies and moths, are triggered by a stretch of 50-ish-degree days to get moving. Once they do, often after resting in leaf litter or under tree bark or even inside goldenrod galls, for example, such species are no longer as vulnerable to our spring-cleaning actions that might kill them, or move them away from their host plant. (Note: There’s no one precise formula for when every species awakens that will protect them all, so these are just guidelines in pursuit of the greater good.)
Rebecca McMackin, the ecological landscaper from Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York, has a similar approach to easy does it, and some tricks about if and when to cut things back.
Ready to get started?
- 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.
- “Spot clean” key areas–again, working on first things first. In the edible garden, why prep the tomato row when you haven’t even planted the peas or spinach? “Spot clean” targeted areas so that earliest crops can get sown, then double back later when all extra-early goals are met.
- Similarly: Gently remove matted leaves to uncover early spring ornamentals first, such as emerging 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. I actually do that even earlier, even if it means trudging through the snow. 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 (or your helper disappears).
Oh, and a couple of bonus tips, if it’s not the tidying up that’s got your overwhelmed, but perhaps the bigger challenge of aesthetics–of making the whole place hang together. In April I like to re-read this interview with Kathy Tracey of Avant Gardens, about fine-tuning your garden design, to help myself focus on key tactics. And get help developing your “signature style” from landscape designer Susan Morrison, who offers these tips for getting started: how each of us can look at our spaces with a designer’s eye; about breaking up too-boxy rectangular spaces to bring life into them; about use of color and other elements, and also when to call a friend in for a fresh set of eyes.
DID YOU SEND OFF samples for a soil test? Here’s why, and how. (Hint: If an area of the garden fared poorly last year, do a test before “self-medicating” with bags of random store-bought this and that!)
EVER TRY STRAW-BALE gardening? Craig LeHoullier tells us why you might want to, and how to get set up for success at this link.
HOW I START SEED INDOORS is outlined here, and includes why I carry my babies outdoors on fair days (hint: the next item called “Spindly Seedlings” is what I’m aiming to prevent). Do you have fresh seed-starting medium (not potting soil–that’s too coarse for seeds) and flats, trays, pots, labels?
SPINDLY SEEDLINGS? Prevent stretching and legginess by giving them what they need. Be brutal: Toss weaklings that didn’t get what they need, and try again if there’s time (or buy nursery transplants if not).
DID YOUR BASIL FAIL last year? It may have been Basil 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.
STUDY UP on how to grow growing specific vegetables from seed, before you get started. Growing under cover can help—using fabrics like Agribon or Reemay to thwart pests and warm things up. Here are shortcut links to growing some popular crops:
- How to grow beets
- How to grow Brassicas
- How to grow spinach
- Try 8 heat-resistant spinach substitutes
- 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 squash, cucumbers
- Grains and pseudo-grains (quinoa, sorghum, millet…)
- Oddball vegetables you might not have tried
COLD-SEASON TRANSPLANTS like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower can still be sown indoors if you hurry here in Zone 5B, or store-bought seedlings can go outdoors around month’s end. 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. More tomato-specific wisdom:
- 16 top things I know about growing tomatoes
- How to grow the best-tasting tomato
- Growing healthy tomatoes (staking and pruning)
- Fighting late blight and other tomato diseases
LAST CALL FOR SPRING PEAS (sow right in the soil) is before mid-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 Strictly Medicinal Herbs’ founder Richo Cech’s take on basils and more.
BARE-ROOT CROPS like raspberry bushes, strawberry plants, fruit trees, asparagus, go in upon arrival.
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.
PRUNE GRAPE VINES to no more than four fruiting canes with 7 to 10 buds apiece if you didn’t in March.
DO YOUR BLUEBERRY bushes need some expert help to fruit better (or do you want to start growing some)? How to grow blueberries.
NATIVE FRUIT TREES, ANYONE? How to grow pawpaws and persimmons.
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.
No plant is too common to become a garden star. Maybe make this the year you celebrate easy, long-blooming winners like marigolds and zinnias, by featuring the best heirloom and modern varieties.
START A CUTTING GARDEN. My neighbor and organic flower farmer Jenny Elliott has the most important tips–and some great varieties to suggest.
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. For a close look at the best of one of my favorite genera of ground covers and shade perennials, try this interview with Garden Vision Epimediums’ Karen Perkins. Wow.
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. Most years I only use the compost. 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. Another tactic for organic weed control: solarization or tarping (using clear or black plastic, respectively). Like this.
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.
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.
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?
START A NATURALIST’S NOTEBOOK: From Dr. Nathaniel Wheelwright, I got advice on keeping a journal of nature observations, and on generally becoming a keener observer–a better naturalist. Like this.
ENCOURAGE POLLINATORS by getting to know more about them, with help from the Xerces Society in this interview, or in these other stories:
SICK OF MOWING? Less lawn means space for more diverse plantings, and therefore support of more wildlife diversity from insects on up. Do you want to mow differently (as I did the last three years to good result)?
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. Also: deer-thwarting advice from Ohio State’s wildlife expert, applicable no matter where you garden.
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.
‘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.
HAVE MOWER SERVICED and sharpened before it’s needed. Next time, do it in fall. Fill fuel can; have correct oil on hand after changing old, plus any filters.
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 page of links to calendars and checklists from around the nation.