Margaret's garden clogs and trowelI’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, my garden was about 40 percent covered in the stuff). In 2019 I am down to a small pile or two in the driveway as the new month begins. .

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). Some overwintering insects, notably bees and certain butterflies and moths, are triggered by a steady stream of 50-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, they’re no longer as vulnerable to our spring-cleaning actions that might kill them, or move them away from their host plant.

Ready to get started?

  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. “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.
  3. 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.
  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. 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.
  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 (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.

vegetable garden

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:

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:

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.

fruit garden

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.

flower garden

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.

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. Need help pairing them with other plants in the garden? Start here.

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.

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?

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.

lawn

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.

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 page of links to calendars and checklists from around the nation.

 

  1. Sally says:

    Oh thank you, thank you!! I needed this encouragement, especially progress not perfection and one chore at a time. I have a sore knee that is making garden chores more difficult.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Edda. The Cooperative Extension system, Gardens Organic in England, paper scientists at North Carolina State, etc. all say that uncoated black and white newsprint (NOT glossy magazines or colored inks) is safe to use, since the inks no longer contain heavy metals, and dioxins are not used to bleach newsprint any longer, either (Hydrogen peroxide apparently is). I use it in my ornamental beds here (along with corrugated cardboard) and not in my vegetable garden, but again: even the USDA’s National Organic Program standards for U.S. organic farming allow black and white, uncoated newsprint. Info on that is here.

  2. Carole Clarin says:

    I didn’t see anything on the “April chores list” about shoveling snow! Looks like my clean-up, that I started on a warm day in March, will have to wait until after the second coating of snow melts and the temperature rises about freezing! Hope that my irises and daffodils still flower this season… So eager to get into the garden and get dirty!

  3. frederique Jennette says:

    OH, I sympathize with you, having to manage all of it by yourself, losing your valuable helper!!! But thanks for the 10 most important hints as they will help me too in a much smaller garden than you have. Here it is a constant wind problem, sticks, fluctuating temperatures, so bringing in and out of pots!!! Too anxious to have a real spring get going! Wishing you luck with your big yard as it all looks so beautiful on all your pictures and slides. Best wishes from zone 7b!

  4. Vicki says:

    Thanks for the advice, it always helps keep me on track. I especially appreciate the pond info. Question: I have a small pond with goldfish and a couple of koi, I’d like to grow something to eat in the pond. I’m wondering if watercress may be an option? The hydroponic suppliers have special set ups, can you suggest anything else to grow and eat? Plus, would it safe? I don’t use any chemicals and I have a biological filter. I’ve searched and haven’t found any info on this subject. THANKS!

  5. M. L. Winston says:

    Viewed a program of your works for the first time. GR8! Very inspirational.
    I’m in California (Bay Area, East Bay). Yet, in NJ there’s someone I’d like to escort to your garden. We have small, yards (significantly less than an acre) but enjoy the earth – soil- and yield. She’s rehabilitating from stroke and as the weather warms, would benefit from an outdoor visit. However, she is limited in walking and uses a wheelchair when in public (for now). Please let me know if we can visit your garden.
    Regards,

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, M.L. I will send you an email with details, but the short version is that unfortunately I am on a steep hillside that is very tough except on foot.

  6. Rachel says:

    Hi Margaret
    Very helpful tips,you’ve covered almost everything from lawn care to gardening.
    It’s my first tme to hear about STRAW-BALE gardening ,thanks for sharing the link.

  7. Chrissy says:

    Here it is the end of April. Had a bout of vertigo two weeks ago prohibiting the best start to the season. I know the “appropriate” times to prune, but sometimes you just need to do it when you can. And as a result of FINALLY pruning a privet and barberry and whittling at the worst part of an invasive euonymus vine , I have a pile as big as another bush!

  8. Carolyn Roof says:

    April Fool’s Day – it certainly is. Typically, at least it seems that way, Easter is overcast and cold. But, the ground is perfect for planting and weeding. The soulangeana did not get frozen out, the daffodils are in mid-season, and the dandelions are just getting started.
    I read that dandelion wine has a rich, brandy warming quality about it. To each his/her own. It is a good way to get rid go the flowers(use only the yellow part of the ‘flower’) and is a conversation piece.

  9. Carole Clarin says:

    I just read my post from April, 2016 and it looks like the same is true today! 4 inches of snow on Long Island and just yesterday I was out doing a little cleanup and noticing a few daffodils beginning to bloom!

  10. Joanna says:

    Very good list and I can’t wait to get out there. It’s been the longest winter ever and the 10-day forecast… well, let’s just not talk about it. Meanwhile, I’ve got seeds going under grow lights in the basement and some caladium and begonia bulbs potted up. That keeps this winter-weary gardener happy for the time being.

  11. Christine Neville says:

    I’m in Middletown, RI – Zone 6a or 7 depending on where you look. Today I received some bare root crowns of trillium, geranium maculatum, jack in the pulpit, bloodroot, and claytonia virginica in the mail. I stuck them in the ground thinking they should be planted asap, then read the instructions that suggested potting them in potting soil for the first year, but this applied to all their bare root perrenials, not just the spring ephemerals. Should I dig them up and pot them or will they be fine? We are having a lot of cold rain, but hopefully done with the snow, should they be at outside temps, or kept warmer?
    Thanks!

    1. margaret says:

      Wow, Christine, I have never done the potting-up thing first, I have to say. I just checked on the websites of reputable seller of bare root natives (Prairie Nursery and Prairie Moon Nursery, e.g.) and neither one specifies that. I don’t know where you got them or what the reasoning was of the vendor, but I always thought “plant in the ground as soon as they arrive”.

      1. Christine Neville says:

        Thank you! I’ll just leave them in the ground and hope they are happy. They are from Fedco in Maine.

        Thank you also for sharing your knowledge and experience. I am so lucky that I came across your podcast 4 years ago when I began gardening after buying a house with an overgrown yard (like 50 years overgrown with invasives). I have listened to every one of your shows and your website is my go-to resource when I am not sure of something. It’s been great to be introduced to all your guests and their ways of gardening too. I appreciate the guidance and hope that other new gardeners are finding your website too.

  12. Margaret Labuda says:

    Does moss always mean the soil needs lime. I have a clay in my Montreal garden, now covered still by snow. I am always adding compost and some sand. I get moss in some shady location, what does it mean,
    Thanks,
    Margaret

    1. margaret says:

      I believe it can be a symptom of various things: an acidic soil is one of them, but compaction, shade, moisture and low fertility are others. So even if you lime … if the other factors are at work the desired plant (lawn? groundcovers?) may not love the spot.

  13. Dana says:

    Yesterday I was told that our frozen ground (5b, coast of Maine) goes 16 in down. This was noted when someone needed to lay pipe and had to use a jackhammer! So…I’m heeding your advice The hardest thing will be to not cleanup those piles of leaves on the first warm day but rather to give the insects a couple of days to warm up. I will spread poppy seeds today!

  14. Rena Ehly says:

    A heads up on the most amazing magazine “2 Million Blossoms” protecting our pollinators. Editor Dr. Kirsten S. Traynor. So far two issues have been published to my knowledge. One of the most scientific, easy to understand book ever. Please take a look. I know you will enjoy it and make it part of your personal research.

    Stay safe.

    1. margaret says:

      You could side-dress it (sprinkle the fertilizer in a small furrow parallel to the garlic row, but maybe a coupel of inches away) or simply broadcast over the row with a little blood meal or pelleted chicken manure (meaning: organic sources of nitrogen), but frankly in my good soil (to which I add compost each year and such, so the fertility is high) I never find I need to feed to get a good crop. Here’s what Oregon State recommends. Rutgers also offers the option of using a spray of fish emulsion/kelp applied to the emerging leaves, like this.

  15. PFC says:

    Congratulations on your place with the New York Times. I really enjoy your advice and lyrical writing, and hope that “things” will not evolve too much with a newer and global audience.

    1. PFC says:

      Oooh, am I allowed to respond to myself? Here goes. I was perusing through the Sunday New York Times (hardcopy) and read your article. Reading the newspaper is one of my joys, and your piece was an added bonus. What was I worried about?

  16. Fiona says:

    Thank you so much for this generous and comprehensive article. I am based in Sydney Australia, so we are heading to winter but all looking at our gardens from a new perspective. I wonder if you have some guidance for the Southern Hemisphere readers?

  17. Alana says:

    So HAPPY you’re writing for NYT now! We’re going to have to re-think our Weekend only subscription, if you’re articles are run Tues/Fri.

    Have been spending an enomous amount of time in the garden this Spring and decided that if we all don’t have our Best Gardening Year EVER, we should consider throwing in the trowel!
    Onward…

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks, Alana. It’s always in the digital version, and so far one column (kind of boiled down, no photos) was in the new At Home section Sunday — but basically you can be sure to find it Tues. and Fri. for the next couple/few weeks (or longer–who knows?) online.

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