THOUGH ‘FRANTIC’ IS PROBABLY the more accurate adjective to describe me right now, adopting a “strategic” attitude would get me a lot farther, faster, in the face of April’s heroic list of garden chores. Let’s start with 10 steps that I try to stick to, as I get started erasing winter’s havoc.
1. Start cleanup near the house. Having the beds along the most-traveled front walkway tidied up early reminds me that I can do this, a little at a time. Walking past a mess every time I leave the house: not so inspiring! Work out from there gradually.
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 at the start of the bigger cleanup, so earliest crops can get sown, then double back later.
3. Similarly: Gently remove matted leaves to uncover early spring ornamentals first, such as spring bulbs and ephemerals. Start cutbacks by trimming battered leaves from semi-evergreen perennials, such as many of the hellebores and epimedium and gingers—and with ornamental grasses.
4. Stay on track with seed-starting. Either make a list of what to sow when, indoors or out, or organize packets week-by-week, perhaps in an accordion file or old recipe-card box. Remember: move any packet that’s best sown a little at a time ahead two weeks in the filing system after you use it. That means a staggered supply of salads, carrots, radishes and such. (Don’t know when to sow what? The calculator tool will help you.)
5. As soon as possible, 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.
9. While doing all that: Never walk, or work, in mucky soil. I even like to stay off soft and also semi-frozen lawns, though it means delaying some chores. I can do the tasks in another week, but I can’t as easily fix soil I’ve turned to concrete.
10. Treat yourself to a little color—again, for encouragement. I like big 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.
More details, garden area by area, follow:
COOL-SEASON ANNUALS like pansies and violas can be potted up for spring color. I like to use 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 of hard freeze.
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!
ONCE BEDS ARE CLEANED UP, topdress according to label directions with an all-natural organic fertilizer in areas that need it, and a layer of finished compost everywhere. Wait to apply mulch until the soil warms thoroughly.
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.
PREPARE NEW BEDS by smothering grass or weeds with layers of recycled corrugated cardboard or thick layers of newspaper, then put mulch on top.
TENDER BULBS like cannas, callas, tuberous begonias, dahlias get a headstart if potted up indoors now, then transplanted after all frost danger passes. How to wake them up and get them growing.
LOOKING FOR GROUNDCOVERS to tie things together? Start by perusing these workhorses.
PLANT ORDERS should be in the mail, or heading that way. When things arrive, bare-root woody plants will take priority, so think ahead. The Resources page has lots of tempting places to browse and buy.
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.
WHETHER REJUVENATING or just fine-tuning, all the pruning FAQs are here to help.
vegetable and fruit gardens
BARE-ROOT CROPS like raspberry bushes, strawberry plants, fruit trees, asparagus, go in upon arrival.
LAST CALL FOR PEAS (sow right in the soil) is early April here, to avoid running into hot summer weather.
DID YOU ORDER seed potatoes for planting later this month or next? Some gardeners say to plant when the forsythia blooms. How to grow potatoes. What about asparagus crowns to start a bed? Onion and shallot seedlings or sets can take cool weather and go out early, too.
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.
FEED GARLIC planted last fall as greens get up and growing. 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.
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 in my Zone 5B location). I do Brussels sprouts now, too; many gardeners prefer to wait a bit, to make sure theirs come to harvest in colder fall weeks. Sow spinach, lettuce, arugula and broccoli raab outside, as well as carrots, radishes, beets, and dill, and even kale and collards. I repeat in short rows or blocks every 10 days or so for a continuing supply of tender pickings.
SPINDLY SEEDLINGS? Prevent stretching and legginess by giving them what they need.
MELONS GET a headstart indoors here mid-month, like this.
HAVING TROUBLE with carrots? Here’s the secret.
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 info is here.
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 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.)
(Note: All my chores are based on my Zone 5B location on the NY-MA-CT tristate border, in the Hudson Valley of New York State. Adjust accordingly.)