my april 2010 garden chores

shoes-trowel2APRIL IS THE MONTH NORTHERN GARDENERS WAIT FOR, and then we freak out when it arrives. Cleanup! Seed-sowing! Division! Transplanting! Fertilizing! Chaos! However frazzled we feel, remember to feel this: grateful to be here to see it, and even to be here to do it all (or as much as we can get done, because the list is worrisome, isn’t it?). Progress, not perfection, as they say in the 12 Steps. Onward, together, into A Way to Garden, Season 3.

APRIL IS THE MONTH THAT UNHINGES me slightly, as I said last year, and then comes May, when I just come apart. That said, it’s also pure heaven, this thing called spring: the affirmation each day of possibility and potential coming true before your eyes, the magic. What died will make itself known this month…and what lived will scream for your attention, all at once. And not in harmony.

COOL-SEASON ANNUALS like pansies and violas can be potted up for spring color.

ONCE BEDS ARE CLEANED UP, topdress according to label directions with an all-natural organic fertilizer and a layer of finished compost. Wait to apply mulch until the soil warms thoroughly.

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 as green shoots get up and growing. Few blooms? The answer’s here.

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

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.

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 hydrangeas).

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

LAST CALL FOR PEAS is early April here, to avoid running into hot summer weather.

SOW MORE SPINACH; sow salads, arugula, broccoli raab. Repeat in short rows or blocks every 10 days.

COLD-SEASON TRANSPLANTS like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts can still be sown indoors if you hurry (or store-bought seedlings can go outdoors around month’s end). Sow carrots, radishes, dill outside, and even kale and collards and many Asian greens.

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.

DID YOU ORDER potatoes for planting later this month or next? Some gardeners say to do so when the forsythia blooms. What about asparagus crowns to start a bed?

FERTILIZE GARLIC planted last fall as greens get up and growing.

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.

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 bottom of heap and make room for incoming debris.

SCREEN FINISHED COMPOST 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. (Composting basics explains it all.)

On using this list in your garden: The monthly A Way to Garden chores and based on my Zone 5B Berkshire MA/Hudson Valley NY location; adjust accordingly. NEW: If you are in a colder zone, refer to last month’s. Ahead of me? Have a sneak peek at the next edition.

  1. emily says:

    Hi Margaret,

    You say in this post, “Brussels sprouts can still be sown indoors if you hurry” if planning to plant from seed. My husband and I were going to try to grow brussels sprouts for the first time this year, but according to the Johnny’s Selected Seeds, where we purchased from (see here: http://www.johnnyseeds.com/p-7751-churchill-f1.aspx ), the instructions indicate to sow indoors in May to transplant outside 4-6 weeks later, or otherwise if sowing directly to do so about 4 months before expected fall frost. Your comment seems to indicate that you recommend an earlier date for sowing. Can you elaborate on your experience? Thanks!

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Emily. You are correct; the timing is variable, though I like to get them outdoors about a month from now to have my crop begin earlier. So you can do now or a bit later, yes. I should be more clear about why I like things earlier (and my garden friends nearby sowed theirs three weeks ago, talk about earlybirds!). Hope to see you again soon.

  2. maria mccune says:

    I always know when spring has arrived. My husband comments that I’m always dirty. From sun up to sundown I work in the yard coming in only to do a little of my job here and there and maybe fit in making dinner.
    In the South it’s really cruch time because before we know it it’s 90 degrees for the rest of the spring and summer! Any tips on staying clean and pretty while doing garden chores? My husband would appreciate them.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Maria. For “pretty and clean” tips, I fear you may have come to the wrong place. :) I definitely am shocked when I see myself in the mirror at day’s end in the warm months. My theory: cute sunglasses that cover a lot of facial real-estate. Tee-hee. Hope to see you soon again, dirt and all.

  3. Barbara Babor says:

    Hi…I want to make raised beds in my vegetable garden. What is the best height?
    I have very poor hard soil. Also what is the best length and width? Thanks Barbara

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Barbara. Funny you shoudl ask…we are all chattering about just that thing this week on the Q&A Forums. Here’s the scoop. I like mine of 2×10 or 2×12 rot-resistant lumber (here that’s locust or cedar, but the latter’s more $$$)…anyhow details in the forums. See you there!

  4. Cynthia A. says:

    Peas! Thank you for the reminder, because what would spring be without peas?

    I Eat My Peas with Honey


    I eat my peas with honey;
    I’ve done it all my life.
    It makes the peas taste funny,
    But it keeps them on the knife.

  5. GardenGeisha says:

    I sowed my fragrant sweet pea and California poppy seeds on March 4, and they are poking through the snow today! Is it too early to plant godetia and bee balm seeds here in Zone 5, Salt Lake City? I sowed some of these seeds on March 4, but I’m not sure they made it, and I can’t find any concrete info online as to when is the prime time to sow these types of seeds. Thanks for your help.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, GardenGeisha. I have never grown Godetia from seed, but have read that although relatively easy form seed, germination is slow (like three weeks even). See what Thompson and Morgan says, for instance. As for bee balm, again, slow to get growing (and even earlier sowing is better with them, like late winter/earliest spring). Here’s what T&M says, as an example.

  6. liz says:

    i’m tired already – just kidding. can someone recommend a mail order site for a small (lady-like) pitch fork? i need to shake up the compost pile and no one in the city seems to carry one. i’ve been offered hand rakes and strange looks when i’ve asked for a pitch fork.

    many thanks.

  7. katlia says:

    Hello, quick question about your advice on getting soil ready:
    ONCE BEDS ARE CLEANED UP, topdress according to label directions with an all-natural organic fertilizer and a layer of finished compost

    — what exactly do you mean ‘topdress”? Do you literally just lay a layer of fertilizer and on top of that a layer of finished compost without digging and mixing into existing soil?

    Sorry to sound daft – I’m a novice :)

    1. Margaret says:

      @Cathy: Hellebores cross-pollinate freely, so I have a lot of bicolors (and also many shades of solid colors) after so many years with them. I started with yellow plants and “black” (very dark purple) plants, and now I have some like that one you are referring to, along with every other imaginable shade from pinkish to purple-edged to spotted with freckles…funny and always a surprise to be had.

  8. Brian says:

    Hi Margaret–

    Love the blog and appreciate the April to-do list. Mine here in Portland, OR, includes a mass planting of shade-tolerant plants in front of our porch. We have three 80+ year old big leaf maples that knock the sun out of the yard around 9 a.m. So far, I have a couple of azaleas, a handful of ferns, a Japanese aralia, some leucothoe fontanesia and some big leaf golden ray. Any others shade-lovers on your top 10 list?


  9. Roberta says:

    Hi there!

    Great information here … and am very curious about growing arugula. I’ve never grown it before and this will be my first year – I cheated and bought them as seedlings, all clumped in together. What is the correct way to sow them in the ground from this point? What I did was just plant it directly in soil that is big enough for expansion (they’re a type of perennial, yes?) Other than this, I loved browsing through your site – as a fellow gardener myself, I found this scrumptiously entertaining! Thanks!

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Roberta. I love arugula and simply buy seeds and then sow (starting earliest spring, and repeating through season) a small row or small “block” of seed and it’s up fast and delivers a long harvest.

      The seeds are quite small, so I pour some into my left hand and then use my right thumb/forefinger to sort of pinch them into the little furrow I make with my finger or a tool, then water a little gently, cover them lightly, pat the soil down and water gently again. It’s the way I grow salad greens in general: more on that here.

      When I say row or block, it’s your choice — some people like to use squares of greens and some like rows. The rows can be pretty close together (like 6 or 8 inches). Again, sow a little bit every 2 weeks or so for a continuous supply, and plan to give it shade in the hottest months. Here’s Cornell’s how-to on arugula.

  10. Sharon says:

    Maria and Margaret: I’m convinced there is no way to be clean much less pretty while working in the garden. I tell folks that I don’t just work in the garden, I become one with the soil. My mother, now deceased, would tell me that I was going to clog up the drain in spite of the fact that I had hosed off before coming in. It does get so hot and humid so quickly here in the south. Summers are really tough.

    Margaret, I’m so proud of you, following your heart to your place in the woods. I’m going to send an email to you telling how our stories sort of relate. That beautiful cat of yours is something. Give him an under the chin rub for me and tell him that someone in the deep south appreciates his awesomeness!

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Sharon. I dare not tell Jack; he has me wrapped around his tail already, and it just gets worse with all this ego stroking. :) Thanks for your kind message; some see us again soon.

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