my april garden chores

APRIL IS THE MONTH THAT UNHINGES me slightly, 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. (PS: The chores are being published early this month because you don’t think I’m going to tell you what to do on April Fool’s, do you? Too easy an out!)

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 Season 2.

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

TRIMMINGS FROM APPLES and other early flowering trees and shrubs, such as quince, crabapples, forsythia, can be forced into bloom indoors. (My method is in the March chores.)

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.

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.

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.

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

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 be sown indoors still if you hurry (or store-bought seedlings can go outdoors around month’s end). Sow carrots, radishes, dill.

TOMATOES ARE SOWN INDOORS around 6 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.

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? Did you order those?

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

BARE-ROOT FOOD CROPS like raspberry bushes, strawberry plants, young fruit trees, asparagus, go in as soon as they arrive.

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 a month from now. (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 bottom of heap and make room for incoming garden debris.

SCREEN FINISHED COMPOST before using to remove twigs and stones; turn remaining partially broken-down contents of heap to aerate and get things cooking. Moisten if pile is dry. Use finished compost to topdress beds before applying mulch in a few weeks to them. (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. Amy Clements says:

    Margaret – I garden in Annapolis, Maryland (zone 7) and am looking for a lovely, small evergreen for my front beds. Can you recommend any for me?
    Thanks – Amy

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Matt, and thank you. I will indeed have a look.

      @Amy: Many choices…are we talking nondescript/great filler or something that’s very ornamental in its own right, and how big is the space and what else is there? Sun or shade?

      @Linda: My page on composting should help; it’s pretty extensive. My heap doesn’t fit in any bin, either; it’s 40 feet long and probably 8 feet wide. As for kitchen scraps, I’d toss them in with other stuff and throw a shovel of soil on top (or compost or at least other debris to make them slightly less of an animal magnet. And other than leaves, which I sometimes separate to shred and compost alone, I think a mix of materials is best. Again, check the page and see if it helps.

  2. Keith Alexander says:

    Yes, after you reminded me earlier in the year I ordered another 50 asparagus crowns and got in them in ground yesterday. Love the ‘to-do’ lists you’ve compiled; a wealth of good information and reminders.

  3. Linda P says:

    Hi Margaret,
    I have put off a compost area for seven years because of not knowing where it should live and be used easlly. I have alot of space but also seen at disturbing vistas. No wooded areas anymore. I finally decided and am deciding upon a three bin wood and screen system with a lid, doing it twice. My question is: how does one really compost succesfully or store all the debris that collects with such small bins? it’s the typical type and size one sees on how to compost sights as well as many arboretums I visit. I have 30 beds and just cleared on yesterday(this is after I had leaf removal in the fall and before major dead heading begins) and had two HUGE wheel barrows full. I have 29 beds to go not to mention the rose garden beds. During the coarse of the summer the debris from leaves and plant material (grass is taken away) is about 15 feet high and 30 feet wide. No place to hide. I also have rose debris (alot ) and that is taken away due to any black spot etc. I use compost that I truck in loads and would like to get started doing this myself to save money, but it seems like such a huge task. Have any tips. I have been to your property and know you have alot of material as well but don’t remember where you had your compost area. Do you keep more than one and are they in different areas? I was also thinking of that too? property is high in the back and shady, front is better and much of the garden that exists is there now and easier to get to. 2 acres of property. We have two outbuildings but on the edge of property no behind area or on a hill and shady. Also thinking of keeping leaf and grass (will add the stuff to it that is taken away) as one bin and the cuttings of dead heading in the other three part bin. Is that a good idea or not? And is it better to add the kitchen scaps to the leaves or dead headding debris if I seperate them? Do you use activator and other things on yours or just water and turn?

  4. Janet says:

    I LOVE your stuff! It’s down to earth, FUN to read, and so useful. And . . . I love frogs! Thank you!!!!!!!!


    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Janet….and you win the sweetest-comment-today prize, hands-down. Thanks. I love frogs, and sharing fun and usable stuff, so thank you, thank you. Come back soon. I will be with the frogboys trying to be helpful and nutty.

  5. Deirdre says:

    What died will make itself known this month…

    “If you aren’t killing plants, you aren’t really stretching yourself as a gardener.” JC Raulston

  6. Dee says:

    Margaret, i love your website, and read everything about your frogs, I just wanted to share a frog story. A few weeks ago while babysitting my four year old grandson (Peyton) he wanted to visit the garden and our very small tetra pond, I explained the fish were not quite awake as the weather is still very cool, ( Kansas) in early March. When we reached the pond to our dismay we found a frog, belly up. Peyton wanted to know why he was swimming upside down, I explained that nature had fooled him into coming out for some sun and it got too cold for him. After explaining that when Papa (grandpa) came home they would use the net and put the frog in the place where frogs like to go – As we were going back to the house he looked up at me and said that was so—- sad. Yes I said, it was, and then Peyton said as though the frog was his buddy, but he was always so sweet, yea, I said always so sweet.

  7. Nancy WDM Iowa Zone5a says:

    Hi Margaret,
    I liked you idea of potting up tender bulbs to get a head start…would you include tuberoses and caladiums too? The tuberoses bloom so late where I garden. And caladiums are kind of puny looking for most of the growing season. These are a couple of my standbys from when I lived in a zone 9 and I can’t let go of them.
    PS this site and your sister site are terrific!

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Nancy, and thank you for the kind words. Yes, I recommend potting up all of those for a headstart. I sometimes put a big tray on the floor of my mudroom with nursery pots filled with such things as well as the ones stacked in the garage. Hope to see you again soon.

  8. Jackie Long says:

    Happy to say E Mail is coming through. I live in North Carolina just below Mountains at Lake Lure and we are in the midst of blooms of all the beautiful cherries, and other ornamental trees, bulbs and many hostas and lenten roses of pink and dark purple. Was president of the garden club for six years and I think all seventy five members gave me some plants of the hostas and lentens.

    We just had a cold snap with a one day snow where the snowflakes were quite large and the large buzzards iced up and could not fly. So we observed them in the pine woods sitting on branches in the sun with their wings spread out for several minutes trying to get the ice off so they could fly. That same morning I had seven deer in the front yard, seven wild turkeys in the back yard.

    Have a small pond under the picture window in the bedroom where a big bull frog resides and serenades me every night when he wakes up. Hope he survived cause I didn’t put what you suggest to keep alive. Typical woman get excited about my garden. Thanks for sharing yours.

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Jackie. Sounds like a beautiful spot…and also as if all your garden-club friends were very generous with the goodies. I, too, hope your bullfrog is ready to start singing again, and wish you a happy spring. Come again soon.

  9. Lynn says:

    Margaret, your excellent website has eased the pain of my late winter impatience. Thank you! I’m writing to ask if you have any resource for calculating how much produce to expect from each specific veggie plant. (ie. Do I really need to start 50 tomato seeds to feed a family of four? :)

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Lynn. Late today the sun came out, and the cold went away after a few bitter, wet days…and I already feel better. Hoping for more of same.

      As for produce…with tomatoes I recommend maybe 2 cherry tomato plants per family, maybe a total of 6 plants for eating tomatoes, such as salad types and ‘Beefsteak’ types (big, juicy kinds we’d kill for about now). Then I recommend a LOT of paste tomato plants IF you plan to make sauce (to freeze etc.), fewer of those if you only want to make fresh sauce for use in season.

      I make all my tomato sauce products (red sauce, base for soups, etc.) for the whole year (family of one, but a vegetarian so heavy user of such things) so I grow about 18 paste plants. Yields can vary so widely depending on the weather, diseases that beset you, and so on, so I am careful always to have enough. If you only want red sauce in season, maybe 6-8 plants of a mix of several kinds with different days-to-harvest?

      I have no idea where I come up with these numbers, except to say instinct. But no, NOT 50. :)

      As for other vegetables, and my philosophy about how much of what, this post is the first must-read, and maybe also this old post might help. Definitely the first.

  10. Judy McGhan says:

    “If you aren’t killing plants, you aren’t really stretching yourself as a gardener.” JC Raulston

    I have to remember this one. Everythime I start clearing out a bed or pulling up weeds, my husband come along to complain that I am killing things again. “You are just not happy unless you are killing something; leave those poor defenseless plants alone, for God’s sake”. Interested to hear his retort to this one. It will be a good one I can guarantee.


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