the april garden chores: 2013

Margaret's garden clogs and trowelPANIC ATTACK MATERIAL. In a year when the snow didn’t melt till the final days of March, that’s how I’d describe April 2013’s garden chore list: worthy of a panic attack. How can we stay focused and calm in the face of cleanup and seed-sowing, pruning and planting, dividing and compost-screening—all of it perhaps crunched into a shorter-than-ideal timeframe if your spring is unfolding like mine—too wet or cold or frozen to have gotten an early start? Think triage ward—and also think about starting right near the house. Here’s why, and what to do when, in print or a podcast.

I say start near the house for selfish mental-health reasons: I need the visual proof that something got accomplished—a concrete affirmation—to spur me onward into increasingly wider swings through the yard. I mean it: 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!

prefer the podcast?

THE APRIL CHORES kick off the latest edition of my weekly public-radio program, and I also cover some recent reader questions with help from my sister, Marion Roach Smith, as my guest. Listen anywhere, anytime: Locally, in my Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) region, “A Way to Garden” airs on Robin Hood Radio’s three stations on Monday at 8:30 AM Eastern, with a rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. It is available free on iTunes, the Stitcher app, or streaming from RobinHoodRadio.com or via its RSS feed. The April 1, 2013 show can be streamed here now. Robin Hood is the smallest NPR station in the nation; our garden show marks the start of its fourth year this month, and is syndicated via PRX.

As for the triage-ward approach: Do what needs doing most. No need to prep a tomato bed yet if you’re up North as I am, but early crops like peas and spinach, arugula and  lettuce will need a home much sooner. Rather than spend a whole afternoon in the vegetable garden just yet, I cleaned and cultivated just enough room for early things, and sowed them, then moved on to more-urgent issues elsewhere.

Generally I start my cleanup with trimming battered leaves from semi-evergreen perennials such as hellebores and epimedium and gingers and so on–and then move on to ornamental grasses I left standing. I also uncover extra early bloomers–small bulbs, ephemerals–and get them tidied before their moment of glory.

And full disclosure: Some things won’t be where you left them last fall. Oops! What died will make itself known this month…and what lived will scream for your attention, all at once. And not in harmony. 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.

flower garden

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. Remember to have frost protection devices at the ready like this, just in case of hard freeze.

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.

ORDER MULCH in bulk this year from a local source that ages it properly first; forget the bagged stuff for use on beds. My mulch mantra.

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.

FEED BULBS (including garlic!) with an organic fertilizer labeled for them as green shoots get up and growing. Few blooms? The answer’s here.

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.

DID YOU ORDER seed 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? 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.

WHAT ARE YOU GROWING this year? My 2013 seed order is here.  Confused when to start what seeds? Help with that. Need general how-to help with seeds? Start with my Seed FAQ page.

LAST CALL FOR PEAS (sow right in the soil) is early April here, to avoid running into hot summer weather.

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.

I’M EXPERIMENTING with inoculating my vegetable planting areas with mycorrhizae this year. Stay tuned!


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.

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.)

(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.)

  1. Beth Urie says:

    What a difference between there and here! I am still in winter/ski season mode – central VT – just starting to see open ground. In past seasons, many of your listed tasks get delayed here until May, and all turns out beautifully. Tax day is tomato seeding for me, usually sprouting seeds first. I laughed about the snow shovel comment – so true. ;~}

  2. Tracy Tress says:

    Hi, Margaret –
    Do you have any advice on how to kill bamboo? I see this as my April chore and have no idea on how to go about it.

  3. Joan says:

    Thanks for the great list of reminders of all the chores. I live up the road from Beth so we are also still buried under snow. While waiting to get outside I am painting a tipi we are planning to put up in the late spring. The area we want to pitch it has some poison ivy. Do you have any advice on how to get rid of poison ivy in an environmentally safe way?

  4. Barb Kerrick says:

    I was wondering if it’s going to be too late to start my peas soon. I live in the Southern Tier of NY, around the Finger Lakes region, but my garden still has 2″ of snow on it. This is somewhat unusual for this area. I don’t know it if will be too late to plant my onions also if this keeps up. Your thoughts? Also, really hoping to make it to one of your open houses this year.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Barb. Shoudl be fine if you can get them in the first or second week of April. I barely got mine in when the snow melted the other day!

  5. Doris says:

    The garden writer in my local paper (Newday on Long Island) advised cutting
    back lavender. I have never done this – just cut out dead or broken stems.
    My patch is about 15″ high. How far back should it be cut back? Would I do
    this every year? TIA (Sorry for those up North w/snow still on ground) I
    haven’t been out simply because it is too cold!

  6. Catherine says:

    It was so exciting to see the peony shoots up half an inch today ! We ‘re in zone 4B and the peonies are in a sunny south-west facing bed. A true sign of spring ! I love to take their pictures .. please visit me at catherinesgardencards.com if you do too !

  7. Mary G. says:

    I have an opinion on mulch. For years I bought composted mulch from local landscaping companies. What a wonderful smell there is to mulch…..until someone did a switcharoo and started selling toxic, lung burning, clothing staining, bug infested gunk as mulch. Last year my husband and I switched to soil conditioner which only comes in bags. It is wonderful! It smells like mulch use to smell and my lungs don’t burn when I am working in it. It is a much cleaner product and breaks down beautifully. We use a fair amount ( about 250 bags per season) and find it is faster and easier to spread than the truckloads of mulch we would buy and pitchfork out onto our beds. I had to give my opinion and sing the virtues of soil conditioner.

  8. Chris says:

    Good chore list. There is so much to do and some of the weeds/self seeding flowers are so small it is daunting to get them all. While I know it is less expensive to get mulch in bulk I agree it is so much easier to use bags. I have stretched it by adding a bale of coconut fiber that has to have water added and let swell before adding other compost/mulch. One way of distributing the mulch to the beds is loading buckets from a pile and wheeling to the needing space in a wheel barrow or wagon. This makes it much easier to carry into the deeper beds than trying to throw with a shovel full at a time.
    I find myself in slow gear and pondering over various areas and making mental or sometimes written lists of what needs doing. It is such a glorious time of year. The epimediums are blooming now, joining the pulmonarias, daffs, primulas, hellebores and pasque flowers. The erythroniums just opened their blossoms today.
    We just spent 4 days in Victoria, B.C, and it was wonderful. I recommend it.

  9. Lauren says:

    I’m still trying to figure out where January through March ran off to over here. We’re going to be moving over the summer, but I’m planning on growing some leafy greens here. Definitely arugula and spinach. My herbs will all be in containers so I can take them with us when we move.

  10. Beth Benjamin says:

    I have some blue and white chiondoxia bulbs and some tete-a-tete daffodils that never made it into the ground last fall. They still seem healthy. Can I plant them for 2014? I am thinking that planting them now will allow root growth and bulb development. Or should I wait until fall?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Beth. They are probably diminished somewhat by the time out of the ground, but get them in ASAP and see what happens. They will certainly be goners by next fall!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.