What to do in April
Gardening in April
No matter how long the winter has seemed, by April, spring really is here. There is still the chance of frost so any gardener with frost-prone plants coming into bud should watch the forecast carefully and wrap with fleece if there is a chance of the temperatures dropping below freezing, but if the weather catches you unawares and there is no fleece to hand, newspapers draped across smallish shrubs or herbaceous plants will keep the worst at bay. Be careful before using blankets or anything heavy as you can do more harm than good. It is possible to prevent frost damage in some plants by spraying with water – the premise behind this is that forming the ice creates heat and stops the leaves or buds freezing – but this is a tricky method as in the case of some plants it can make things much worse – it can work on fruit trees, but is best left to experts.
Hopefully, the weather is kind in April, so many seeds can be sown outside this month. If it is still a bit cold, you can protect the ground where you have sown the seed with some newspaper or old cardboard boxes until they come through – make sure you remove the covering in the day and replace it at night, because lack of light will make the seedlings come through leggy and weak. If you have some bare patches of the garden which need filling quickly, some ornamental grasses are fun to try and you can sow them broadcast where they are to grow. There are lots of varieties to choose from but for the back of a border or to screen an ugly fence or shed, you really can’t do better than pampas, which comes in pink and white varieties and look glorious all through the summer and into the autumn until the winds break them down. If you don’t fancy grasses, a wild flower mixture, or meadow mix looks lovely all summer long and just needs a mow in autumn to spread the seeds for next year.
If you have a greenhouse or a cold frame, you can save a lot of money by growing your own annuals from seed, whether for the border or the hanging basket. Borders always need far more plants than you estimate and if you have found in previous years that you are always having to go back to the garden centre for a few more trays of plants, then sowing your own is for you. You can either use modules which you can plant straight out into the ground when the plants are strong enough, or you can start in seed trays and then thin out and transplant as required. Either way will give you dozens of plants for the price of a tray of six or eight ready grown or plugs and there is the added satisfaction of having grown them yourself. Try tagetes (French marigolds), lobelia and ageratum if you are a novice as they are all easy to grow and handle.
Next generation gardening
If you have children and a spare piece of garden, April is a great month to start them off with their own plot. Towards the end of the month as the soil warms up there are all kinds of seeds they can sow which will come up quickly enough to satisfy the most impatient child. If they are difficult to persuade when it comes to vegetables for dinner, why not get them to sow some carrots, lettuce, peas and beans. They won’t be harvesting huge amounts, but it is fun to see things grow and amazing how much better they taste when you have grown them yourself. You could even get them to enjoy potatoes other than fries if you invest in a potato bag or box – children love to watch for the first shoots to break the soil and then to cover them up until the soil reaches the top. Gardening is a good nature lesson as well, if you garden organically with predators to minimise pests, rather than chemicals. take a look at our gardening with children page for more great ideas.
Not everyone has room for a separate veg patch but this needn’t mean that you can’t grow something special. Herbs all look lovely in a border and herb seeds can be sown where they are to grow all through April. If you plant them near a path, you get the added benefit of being able to smell them as you walk along and it is hard to resist brushing the leaves to release the scent whenever you pass by. Taller and more permanent herbs such as rosemary should be clipped right down in the autumn, but will be springing up again in April. Thymes and other low growing herbs will also be making growth and the mint will be up in time to enhance the very first new potatoes. If your herb garden has got a bit straggly, or if the plants have got mixed up with each other, they can bear quite a hard trim in April because they will soon be making a lot of growth.
On the vegetable patch
If you started some potatoes off, either in the ground or in potato boxes or bags, they will need checking daily as the weather warms up. Earthing up is essential because this is what gives a large crop, with the tubers growing on the stems under the ground. When they are covered enough – to the top of the bag or box, or adequately earthed up in a ridge, let them grow on and develop a strong top, which will feed the tubers. Rhubarb should also be cropping nicely by the end of April if you covered it to ‘force’ it into growth. Sticks grown this way are slender and very easy to cook, as they have not grown stringy and the skin is very tender. If you don’t have much room for vegetables grown separately, you can grow some decorative varieties, such as asparagus pea, which gives brilliant ground cover in a border, or some of the more ornamental cucumbers and marrows, which come in some amazing shapes and colours – for example, there are no prizes for guessing what the Lemon variety of cucumber looks like!
Looking after the garden now can save a lot of work later on. If you have a lot of trellises and fences, it is well worth looking over them all before they have to start bearing the weight of shrubs and climbers. If they need spot treatments, this is easier to give when the plants are not yet covering them. Although there are wood treatments which are plant friendly, it is much better not to risk it and to treat exposed areas of wood when there is no plant near it. If you have any espalier trained fruit trees or ornamental trees, you should check that all of the wires are securely fastened to the wall and also that none have become weak in the winter. It is likely that at least some will need to be replaced and now is the time to do it, before they become hidden by branches in leaf, blossom or fruit. This checking is particularly important if your espalier tree is a heavy cropper, because there will be quite a strain on the supports later in the season.
In milder areas, you may have been mowing your lawn for a month or so, but wherever you live, by April you will be mowing quite regularly. You may also find, like many other people, that your lawn is looking a bit bare, thin, mossy and generally a bit fed up. There is still time to do something about it before the summer and you can lay new turf or sow seed, depending on the location of the dodgy bit and how big it is. Lawn seed nowadays comes in all kinds of varieties for different usages and locations and choosing the right one will mean that you won’t have so much trouble with your lawn in future. Making sure that the soil is aerated and that thatch doesn’t build up will also mean the lawn is kept in better condition. With the wet conditions all through the winter, many lawns have suffered a lot of damage and may need drastic action. There are a number of companies who deal with problem lawns and if yours is looking a shadow of its former self, you may decide to pamper yourself and your lawn with a remedial visit from an expert. This may seem drastic, but it can help your lawn get over its winter blues and then you can look after it yourself from here on in.
Ponds and wildlife
Birds are nesting all over the place now spring is really here and so if you want a garden full of birdsong this summer, don’t cut hedges from now on. If you feed birds, be careful what food you put out from now – things like peanuts can choke a fledgling and bread is not recommended either. Try mealworms (they come dried and are not unpleasant to handle) or a mixed bird food suitable for spring. If you have a natural pond, you may be lucky enough to have frog spawn. This doesn’t need any special care, but if you are cleaning out overgrown oxygenators, take care to leave it on the edge for twenty four hours or so before disposing of it, to allow tadpoles and other pond life to get back into the water.
And finally ... Enjoy!
The sun is shining (hopefully); the birds are singing (definitely) and spring has finally sprung. Despite the number of jobs to do in the garden in April, make sure that you take the time to lean on your spade and look about you to enjoy the breaking buds and the delicate fragrance of blossom overhead.