While it may be true that April showers bring May flowers,
April also brings warmer weather, longer days, and our
first chance to do some outdoor gardening. Peas, onions,
parsnips, spinach, and other cool weather crops can
all be planted in the garden towards the end of the
month, provided that the soil isn’t too wet.
Proper garden preparation is perhaps the most important
activity you can do each spring to insure a plentiful
harvest. An important first step is to determine when
to turn the soil. If the soil is still sticky and clumps
together, then tilling may cause soil compaction, drainage,
and aeration problems later on in the season. If the
soil crumbles when you work it around in your hands,
then it’s okay to till.
If you didn’t get your soil tested last fall, visit
your local University of Vermont Extension office to
pick up a soil testing kit. Based on these tests, you
can work the appropriate amounts of lime, fertilizer,
and/or manure into the soil.
Till the soil once, turning under any cover crop or
residues left from the fall. Then add manure, lime,
and other organic matter and work in well to avoid harming
the tender roots of plants as they grow. Chemical fertilizers,
that your soil test also may recommend, are best applied
right before planting. Chemical fertilizers work quickly,
but if they are applied too early in the season they
may leach out of the soil and lose their effectiveness.
When planning your garden, consider using raised beds,
which can dry out wet soils and in general make the
soil looser for easier root penetration. Rotating crops
helps vegetables take advantage of the different nutrients
available in the soil to plants. For example, since
beans and peas fix nitrogen in the soil, they should
be followed by a crop such as corn that is a heavy nitrogen
user. Vegetables like tomatoes and potatoes should not
be planted in succession due to their susceptibility
to similar diseases.
Don’t wait too long to remove mulches from strawberries.
Once the leaves have emerged from under the straw and
yellowing is evident, pull the mulch away from the tops
of the plants and tramp it down between the rows. Keeping
the base of the plants mulched helps keep the berries
clean, control weeds, and conserve moisture.
With other garden plants, including roses and perennials,
completely removing the mulch will allow the soil to
warm up faster, encouraging better early season growth.
Save the old mulch for the compost pile or to use on
garden vegetables later in the season. However, if heavy
frost is predicted, be prepared to recover the plants
temporarily to protect from damage.
Remove any dead foliage or stems from perennials if
you didn’t do it last fall. Wait to prune roses until
new buds have begun to grow. Stems that now appear to
be dead may really be alive and will start to grow next
Warmer weather means a new generation of gypsy moth
and eastern tent caterpillars will hatch and begin feeding
on leaves of many tree species. If infestation is heavy,
entire trees can be defoliated, and even killed, by
these insect pests. Stressed trees are more vulnerable
to damage from defoliation.
You can fight back if you act early. Before bud break
which is when the eggs hatch, remove and destroy any
egg masses you find on your trees. Gypsy moth eggs are
buff-colored and may be found on trees, stones, fences,
lawn furniture, and other protected places. The eggs
of the eastern tent caterpillar are deposited in brownish
masses, resembling a large raisin squeezed around a
twig. Scrape off the egg masses and crush underfoot
or drop into a pail of detergent and water.
Take a critical look at the plantings around your home.
Are your hedges crowding the front entrance? Do any
of your ornamentals need replacing or could they benefit
from a good pruning? Plants have a way of gradually
growing out of bounds. Take time now, before you get
busy with summer activities, to decide what needs to
be renewed or replaced.
You also might want to check for raised tunnels in
your yard, a sure sign of hungry moles searching for
grubs. Most garden stores sell grub control products
that will eliminate moles and often skunks as well.
Other activities for April: fertilize fruit trees and
lawns; place seedlings in cold frames around April 25
or later to harden off; celebrate Earth Day by adopting
an earth-friendly practice such as composting or using
organic fertilizers and pesticides.
TILLING THE GARDEN AND OTHER APRIL GARDENING TIPS
Leonard Perry and Lisa Halvorsen
Extension Nursery and Greenhouse Crops Specialist
University of Vermont