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 month.
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