April is National Gardening Month and time to get growing.
In the garden, timing is important, particularly for cool-loving crops. There was a time when tilling and planting the entire garden on Memorial Day was a rite of spring. These days, with the popularity of cool-season plants, April is a terrific month to get started outdoors. Many flowers and vegetables thrive in the coolness of spring. Some, like onions, depend on day length for proper growth and need the long days of spring for proper development.
April’s weather can be erratic with warm sunny days or cold blustery ones. Although not common, it can even snow in April. But don’t let the weather stop you.
There are no hard and fast rules about when to plant outdoors in April. It depends on your own soil conditions and microclimate. Some seeds such as radishes, lettuce, spinach and onion sets can be planted as soon as the soil can be worked, which means that a handful of dirt should crumble when squeezed in your hand, not form a solid wet ball. If you mulched your garden over the winter, removing that mulch will allow the soil to warm up more quickly.
When cold weather hits, be sure to cover any early plants with a row cover or some other protection. I’m a big fan of Agribon, that spun polyester cover that provides a few degrees of protection, but cloches made of clear plastic or even milk jugs also offer shelter. Don’t let plant leaves touch the plastic and be sure to ventilate on sunny days.
Peas and potatoes are traditionally planted in April. While it’s true that both peas and potatoes like cool growing temperatures, if you put them into overly cold ground, the seeds and tubers may rot. At best, the seeds take forever to germinate. Plant a row of peas when the daytime soil temperature is 41 degrees and those seeds will take an average of 36 days to germinate. Plant the same seeds when soil temperature is 77 degrees and the peas should germinate in six days.
I compromise and either wait until the soil temperature is in the 50s or I pre-sprout the seeds indoors. To pre-sprout, soak seeds overnight. Drain and keep slightly damp in a lightly covered glass jar until sprouts form. To speed up development of potato plants, pre-sprout your potatoes by exposing them to room temperatures.
Timing is also important when starting seeds indoors. The general rule is to start indoor seeds four to eight weeks before transplanting to the garden. Tomatoes grow faster than peppers and can easily be started four to six weeks before transplant. In fact, many gardeners say their plants do better if planted outside when very young. On the other hand, pepper plants benefit from a long time indoors and can be started eight to 10 weeks early. Late in April or even in early May, start seeds of melons and squash for planting in early June.
Mid- to late April is ideal for dividing perennials. If your flowers flop to the ground leaving a gap in the center of your plant, or if your daylilies are not blooming as much, dig them and divide them and replant or give away the extras. See this piece from Fine Gardening for 10 tips on dividing these precious plants: www.finegardening.com/article/10-tips-on-dividing-perennial-plants.
Can’t plant yet? Carefully clean up the garden, removing detritus left over from the long winter. Sketch a garden plan, pull those early weeds, remove wrap from protected trees and stroll around the yard, capturing this year’s dreams on paper. It’s going to be the best garden ever!
Beverly Carney can be reached at cultivating firstname.lastname@example.org.