2019 April Gardening Tips From The English Lady

April 3, 2019

Those April showers that come our way
They bring the flowers that bloom in May
And when it’s raining, lets not forget,
It isn’t raining rain at all, its raining violets
Excerpt from a popular ballad sang during World War II by Dame Vera Lynn in England. 

To create and maintain a healthy organic garden, please discard any pesticides and herbicides that you may have used in the past. They have the same effect as second hand smoke on you, your children and pets. Scientific research has shown that these chemicals are responsible for many diseases including cancer. 

Because of my Garden Earth lecture and my radio show for twenty years on WRCH 100.5 Lite FM, I have received a commitment from thousands of people throughout New England to garden organically without using poisonous chemicals. My mission was to reconnect people’s hearts, hands and minds with the nourishing energy of Mother Nature’s Life giving gardens.  

In May when the soil has reached a temperature of sixty degrees apply composted manure on all maintained borders. If you apply the manure before the soil temperature reaches sixty degrees, the millions of soil organisms below the surface are unable to work with the manure to produce nutrients for the plants. When you buy garden supplies, pop a soil thermometer into the package to check the soil temperature.  Composted manure, in bags may be purchased from the garden center. 

If you have a pickup truck available, you may be able to get the manure from a local farm.  On that visit ask the farmer for manure from the bottom of the pile, which is decomposed. You may want to get the manure from the farm now and put it in a corner of your garden covered with a tarp. Heat from the sun will kill the weed seed in the manure. A week before you intend to use the manure, remove the tarp so that the sun can finish killing the weed seeds and decomposing the manure.  Never put fresh manure on the soil, as it will burn the plants. 

Many gardeners are confused about compost, thinking it is the same thing as fertilizer. Compost is organic material serving a very different purpose from fertilizer in garden soil. First compost makes a home for billions of microorganisms that digest roots, leaves and other vegetative matter; compost breaks them down into nutrients that plants can absorb easily. Second, compost stores moisture and nutrients for plants to draw from, as it is needed. If you do not have a compost, then peat moss, especially around evergreens shredded leaves and aged manure make fine organic additions to your soil. 

As the ground warms up in May, mulch with fine brown hardwood mulch. The mulch, together with the manure builds the humus component in your garden. 

You may ask, what is humus? The humus component (combination of composted manure and mulch) draws carbon from the air into the soil.  All living creatures and elements require carbon to survive. Add a light application of composted manure in July on top of the mulch and in October apply another light application on top of the mulch to continue to build the humus component. Continuing this process each season will give you the richest growing environment for a healthy disease free garden.

Another question you may ask is ‘Maureen, what does humus actually do besides bringing carbon from the air into the soil’? 

My answer – humus acts like a sponge and can hold 90% of its weight in water.

And because of its negative charge, plant nutrients stick to humus bringing nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus and other important elements and its negative charge prevents these nutrients from washing away, which acts like nature’s slow release fertilizer.

Humus also markedly improves soil structure making it loose and friable, which helps plants root in this rich environment with better access to nutrients, water and oxygen.

Humus also helps filter toxic chemicals from the soil, much like carbon-based water filtration systems filter toxins from your water.  

In the vegetable garden, I suggest you mulch with composted 
Manure. Composted manure does not ‘cap’, which means that it does not form a crust like other mulches, consequently air and water can get through to the roots of the plants where it is needed.      

We were fortunate to have quite a mild winter here in New England and I am inhaling spring’s fragrance in the air as the soil slowly warms. Throughout the garden the Daffodils, crocus and forsythia will soon bloom. Buds are appearing on shrubs and soon the purple blossom of the PJM rhododendron will open to the sun.

I do want to insert a word of caution on Japanese Barberry, which is an extremely invasive plant. Japanese Barberry has been prohibited for sale in Connecticut, although many gardens still have this plant, having acquired in it in the past. The green leaves on this plant are some of the first to appear in spring and when you notice it in the garden, cut it down as soon as possible and continue to do this each season, the weaker it becomes will result in die off.  

Japanese Barberry is not the only invasive plant in New England that goes green in early spring, Multiflora rose and Japanese honeysuckle and others green up early.  For more information on invasive weeds and plants visit Ipane, the invasive plant atlas of New England at www.invasive.org 

Around the corner on the West side of the house, the Iris is showing foliage and buds on the Flowering Almond will soon bloom. I gathered up branches from the grass that had been broken and scattered through the winter and made a note to prune my butterfly bushes and lavender in now in early April.

Near the barn wall the buds on my Carlesii viburnum will soon open and their gentle perfume will fill the air. 

I filled the bird feeders this morning and heard my feathered friends telling the others ‘lunch is served’. It is so heartening in the early morning to now be awakened by bird song. 

I consider April a month of awakening activity, when gardeners experience new energy and enthusiasm, just itching to get their hands in the soil.  Soon the faint flush of red on the maples will appear and our old nemesis ‘weeds’ are already rearing their heads. As soon as you see the weeds, I suggest you get busy and pull them up by hand before they get ahead of you. 

Did you know that all our cultivated plants began as weeds and at some point humans decided which ones they wanted in our gardens.  Some that were not chosen for the garden have turned out to be beneficial weeds. Nettles, for example, are food for butterflies and attract bees, clover takes nitrogen from the air and fixes it in the soil and oil from jewelweed soothes poison ivy rash.  

With poison ivy in mind I am thinking of Comfrey, which is not a weed but is a tall large leaved plant with small blue flowers, that for centuries has been cultivated as a medicinal plant and soothes the rash from poison ivy when added to bath water or use the leaves as a comforting tea.  

Young Dandelion foliage is nutritious and tasty in salads. Soon they will appear in my field on the west side and my mouth is watering in anticipation. The roots of Dandelions grow deep in the soil and act as a conveyor of beneficial nutrients to the roots of your plants and grass. 

Dandelion, sheep sorrel, chickweed, purslane and watercress are just some of the weeds that contain many vitamins and are great in salads. Beneficial weeds encourage songbirds and other wildlife to linger in the garden; the weed seeds are an important food source for the birds. 

After you have pulled up problem weeds, apply an organic corn gluten based weed pre-emergent by Bradfield Organics. This product will keep weeds at bay for quite a few weeks.  However, do not use this product on newly seeded lawns, as it will prevent grass seed germinating.  

I checked on my David Austin roses today and tomorrow will prune any stems that were broken in the winter. In mid April I will prune roses that have been in the ground for more than one year, pruning by two to three feet depending on the type of rose.  Do not prune roses that were newly planted last season. Remove the old mulch from around the base. When the soil temperature reaches 60 degrees add composted manure and mulch about one foot from the base of the rose. 

I prefer David Austin roses, which are trouble free, repeat bloomers, fragrant and have beautiful colors. Plant bare root roses at the end of April and container roses in mid May.  

Planting depth of roses - plant only as deep as they come in their container, fill the hole about half full of soil then add water and wait a few minutes to ensure the water drains as roses require good drainage. 

When buds appear on the newly planted rose in early June add composted manure and apply the brown fine bark mulch about one foot from the base of the plant. You may apply a small amount of composted manure in July and a little more at the beginning of August then stop feeding the roses to allow them to go into a slow dormancy. 

David Austin roses I enjoy are as follows:
Evelyn – apricot 
Gertrude Jekyll – pink
William Shakespeare – dark pink with a strong damask rose fragrance – reminds me of my Grandmother’s favorite rose ‘Crimson Glory’. Crimson Glory is not a David Austin- this was just a bit of Grandma nostalgia. 
Heritage – pale pink
Fair Bianca – white
I always use David Austin roses in my garden and in my designs – I love the repeat bloom, beautiful colors and fragrances.   

Be careful when removing winter debris from around rhododendrons, mountain laurel and azaleas, these evergreens are shallow rooted and exposing roots to the air can damage them. If winter has eroded soil around any roots, cover them with soil and peat and gently resettle them into the ground. In late April add a layer of fine bark mulch, but do not mulch up to the trunk as this encourages rodents to nest and gnaw on the wood.  In May when the soil temperature has reached 60 degrees add composted manure and peat over the mulch. 

Conditions in April are the most favorable for new plant-root development. In April evergreen shrubs may be transplanted and new evergreens planted. Give the roots a work out before planting to release them and open them up so the roots will reach into the surrounding soil for nutrients and water. Around the planting hole add peat for acidity, composted manure and brown fine bark mulch. 
In early May plant Gladioli corms at two-week intervals. By following this method, you will get a succession of bloom.  Plant the corms eight inches below the soil surface with composted manure around the corms; the extra depth helps prevent the heavy blooms of the gladioli from toppling over. 

The Red Lily beetle will soon be rearing its ugly head; the solution to this problem is organic Neem oil. Add the Neem oil as soon as the foliage reaches four inches in height; this will eliminate the beetle larvae. 

Soil solarization – is an effective way to control many soil borne problems, especially tomato blight that results in fruit rot. This blight has been prevalent in New England for the last few years. 

Method of soil solarization - In early April cover the soil with clear plastic 4 mils thick where you will be planting your tomatoes. Dig a trench several inches deep around the bed, and press the plastic into close contact with the soil overlapping into the trench. Keep the edges in place by filling the trench with soil that was removed. Leave the plastic in place for two months, during this time the heat from the sun will suffocate nematodes, weed seeds and many disease organisms including the tomato blight. This process has proved invaluable for gardeners and farmers for years and the beneficial effects last through several seasons.  

Lawns - Apply an organic grub control on grass in April; repeat in May to eliminate grubs, which also offers less food for the moles. 

April is the time to tackle a new lawn or patch seed, use only good quality seed and organic fertilizers.   
Throughout your garden, good soil structure helps with drainage issues, helps retain moisture and prevents compaction, this is particularly important with clay soil. Compost and composted manure breaks down in water, an ideal scenario, encouraging the millions of soil animals beneath the surface to produce nutrients for roots of the plants. 

Here on the Shore, which for the most part, presents a light sandy soil, humus in the form of compost and manure binds the sand particles together.

In clay soil, compost and manure and mulch helps to break up the clumps and build the humus component. 
Never add sand to clay soil, otherwise the sand and clay together create a cement-like substance that hampers root growth and impedes the flow of air and water.     

When I moved into my farmhouse on the shore many years ago, the soil in my garden was, sandy - good for drainage and few nutrients.  I began adding quite a few inches of manure and mulch three times a season to all planted borders. Within a couple of years my soil was ‘black gold’. 
When working with composted manure in the garden, gloves must   be worn as bacteria is present in manure, as expected. The bacteria are great for the plants and the soil but not good for your health.  

In April when Daffodil foliage is about six inches tall add composted manure around the plants and again when the foliage has gone yellow; this second application will fortify the bulbs for next season. 

When the Daffodil bloom has past do not cut the leaves of Daffodils or any other of your spring flowering bulbs, the leaves send down energy into the bulbs to store for next season’s floral production. 

The amendment of aged manure, peat (for evergreens) and compost together with fine bark mulch is building the humus component for the richest growing environment. The ratio is one-part compost to three parts manure applied on all your maintained borders, around all plants including trees and shrubs. An amended soil particularly around Roses helps to keep away black spot and Japanese beetles. 
With April showers at least for a while, your soil will be is still damp and wet and we can still get a late frost, I can hear you groan, me too! Keep an eye on the weather forecast.

Monarch butterflies are in danger of extinction from poisonous chemicals.  You can help save them by planting Asclepias, known commonly as Milkweed, the lifeblood of Monarch butterflies.  You may obtain free seeds from www.LiveMonarchButterflygarden.net.

The other creature in danger of extinction from poisonous chemicals is the Bee.  Bees are essential to our ecosystem – their pollination allows seed production that not only allows plants to produce but also feeds everything from small birds to mammals. Bees pollinate 70% of the world’s food. 

You can help – plant a wide diversity of plants that bloom from spring through fall as different pollinators are active at different times of the season.

Plant single petal ring flowers – double bloom inhibits the bees’ ability to reach the pollen and nectar.
Bees love flowers in white, yellow, blue and purple.

Plant Echinacea, Daisies, butterfly bush, sunflowers, penstemon, zinnias, summer phlox, fennel, borage, and oregano.

Wild bees like plants in the mint family – nepeta, salvia, lavender, monkshood, monarda, columbine, scabia, gaillardia and yarrow.

Leave an unmowed area around edge of property for wild flowers. 

Leave a brush pile with dry grasses and dead wood as nesting areas for bees. 

Do not panic if you are not able to get the April tasks done until May, your garden will wait for you and the constancy that is Mother Nature will continue to keep your patch of earth flourishing. 

Enjoy the pleasure of being outdoors now, inhaling the warm fragrance of awakening soil and experience the connection with growing things. Do not overdo it; warm up the body before any garden labor and stay well hydrated with lots of water. 

We are inexorably entwined with the earth and know that even the smallest gesture of a garden has positive rewards and the effects not only on you but our planet.  Enjoy being outdoors once again in the garden and I’ll see you with more gardening tips in May.