In most parts of the country, by the time mid-April arrives, winter is truly, finally over. Even in the cold north, where blustery winds and snow still linger (making April, as poet T.S. Eliot observed, “the cruellest month”), the promise of spring is at least in the air.
Here is a checklist to help you get a head start on all those lovely rituals that celebrate the return of spring to the garden.
Be patient. Wait until all ground frost is gone and the soil has dried out sufficiently so your footprint is not visible on the surface as you walk. Most of the teeming life in healthy soil -- nitrifying bacteria, soil fungi, earthworms – live close to the surface and need porous soil with lots of air pockets to work their magic. By walking on soil when it’s wet and still frozen underneath, we compact it, squeezing out the air and rendering it a dead zone.
Stay healthy. When it’s time for your big spring cleanup, make sure your body is in shape. Most of us spend winter as couch petunias and that first foray is more exercise than we’ve had in months. Especially vulnerable when digging wet soil and shifting heavy loads are our lower back muscles and discs. So do some gentle stretches before starting; vary your activities to avoid taxing any one muscle group; bend your knees, not your back, when lifting; and call it a day when your body says “enough!”.
Feed the worms. Tidy up flower beds and borders by cutting back dead perennial foliage (but not the over-wintering evergreen rosettes of biennials like foxgloves) and thinning out some of the accumulated leaf litter from between plants. But do be sure to leave lots of decaying leaves to feed all those foraging earthworms you want as guests in your garden. Ounce for ounce, they’re the best organic fertilizer you can have.
Relax about the lawn. Don’t worry about fertilizing your lawn until later in spring. Despite what you might hear from fertilizer companies about the merits of being the first on the block with bright green grass, fast, lush growth prompted by early feeding just means more lawn-mowing and greater risk of disease. Lawn experts recommend waiting until the first spring flush of growth has slowed, usually by late May, before applying fertilizer. But you can give it a light raking now and top-dress any bare spots with seed mixed with soil and compost.
Contain your enthusiasm. April is still too early in most of Canada to pot up summer annuals like geraniums and zinnias, but you can still satisfy that itch in your green thumb with some great frost-tolerant plants now available at garden centres. Fill your containers with pansies and violas, narcissus, tulips and ranunculus in rainbow colours. Even zingy blue and purple cineraria will tolerate temperatures right down to freezing and look utterly gorgeous with daffodils.
Multiply by division. April is the right time to divide hostas and summer- or fall- blooming perennials such as phlox, rudbeckia, monarda, coreopsis, aster, sedum, helenium. And you can plant new perennials just as soon as the ground can be worked.
Prune for bloom. “When the forsythia flowers” is the accepted rule-of-thumb for the correct time to prune roses. Cut back established hybrid teas, grandifloras and floribundas to strong, healthy wood about 15 centimeters (6 inches) above ground level. Using clean hand-pruners, cut just above an outward-facing bud, on the same slant as the bud, thus encouraging branching away from the bush’s center. Shrub roses need little pruning other than removal of dead growth or shaping.
Think seedy thoughts. Sweet peas prefer to be seeded in cool spring soil, while seed of “hardy” annuals like larkspur, California poppy, Shirley poppy, bachelor’s button and globe candytuft can be mixed with sand or vermiculite and direct-seeded now too. And if you’re a greens-lover, toss yourself a spring salad garden by seeding lettuce, mesclun, and spinach now while the soil is cool and moist.
Enjoy. April imbues gardeners with that delicious state of mind known as anticipation. After five long months of winter, all is now possible in the garden. There are no failed dreams or color schemes. No humidity. No mosquitoes. No aphids. No black spot. No wind felling the delphiniums. No black spot felling the roses. So relax and enjoy it. The song of the robin. The fragrance of hyacinths. The freshness in the air that comes from trillions of leaves opening all at once. The magic of April.