Roots and Shoots: April Yard Work Brings May Flowers (and Vegetables)

By Pamela Doan

In spite of all my best intentions, spring cleanup in the yard is more a carryover of fall cleanup that never got finished than a separate exercise. That’s why instead of writing an ideal list of things to do in the garden in April, I’m going with the realist’s honest assessment of what I personally will be doing in the garden. Time, distractions and, oh yes, a new baby, all managed to waylay my plans last fall. Now, spring! And there are the messes that still need tending; all that snow couldn’t hide them forever.

Ultimate pruning: I’m taking down forsythia that is overgrown before it leafs out or blooms. This will give it time to recover and start growing again for the season. I’ll make wood chips from the branches to cover paths in the garden.

Rooting out invasive plants: I planted a cup-plant or Silphium perfoliatum four years ago and later discovered that it can be invasive. Now it’s on the Department of Environmental Conservation’s list of prohibited plants. Although I’m allowed to keep it, I’m not going to let it spread. I’ll miss its towering stalks with bright yellow flowers covered in bees, but will find something new and great to take its place.

Leaf duty: I’m that neighbor that didn’t manage to clear the lawn. Fortunately, I’m a leaf-lover, not a hater, and will repurpose them into compost.

Building a new three-bin-style composting system: My old compost system is very slow, basically a pile that I add to until I decide to start a new one. A three-bin system will break down materials in about a month.

Cutting back the perennials: I deliberately left the perennials standing because most of them are bird-friendly and can provide seeds through the winter. I can cut them down now and add the remnants to the new compost bin.

Checking the trees for damage from voles, deer and setting up new defenses: In a winter with so much snow cover, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were girdling around trunks or nibbled branches. Make sure to keep mulch 6 inches from the base of trees and shrubs to prevent voles from setting up a home.

Updating a flower bed: There’s a junky-looking area behind the house that gets less and less sun every year. Day lilies have taken over, a spicebush keeps becoming overgrown even with constant pruning, and there’s a poison sumac that comes back no matter how brutally I hack it down. I’m taking all of it out and starting over with some nice shade lovers.

Start greens like lettuce from seed in the garden now, but wait until mid-May for other vegetables. (Photo by P. Doan)

Start greens like lettuce from seed in the garden now, but wait until mid-May for other vegetables. (Photo by P. Doan)

Planting greens from seed: Red leaf lettuce! Spinach! Garden fresh in less than two months. Seeds can germinate as long as soil temperature is 40 degrees or above. (Add in a row cover and start even earlier.)

Planting tuberose bulbs in containers: I love the scent of tuberose but they aren’t hardy here. I could dig them up from a bed and bring them in during winter, but instead I’m going to start them early inside in a container and then find them a sunny spot outside once it’s warm enough for guaranteed success and less work.

Dividing perennials: This is one of the items on my “experiment” list for the year. Right now is a good time.

Adding compost to the flower and garden beds: Amending the soil with organic matter annually is a good practice.

Seeding bare patches on the lawn: With all the rain we’re getting right now, it’s a good time but it still needs to be a little warmer. Grass seed germinates when the soil temperature is above 50 degrees.

Things you could be doing

Start seeds indoors for transplanting: Now is the right time to have seedlings ready for planting outdoors in mid to late May after the frost date.

Plan a vegetable garden: Don’t plant outdoors until after the frost date. Decide what to plant and find sources for seeds and plants now, though.

Assess trees for damage and pruning needs: Call an arborist for a consultation if there are any questionable trees in your landscape. Professional help can prevent accidents or damage from falling limbs.

Set up a rain barrel for watering: While we have plentiful water right now, in midsummer, that probably won’t be the case, and just last fall we had drought conditions.

Reassess any plantings that aren’t doing well: Sometimes conditions change, and rather than fight nature, it’s easier to move the plant.

Transplant shrubs and trees: Spring is the perfect time to install new trees and shrubs before the weather gets hot.

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