April should have fickle weather. I want it to be hot enough to have lunch outside one day and a flurry of snow or hail the next. It is all about change and growth and above all the sense that anything, everything is possible. The combination of emerging bud and leaf and blossom in the garden along with the sense of growth is intoxicating. I used to think that May was the best month of the year but I now think that April just shades it, not least because it holds the promise of May to follow.
Of all the months this is the one where the world changes most dramatically from the first day to the last. April Fool’s Day is just tentatively Spring – as though the world is still testing the water and winter still lurking round the corner. But April the 30th is a green place, filled with green and blossom and radiant with tulips, wallflowers, hawthorn, Cow parsley and clematis. The whole world seems to be exploding into flower.
It helps that the days are stretching out, gifting time and light and energy. An hour spent pottering in the garden between 7 and 8 on a fine April evening in is about as good as life can get.
I always keep a record of when I see the swooping, arcing flight of the first swallow of the year and hear their distinctive busy twittering. Last year it was April 16th, the year before four days earlier, but it is always around the middle of April.
There is an overwhelming sense of the return of an old, much-loved friend who will share my garden for the next 5 months. It is a great surge of happiness and a sense that now spring can really begin.
These first outliers, arriving in dribs and drabs, exhausted and half starved from their epic journey from South Africa have returned to within a few hundred yards of where they were born.
They are voracious feeders, swooping in and out of the nest – and at Longmeadow we have had a pair nesting in exactly the same spot each year in one of our sheds for the past 25 years – hundreds of times a day, eating flies and thousands of aphids so are a good friend to the gardener.
I always check their height for the next day’s weather because they follow the insects which in turn rise and fall according to the pressure. This means that when the swallows are soaring high there is a good chance of fine weather the next day and when they are swooping just inches from the ground to pluck insects with astonishing dexterity, the pressure is low and it is likely that rain will follow.
What to do in the garden this month:
This is not a glamorous job for the Easter weekend but it is a really good time to get on top of the weeds before they get on top of the garden. Every tiny section of root of perrennial weeds such couch grass, ground elder and bindweed have to be carefully and remorselessly dug out if they are not to spread or become an overwhelming problem but the secret is to do a small area very thoroughly at a time.
Annual weeds such as chickweed, bittercress and groundsel are best pulled by hand or cut off using a sharp hoe. The important thing is not to allow them to flower and set seed so if time is short, cut them and return to them later.
Once cleared, a thick mulch will suppress annual weeds and weaken perennial ones.
Many of you will already have mown your lawns a few times already but a a word of advice for all of you as well as those that are yet to begin. Resist the temptation to scalp your grass down to its midsummer height. Set the blades high and just trim the grass for the first few weeks as much to even it out as to reduce it. Then, as the weather gets warmer and the grass starts to grow more strongly, gradually reduce the height over a few weeks but always keeping it slightly on the long side. This will result in a much healthier, greener sward.
Add all clippings to the compost heap but mix it well with dry, brown material like straw or cardboard which will stop it becoming a wet, green sludge.
PLANT OUT SWEET PEAS
The time to plant out sweet peas into the garden is mid April in the south and towards the end of the month further north.
Sweet peas grow best in rich soil with plenty of moisture and in cool – but not cold – conditions, so the more you can enrich the soil with lots of compost or manure before planting, the better they will grow. I like to grow mine up bean sticks arranged as a wigwam but any support will do from bamboo canes to chicken wire. I plant two or three plants to each stick or support and water them in very well before mulching them thickly to keep them weed-free and to stop them drying out.
One word of caution – the aim is to grow strong, big individual plants so if you buy a pot with lots of seedlings I think it better to divide each pot into two or three and plant these sections at the base of each support so they have less competition and you should end up with more flowers.
PLANT NEW POTATOES
Whilst there is no rush to plant maincrop potatoes (I have planted as late as June and still had a good crop) the sooner you can plant seed for first earlies the sooner you can enjoy that delicious harvest that always tastes so much better than any that you can buy. Make a V-shaped trench 6-9 inches deep and place the seed potatoes about 12 inches apart along the bottom of it. Backfill the trench so that the soil forms a ridge along the length of it. Leave at least 3ft between rows to allow for earthing up – digging more soil onto emerging foliage to protect them from late frosts. I also grow them in a raised bed simply pushing each seed potato in a 6 inch deep hole made with a dibber with each plant about 18 inches apart in a grid. However you plant them, always enrich soil for potatoes with plenty of well-rotted manure or compost.
Although you should resist any temptation to cut back, tie up or ‘tidy up’ the foliage of any bulbs that have finished flowering as this will decrease the quality of flowering next spring, you can lift the bulbs, foliage, bulb and roots and pot them into a container which can then be put to one (sunny) side to die back and feed next year’s bulb without leaving an unsightly mass of dying foliage in a prime position for the next few months. When the foliage has died back the bulbs can be stored in the pot, making sure they do not become too wet 9they can dry out completely) and then replanted in autumn.
DEAD HEAD AZALEAS AND RHODODENDRONS
This is a very simple job but one which is often overlooked. To extend the rhododendron and Azalea season and ensure that the plant does not waste its energies into seed production, dead head as many faded flowers as you can. This is particularly relevent to the large-flowered varieties. Do not use secateurs as you risk injuring the fragile buds growing at the base of the flowers but gather the flower trusses between finger and thumb and snap them off. Removing the withered flowers also reduces the risk of fungal infections and will increase next year’s flowering display. As well as doing the plant good it also removes unsightly dead flowers that can hang onto the shrub for days or even weeks.
HARDEN OFF TENDER PLANTS
Although there is still a risk of frost in my garden – and especially so the further north you go for plants such as pelargoniums, it is time to start bringing tender plants such as Fuchsias, citrus, brugmansias, bananas, agapanthus or Cannas outside so that they can gradually acclimatise before being planted out into a border or pot.
The secret is not to do this too quickly. It is not so much the absolute temperature as the variations between night and day that they must become used to. Put them outside in a sunny but sheltered spot and have some horticultural fleece to hand to cover them if their is a cold night, but let them get used to the changes in temperature and exposure to wind and rain that they have not had to face over the past few months for at least a week – and preferably two – before moving them to their final position after the risk of any frost has passed.
PLANTING LILIES IN POTS
It is not too late to plant lilies in pots for one of the best and most fragrant of summer displays – but do it this weekend or as soon as possible. Most lilies like an ericaceous soil but Madonna Lilies, which are one of the first to flower, prefer an alkaline soil and will return year after year given the right conditions. But it is easiest to grow lilies in pots which can be moved to wherever you want them when they flower and then put to one side for the rest of the year.
You will not go wrong if you provide good drainage and a nice, loose compost. I achieve this by mixing in plenty of leafmould and grit into a bark-based general purpose compost but just adding perlite or vermiculite will help greatly. Plant the scaly bulbs with about 4 inches of compost above the crown and put them somewhere lightly shaded to grow. Keep them well watered and move them to their final position when the buds develop in May and June. In general lilies like shady roots and sunny flowers so a west or east facing sheltered spot is ideal for their flowering performance.
SUPPORT HERBACEOUS PLANTS
The purpose of plant supports is to prevent any damage rather than repair it , so the correct time to support any plant is before it needs to be done. The best way to do this in a border is to establish a system of supports that you put into place now, just as the herbaceous plants are starting to grow really strongly, so that within a few weeks the supports will be hidden but quietly doing their work with the tender but vigorous new growth contained within their gentle, protective embrace.
I use a mixture of home-made metal supports, pea sticks (essentially bushy prunings from the garden) and canes with twine. Whatever you choose try and anticipate the growth and make the support adjustable or flexible to adapt a little. If you can make it decorative so much the better. But getting it into place now will avoid trying to rescue damaged plants in a month or two’s time.
The combination of short days and horrible weather mean that for most of us Easter weekend is the first real chance to get out into the garden. But now is the perfect moment to get out there and start the magical cycle of growing your own vegetables, fruit and herbs because no food gives so much satisfaction as that which you have grown yourself.
But what if you have only a tiny patch of garden or even no garden at all? How can you grow anything edible at all, let alone provide yourself with a succession of fresh seasonal fare?
The answer is simple. Use containers. You certainly do not have to restrict yourself to pots. Vegetables will grow in anything that will retain soil and has some drainage. If you travel to villages in third world countries you will find gardens where every possible container is recycled and used to grow valuable food, and although this is driven by necessity, the results are nearly always vibrant and beautiful.
Almost anything can be raised in a container of some sort – I once visited Indians on the Amazon towing entire gardens behind them planted in defunct boats – and there is something about vegetables and fruit that suits a less preciously tasteful approach than any purely decorative planting. Vegetables grown in a recycled can will taste just as good as those grown in an expensive terracotta pot – and in the end taste is the only criterion that really counts.
Vegetables need sunshine to grow well so place your containers in a spot that gets sunshine for at least half the day – and preferably all day. However window boxes, roof gardens and even back yards can be very windy. Even light winds accelerate the demands of water and can cut growth by 25% and plants react to wind by toughening their leaves – which is fine in a tree but makes a lettuce much less palatable. So provide shelter from wind.