Horticultural Hints for April!
Spring really is here...
Think of your soil as a well-made chocolate cake. If, when you hold it in your hand, it feels slightly moist and crumbles easily, it's ready for planting!
Check before you sow early vegetables. The best test of soil readiness for a home gardener is to take a small handful of soil and squeeze. If it holds together as a wet clump, or heavens forbid, water squeezes out, you need to wait and hope for sunny dry days. Seeds put into cold wet soil will rot. Further, working cold, wet soil with a tiller or spade will destroy the soil structure. When it is ready, plant peas, turnips, spinach, cabbage, lettuce and other cool weather drops.
The soil around your home and garden is just coming out of its winter hibernation of alternate freezing and thawing. Right now, the top few inches of soil is exceptionally airy, and every time you walk over it, you compress some of the air out. By the end of April, the soil should be ready for gardening but, for right now, avoid doing damage to your soil by walking on it too much.
Start your strawberry bed as soon as the soil can be worked. For new plants, start a new raised bed by creating one at least eight inches deep using a mixture of good soil and aged manure or compost. Because strawberries prefer to grow in a somewhat acidic environment, test the soil for pH and, if it is greater than 6, amend the soil as needed. Create a small mound of soil in the center of a hole. Fan the roots over the mound so they are spread throughout the hole. Becertainthe crown of the strawberry is placed so that it is half under the level of the bed and half above when the soil has been firmed in place. This way it will not be likely to rot or be smothered. Water thoroughly and mulch. Heat treated shredded straw or pine needles make an excellent weed-free mulch that will also keep developing berries clean.
What, and what not to prune.
Everyone likes to prune in April, but follow these guidelines: Prune spring blooming trees and shrubs only after the flowers are finished. Don’t be in a hurry to prune off brown areas on evergreens. They often will regrow the needles that have suffered winter kill. A light scratch with your fingernail on the branch will show green if the wood there is still alive. If you have fall-flowering shrubs, this is your last call to prune them.
Resist the temptation to apply mulch now.
Applied too early (and April is too early in Massachusetts), the mulch will slow down your garden by acting as a blanket, preventing warming and keeping the soil colder than the air. Later on, those 2 to 3 inches of mulch will keep down weeds and dress your garden.
Spray dormant oil now...
to control aphids and other insects on trees and shrubs. Commercial sprays add an emulsifier to allow the oil to mix with water. Spraying now, before buds break and leaves appear, will kill eggs and insects while not harming foliage, birds or mammals.
In the flower garden...
Any remaining perennial tops from last year should be cut off and removed before new growth begins. A thin top dressing of compost around perennials prior to this year’s bloom will enrich the soil.
The Drought Monitor issued at the beginning of April shows some danger for New England. Portions of the region are ‘unusually dry’ and Vermont and a small area of New Hampshire is in Stage 1 drought. No area rates ‘severe’ or ‘extreme’. But the same map at the beginning of March showed no drought at all in southern New England. The NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center shows a 50% probability for higher-than-average rainfall for April to June for New England; it also shows a 60% probability of above- average temperatures. Keep these forecasts in mind (and watch for updated ones) as you go through the season.