April in the Garden

At the point of writing, I have yet to complete the planting of my own bare-root trees. For some reason, I succumbed to the worst cold I’ve had in years and, foolishly, instead of taking the necessary time off, to fully recuperate, I worked while ill only to collapse at the weekends.

Having lost three weekends, when I should have been getting on with my own garden, I am selfishly praying that April does not heat up too quickly and that a cool month will buy me some time to complete winter gardening tasks, despite it being well into the ‘official’ spring. If the weather does prove to be warm and dry, with fewer than usual April showers, then all my late-planted, bare-root, specimens will require some careful coaxing, with supplementary watering, until I’m sure they have established.

With rising average temperatures and a diminishing risk of hard frost there’s more opportunity to sow hardy annuals this month than there was last. Also, sowing lawns from scratch can take place now, following rigorous seedbed preparation, as long as you can provide some sort of protection from heavy downpours which would otherwise wash the seed and fine tilth away.

Despite completing a degree in Horticulture, I must confess that lawn care is not something I’ve ever been taught ‘academically’. It’s generally seen as such a specialist vocation that it is lifted out of general horticultural education and treated as something akin to a ‘Dark Art’. If you do enter the murky world of ‘grounds keeping’ or, the possibly even more suspect, ‘golf course management’, then you must do courses aimed specifically at how to achieve the perfect turf.

In the ‘bad old days’, which, curiously, many ‘environmental types’ like to think of as the ‘good old days’, a lot of lawn care relied on pouring all manner of toxic, but naturally derived (by which I mean not ‘synthesised’), chemical preparations onto lawns. The idea was to kill worms because worm casts were the enemy of a perfectly smooth green.

The lack of worms to aerate the soil, beneath the grass, caused poor root growth due to the lack of oxygen in the now worm-free subsoil. To alleviate, the groundsman would have to expend a lot of time and energy ‘spiking’ the lawn areas in order to artificially add the air holes which the worms used to do naturally. This is a special sort of madness! Fortunately, nowadays, we are much more savvy to the need for soils to be ‘living’, to be healthy, so the widespread use of ‘vermicides’ has died out.

As far as amateur lawn care is concerned, the main area of improvement, which should be done soon, is a ‘weed and feed’ preparation. As long as you follow the instructions, on whichever product you have chosen, then it’s pretty fool-proof as they tend to do ‘exactly what they say on the tin’—not that they come in a tin, of course, more likely to be a sack or bottle.

The ‘feed’ element will cause rapid grass growth, of course, so cutting a little more often, but not too short, will be necessary to encourage more lateral growth, of individual grass plants, which is desirable if they are to take full advantage of any gaps in the sward left by the, hopefully, dying weeds. Be careful what you do the clippings as most lawn treatments containing selective weed killers specify that a certain time must elapse before treated lawns can have their cuttings used for composting. You may have to bag up the first few cuts and take them to the recycling centre—formerly known as ‘the dump’.

Away from lawns, plants which have been wrapped up in fleece, to fend off the worst of the winter cold, can be unwrapped during mild spells. Keep the fleece close at hand for rapid deployment when frost threatens. Open cold frames, greenhouses and conservatories, whenever it is sunny, to encourage ventilation and assist the hardening off process. If you took tender perennial cuttings in the autumn, and they are still in pots or seed trays, then these should be separated out and potted up as soon as growth resumes.

Herbaceous perennials can be propagated easily, before they are too advanced in growth, simply by chopping sections out of the clump while they are still in the ground or by lifting the whole stool and carving it up with a sharp spade. Pot up some sections into fresh compost, creating new plants, then replant the remaining third, or so, incorporating a handful of general feed into the planting hole. Remember to water in well, to settle the roots, even if the ground is already wet.

If you are anything like me, especially if you have a similarly ‘claggy’ soil, then you may yet to set foot on your herbaceous, or mixed, borders. My absolute bugbear is compacted soil (see earlier) and the more the borders are stepped on during the dormant months the deeper they should be forked, come the spring, to get air back into them. If there have been sufficient periods of dry, warm, weather, before now, then I may have stolen a march (no pun intended) and already done my major border spruce up.

Chances are, I’ll be doing it at the start of April when at least it’s easier to see where my precious herbaceous perennial are and so avoid trampling them. It’s also time efficient because I can go through the borders like a dose of salt; weeding, feeding (‘fish, blood & bone’), pea-sticking and, to lock in moisture and suppress weeds, ending with a ‘skin’ of organic mulch on top of the aerated, weeded and fed, soil.

I still rely on the local ‘Komit Kompost’ for bulk mulch, for extra jobs, but, in the garden I work in, we produce enough homemade compost for the veg beds and main herbaceous border plus a bit held back for planting container grown plants as the need arises. By the time it get used in the garden, it’s had two whole years to rot down so, on the whole, it’s pretty free from viable weed seeds.

If I require completely sterile, homemade, organic matter then I can always sterilise a batch myself but my soil steriliser only handles about half a barrow at a time—not really cost effective if lots is needed. The main reason for buying in bags of compost is that it should be completely sterile, if not then you have cause to complain, and complying to certain industry standards. As ever, if I need to check whether a particular brand is any good, I refer back to the last ‘Which?’ report.

Old habits die hard and I do owe them for my initial training as a ‘Researcher / Writer’!!!