April in the Garden

Spring is well underway this month. The cumulative effect of the lengthening days, with the sun’s energy warming up northern latitudes, means that a slip back towards wintry conditions becomes less and less likely. April is infamous for ‘showers’, not blizzards!
Vigorous growth is appearing all over the place as plants step up a gear in response to the increasing warmth and light. Spring bulbs, early perennials, shrubs and trees all provide specimens that bloom this month so the garden really is joyous during spells of spring sunshine. If your garden is lacking in flower power now then the easiest way to remedy this, for future seasons, is to place an order, in the autumn, for spring-flowering bulbs—it’s hard to beat tulips for blooming beauty in April and into May.
You may have read, in the news, that there are plans afoot to plant groves of blossom trees in UK cities in an effort to emulate the Japanese ‘Hanami’ concept. This is an annual celebration of the arrival of spring, most famously marked by mass visitations to long-established avenues of flowering cherries. Although slightly tarnished, in our judgemental society, by a reputation for being somewhat ‘suburban’, the addition of a flowering cherry to your garden is certainly a good place to start if you are considering planting a tree this year.
There is a cherry-like look about the flowers of Amelanchier lamarckii, the Juneberry or Snowy Mespilus, although daintier and borne on a tree which is more shrub-like, often with no obvious single trunk, than the definitely tree-shaped flowering cherry. The advantage of the Amelanchier is that it can be trimmed to keep it within bounds, even in the smallest garden, and can even be planted as a hedge if desired. I’m always slightly puzzled why the Juneberry isn’t in every single garden?
At ground level you can’t beat the tapestry effect of the spring flowering, mostly woodland derived, carpeting perennials. I used to work in a garden where there were mirror-image borders, bounded by knee-high box hedges, which were designed to be viewed from the overlooking, upper, windows of the house. Spring beauties such as primulas, pulmonarias, dicentras, Lathyrus vernus and brunneras were woven together, pierced by spring-flowering bulbs, in a perennial carpet that evolved subtly year on year.
Now that active growth is underway it’s a good idea to feed the soil with a general application of fertiliser, my standard ‘go to’ is ‘F,B and B’ (fish, blood and bone), in any areas which didn’t get fed when mulched. Spring bulbs will be especially thankful for a nitrogenous boost, while they are in growth, because without it there is a danger that they will fail to flower again next year. Tulips are often one season wonders at the best of times, they are definitely more ‘highly strung’ than species like Narcissus or Crocus, but I still persevere with feeding them in an attempt to get decent blooms for more than just their initial season.
Lawns have come in for a bit of cheap, point scoring, news coverage recently. Whenever I hear pundits suggesting that domestic lawns should be cut less or ‘sections’ turned into wildflower meadows, it reminds me of the, alleged, quote attributed to Gertrude Jekyll that: “any garden, no matter how small, has room for a quarter of an acre of hazel nuts”—or some such guff.
A lawn is a design element used as a foil to planted areas in more formal parts of the garden. If you only have a small garden there is an argument to do without the lawn altogether, replacing it with paved or gravelled paths perhaps, but turning it into a meadow is simply not practical where the grass has to be walked on in order to access the rest of the plot. If you have large garden, an impossibility in today’s world of houses built on smaller and smaller parcels of land, then setting aside a section that is left longer, or treated as a faux meadow, is a choice you can make.
Far better for commentators to campaign to preserve and increase the acreage of ‘real’ wildflower meadows than to make domestic gardeners feel guilty for having a patch of well-maintained lawn at home.
I remember filming once with an expert, in Lymington I think, who was an advocate of wildlife gardening but made the very sensible observation that our indigenous insects do not care where their nectar comes from, be it a cultivated bloom or its wild relative. They do, of course, need the correct food plants to feed their larval stage, or to provide shelter for overwintering, but this is where hedges, field margins and native woodland come in. Not many gardens are big enough to allow properly ‘wild’ areas to persist on a permanent basis.
Returning to tasks at hand; before herbaceous growth gets too advanced it’s a good idea to insert some support to those that are prone to collapsing as the summer progresses. Pea-sticks are the traditional medium for providing the supportive framework and for good reason. They are a wholly naturally occurring product and have the advantage of looking attractive, if woven in sympathetically, even before the perennial plants grow up through them.
Once the main stem of the hazel bough has been pushed into the soil, the side stems and twiggy stalks can be bent and arched into place to form a girdle around the wayward perennial. The flexible stems and twigs have bobbly buds along their lengths which enable the twigs to be woven around each other, with the bobbles interlocking, so that the hazel cradle becomes quite a rigid, yet largely invisible, structure. Canes, string and the like cannot perform this disappearing trick no matter how hard you try. Those ghastly, fake green, interlocking wire stakes are even worse when it comes to “ars est celare artem” and all that.
Before signing off I should remind you that although frosts are still possible at this time of year, thankfully getting rarer, it’s important to start ‘waking up’ any tender perennials that have been overwintering in frost-free conditions and which need to be planted out once all risk of frost has gone. The same is true of things like cannas and dahlias which were dug up last autumn, stored in the greenhouse or wherever, but which benefit from fresh potting up and gently watering, undercover, if you have not done so already. They really benefit from getting a bit of a head start before getting shoved back outside—in a post-lockdown world we hope!!!