April gardening advice for Manchester – 2016
by Jennifer Fairfield
Manchester resident Jennifer Fairfield owns and operates the Garden Mill in Chelsea, serves on the Manchester Community Garden Committee, and volunteers with the school gardens at Klager and the MECC.
As I sit here writing this, I’m listening to the frogs in my pond make an incredible racket! They have been peeping their little frog lungs out since very early last month, which I think is the earliest I’ve heard them get going in the 18 years I’ve lived in my house. I love hearing them, even though they do sometimes make it hard to concentrate, because it’s one of the first signs that spring is here – along with the crocus and daffodils starting to bloom, and the tulips and alliums beginning to poke their heads up out of the ground. It means that gardening season is almost here!
Editors note: I regret that I decided to hold off running this last week! The decision was made in 60 degree weather without the foreknowledge that we’d soon have 6 inches of snow on the ground.
What a difference from last year! It seemed like spring was never going to show up last year, and this year, it seems like we’re in for an early one – well maybe. Although it’s been warmer than usual lately, the temps over the next few days look a lot like late winter, not early spring! While you’re waiting for spring to really arrive, there’s still plenty to do:
- If you have anything just getting growing outside, keep row covers handy, as the nights over the next little bit look to be quite cold. Keep in mind that new growth is more tender than old, so your plants are more vulnerable at this time. Row covers can help protect your plants from frost and freeze, by keeping the warmth of the soil around the plant. Some plants can tolerate the cold more than others, but most won’t do well with the predicted mid- to low-twenties temperatures being called for over some of the upcoming nights.
- Before starting to plant outdoors, test your soil (we have a very easy and reliable testing kit in stock). Your soil conditions change over time, so it’s best to do this every year. Knowing what your soil is lacking makes giving it what it needs to support good plant growth so much easier. Once you know what your soil needs, come in to talk with us about fertilizer recommendations. We carry a line of organic products made right here in Michigan, and are sure to have just what your soil needs. If you want to learn even more about your soil – such as whether or not your soil has high lead levels – consider a comprehensive soil test from MSU Extension.
- Take stock of what seeds you have left over from last year to make sure you have what you need for this year. The warm weather we’ve been having has everyone out buying seeds early, and we are already sold out of some varieties. If there is something in particular you are looking for, it is possible we may be able to get it in for you – just ask. If we can’t get it for you, we may have some ideas to help you source it locally.
- Make sure your garden tools are ready for the season. Sharpen and clean pruners, loppers, and shovels, if you didn’t get to that task before putting them away for the winter. Check gloves and garden hoses for holes. Check garden supports and stakes to make sure they are in good shape – replace those that won’t make it through the season. Have your lawn mower and other power equipment serviced so that it’s ready to go when you’re ready to mow. And speaking of mowing, now is a great time to think about how you will maintain your lawn over the season, and how you can help pollinators while doing so. MSU Extension’s article on Smart Lawns for Pollinators has some great tips for helping, or at least not harming, pollinators while keeping your lawn looking great.
- When the temperatures head back up, pull mulch away from plants that are starting to poke up out of the ground, but be prepared to cover the plants back up if we get another really cold snap. Add a top dressing of compost, after you pull the mulch back, to help improve soil structure and fertility. Once the soil warms up – usually by mid-May, though who knows this year! – add more mulch, as needed, over the plant roots to help maintain moisture and suppress weeds.
- If you are adding new mulch, wait until the soil has warmed up fully – usually after Mother’s Day, or even as late as Memorial Day weekend, but possibly earlier this year. If you put down new mulch too soon, you can actually keep the soil from warming up, and slow your plants’ growth and flowering.
- Clean up yard debris – branches that have fallen from the high winds we’ve seen this season, leaves still remaining on lawns, driveway gravel plowed onto the lawn, etc. – and pull out any dead plants that are still in garden beds.
- When daytime temperatures are consistently in the 50s, cut back grasses and most perennials that you left standing over the winter. Wait to cut back semi-woody and woody perennials until the end of the month, then decide how much you want to trim based on where you see new growth, and how you want the plant to appear. Semi-woody perennials are ones that form woody stems, but aren’t as substantial as true shrubs or trees, and include Russian sage, lavender and some thymes. This post from Savvy Gardening has some really great tips for doing your spring clean-up in a way that helps our pollinators and other beneficial insects.
- With the quick warm-up we have had, it’s really a little late to do much pruning of trees except for damaged or dead branches. It is definitely too late for pruning oak trees, without risking oak wilt – a deadly disease carried by sap beetles that are attracted to sap from fresh wounds. If you must prune oak trees at any time other than late winter, be sure to seal the wound immediately after pruning (by immediately, I mean have the sealer ready when you are pruning and apply it as soon as you put down your tools). Mostly, sealing cuts on pruned trees is no longer recommended, with the exception of oaks that are pruned at any time of year other than late winter. You can use any water-based paint to seal tree pruning wounds that require it.
- Start seeds for tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant now, and basil at mid-month. In case you missed it when I shared this on our Facebook page, here’s a good resource from Organic Life for figuring out the timing of seed starting. Outdoors, plant peas and spinach now, radishes and carrots after the soil has warmed up a little more. Cabbage and kale transplants, as well as onion sets, can go out by mid-month, and broccoli and cauliflower by the end of the month, though again, if things start to really warm up, you may be able to accelerate this timetable a little bit, as long as you keep your row covers handy.
- Towards the end of the month, divide summer-blooming perennials that you didn’t get to in the fall (you can divide spring-bloomers, but they may not bloom this spring). If you have more plants than you have room for, give some away to friends and neighbors, or consider donating them to the Chelsea Area Garden Club for their annual spring plant sale, which will be held on May 7th this year. Proceeds from the sale go towards things like civic beautification around Chelsea and grants to Chelsea area students.
- Plant dormant trees and shrubs once the soil can be worked. This year, the Earth Day Network is starting an initiative to plant 7.8 billion trees over the next five years. Read below for information on how we are planning to be a part of that – and how you can too!
For the birds:
- Clean out birdhouses now, if you haven’t already. First check to make sure they aren’t already being occupied. If the nesting materials in the box look at all new and fresh, leave them – it’s an indication you already have tenants. I have had bluebirds and house sparrows investigating my bluebird houses for a few weeks now. I’ve been harassing the house sparrows to try to discourage them from taking up residence, as they are a non-native, very aggressive bird that has threatened the existence of our native bluebirds. It takes some vigilance to keep them at bay, but if you can, it gives the bluebirds a fighting chance. While it is generally illegal to interfere with the nesting sites of migratory birds (as well as many that are not considered “migratory”), house sparrows are not a protected species, and really should be discouraged. For more information on making your yard bluebird friendly, check out the Michigan Bluebird Society’s website.
- Consider providing nesting materials for your birds. All kinds of birds use all kinds of different materials to construct or line their nests, and you can help by offering them some useful items, such as human and animal hair (when you brush Fido or Mittens, collect the fur and put it out for your birds to use), strips of cloth, and yarn. Don’t give them the lint from your drier, as that can contain harmful chemicals, and can also get wet and soggy – neither of which will be good for the birds. You can simply stuff your offerings into a suet cage, or you can purchase inexpensive, ready-made nesting material bundles from your favorite birding supply store (like the Garden Mill!).
- Check the condition of your hummingbird and oriole feeders – replace them if they are cracked. As the temperatures start to warm up, put your feeders out during the day to help early arrivers find food. If the temps dip below freezing at night, be sure to bring the feeders indoors to prevent cracking.