Sara Swanson

April Gardening Advice 2017

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Purple Martin on nesting box.

by Jennifer Fairfield

Editor’s Note: 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.

I’m seeing all kinds of indications that spring is here – my crocus have been up for weeks, the daffodils are just about to burst into bloom, tulips are coming up, and forsythia are just starting to get color. It won’t be long now until we are in full gardening mode – and I can’t wait!

April showers seem to have gotten a bit of a head start around here this year. On top of our wet late-winter, it’s awfully soggy out there right now. My best advice for this month is: stay out of garden beds and off your lawn as much as possible while they are wet. You’ll compact the soil, which isn’t good for anything that’s trying to grow. But, if we get a few bright, sunshiny days, absolutely get out and get going – there’s lots to do:

  • Take stock of what seeds you have left over from last year to make sure you have what you need for this year. If you haven’t already gotten what you need, don’t wait much longer – they’re going fast!
  • Sharpen and clean tools, 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.
  • If you have anything just getting growing outside, keep row covers handy – we are likely to see some below-freezing temperatures yet, and 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.
  • Test your soil before starting to plant outdoors – the kit we have in the store makes this a pretty easy task. Because soil conditions change over time, it’s best to do this every year. Knowing what your soil is lacking makes giving it what it needs so much easier. It can also help you save money on fertilizers you don’t need.
  • As it starts to warm up, pulling mulch away from plants that are starting to poke up out of the ground can help the soil warm up more quickly. Plan to cover the plants back up if temps head below freezing at night. Adding a top dressing of compost, after you pull the mulch back, can help improve soil structure and fertility.
  • Don’t add new mulch to your planting beds, trees, or shrubs until the soil has warmed up fully – usually after Mother’s Day, or even as late as Memorial Day weekend. Putting down new mulch too soon can keep the soil from warming up, and slow your plants’ growth and flowering.
  • April is the month to clean up yard debris – branches that have fallen from the crazy winds we saw in March, leaves still remaining on lawns, driveway gravel plowed onto the lawn, etc.
  • When daytime temperatures are consistently in the 50’s, 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.
  • Keep in mind that one person’s debris might be an insect’s winter home. Toss plant debris in a pile nearby, rather than putting it out for collection or burning it, to give butterflies, moths, bees, spiders, preying mantis, and other insects a chance to wake up and get out to help in your garden. Get tips on the right way to do spring cleanup to help beneficial insects from Savvy Gardener.
  • If you had a particularly bad time with crabgrass in your lawn last year, April is the time to apply a pre-emergent herbicide. The MSU Extension Service offers more information on proper timing for application of these products.
  • Peas and spinach can be planted in the next couple of weeks – radishes and carrots after the soil has warmed up a little more. If our warming trend continues, cabbage and kale transplants, as well as onion sets, can go out by mid-month; broccoli and cauliflower transplants should be OK to go out by the end of the month.
  • Plant dormant trees and shrubs once the soil can be worked. How do you know when that is, you ask? There is a simple way to tell if your soil is ready to be worked in (and on): Take a handful of soil and squeeze it. When you open your hand, if the ball stays together, it’s too wet. If it falls apart and is a bit crumbly (and you can encourage it with a little poke – that’s not cheating), then it’s safe to venture into the garden.

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.
  • If you have good conditions in your yard for Purple Martins, make this the year you put up a house for these voracious insect eaters. Purple Martins have been in decline in the state for 50 years, and the Michigan Audubon Society is working to build up the Purple Martin population – but they need our help. For more information on how you can help, check out their 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 short human and animal hair (when you brush Fido or Mittens, collect the fur and put it out for your birds to use), short strips of cloth, and very short pieces of yarn (longer pieces present strangulation and maiming risks to baby birds). 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.
  • 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.

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