What to do in the Garden in April
Nancy Greeley with contributions from Lila Griswald, Sandi Blaze and Tina Duncan, Wilton Garden Club

As gardeners, we are so lucky to have a passion that gets us outdoors taking in fresh air, exercising our bodies and filling our minds with optimism and possibilities.  We can do all this while safely social distancing during this unsettling time of COVID-19.

Fortunately, the weather has been cooperating so get out there and continue with the spring cleanup you began last month.  This is also a great time to take stock of your gardens and make plans for any renovations or changes you may want to make.  Maybe you can find a spot for a vegetable garden?   Now is the perfect time to put your plans into action.  To get yourself really motivated as you walk your garden to assess what needs to get done, be sure to take in the beauty and optimism of the spring bulbs that are beginning to pop their heads up.  Aren’t you glad you planted them?  Take note of what and where you planted them so you don’t accidentally interfere with them as you make additions to your garden over the coming months.  You’re sure to notice that more early spring color would be welcome next year so make a mental note to plant more this fall.  I also recommend planting some cheerful pansies and violas to cheer you up and get you motivated!  Or, buy a bowl that’s already planted and place it where you can most enjoy it.
Ok, so now that you’re really in the mood, let’s get down to the hard stuff…

  • Continue to clean out your garden beds being extra careful removing any compressed leaves or debris covering emerging plants.
  • Note areas where new perennials are needed due to winter die-off  and note which ones might be needed.
  • Cut back any unruly perennials which weren’t cut back in the fall or last month and divide large clumps.  Share your extra plants with friends or use them to fill in areas that need a lift.
  • Cut back your Montauk Daisies (Nipponanthemum nipponicum) to 12”-14” in an inverted bowl shape and cut out any dead wood.  These get a special shout out because they are one of my very favorites and deliver such welcome, perky color in the fall.  They are easy to divide and are very hardy.  The deer do enjoy them so be careful!
  • Mark any perennials whose tags have been lost and make a diagram of your garden including  the names and bloom times of your plants.  You’ll be glad you did!
  • Be sure your tools are sharp and clean and start pruning!  This is a good time to prune roses, shrubs that won’t be blooming soon and clematis.  See below for some specific tips .
  • Weed where you can and perhaps apply a light sprinkling of organic Preen to discourage future weeds from emerging.  Be sure to pull out pesky and invasive garlic mustard plants before they bloom –  more on those later.
  • Apply compost and/or fertilizer to the garden – maybe Osmocote for slow release
  • Spray Deer Off, or the like, on exposed new shoots of lilies.  Did you know that deer and rabbits will leave them alone once they grow larger?  Lila Griswold shared this – apparently the lilies become bitter and the critters move on to tastier treats!
  • Protect plants that slugs love.  Lila suggests her favorite ways to attract those slimy plant eaters: organic Sluggo or cat food or tuna cans filled with beer.  Set them into the ground near your high risk plants.
  • Put down grass seed in bare areas
  • Edge the garden.
  • Mulch:  It’s still a good time to consider ordering bulk mulch.  By ordering early you may be able to save some money. More importantly, by buying local you support a local business, eliminate all those nasty plastic bags and reduce wasteful transportation.   When to mulch seems to be the question.  Some gardeners like to get things tidy and mulched right away.  Since I wasn’t quite sure what the “right” thing to do was, I sought out the advice of an expert.  See below for more on mulching.

When to Mulch:
On her website, Margaret Roach awaytogarden.com offers these tips:

  • Mulch perennial and shrub beds in spring, but not until after the soil has a chance to warm and dry a bit. Be conscious of areas where  biennials and other self-sown plants are planted so that they have a chance to do their thing; mulching these too soon may prevent successful reseeding.
  • You want a 2- or 3-inch layer, generally speaking, and if you use the right stuff, about half of that will work into the underlying soil before you go to replenish in fall or the next spring.
  • Keep the mulch a couple of inches away from trunks of trees and shrubs; never pile it up, volcano-like, against them, as that can invite pests and diseases.
  • Anytime an area of mulch is disturbed, add a bit more rather than leave bare spots. Apply mulch to new beds.

More on garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata):
As mentioned above, pull these out before they bloom!   By being speedy you can compost them and won’t  have to bag them.  So why are they so bad?  According to Mass Audubon, the plant’s many seeds disperse by wind and water and the plant invades new areas. They’re definitely not good neighbors as they displace natives and can change soil conditions to inhibit growth of most other plants.  So get out there and start pulling!

A couple words on pruning:

  • Prune those roses!  When the forsythia blooms in your area, look to prune back your roses (bushes and climbing).  Cut roses to a node that will flower out, away from the center, to allow for good air flow.  Cut out any dead wood.
  • This is a good time to prune shrubs, but not those that flower (like rhodies, laurel, etc.) For those flowering beauties, it’s best to prune right after they bloom or you may snip off flower buds and reduce the colorful show next year.  Hydrangeas are a mixed bag so study up first.  I’ll address them another time.

Pruning your clematis, trickier than it sounds.  Who knew?!  Well, of course Sandi Blaze did!
Did you know that there are 3 different groups of clematis that require different care?  This was a surprise to me.  Perhaps that’s one reason I have bad luck with them.  Once you know the group, you can prune accordingly.  Clematis varieties are classified into three groups according to blooming time and characteristics: Group 1 (spring bloomers), Group 2 (repeat bloomers), and Group 3 (summer or fall bloomers).   Don’t know what group your clematis falls into?  You’re not alone!  See www.finegardening.com>article>what-group-is-my-clematis to find out.

  • Clematis Group 1:  Prune sparingly, it blooms on old wood, cut it after flowers if necessary.
  • Clematis Group 2: Remove dead wood and cut the remaining stems 6 to 8 inches to a pair of strong buds
  • Clematis Group 3: Blooms on new wood in the summer and fall;  prune  stems back to a strong set of buds ~12 inches from the ground.

I’ve solicited input from members to compile this list.  A big thanks to Sandi Blaze, Lila Griswold and Tina Duncan for their contributions this month!  As I mentioned last month, Margaret Roach’s newsletter, “A Way to Garden” is a fantastic resource. You can subscribe to her newsletter from her website awaytogarden.com

Just remember, you can’t get it done all at once!  As Margaret Roach encourages:  “Start cleanup near the house. Tidying beds along the most-traveled front walkway early reminds me that I can do this, a little at a time. Walking past a mess every time I go out: not so inspiring. Work out from homebase.”

You’ll get it done and oh how sore, achy, and yes, satisfied you will feel!  Enjoy!