Tidewater Gardening - April 2007
K. Marc Teffeau
I don’t know about you, but I am really glad to see spring here! I noticed on the Weather Channel the other day that January and February of 2007 were colder than usual. I know that I really felt it at the commuter bus in D.C. in the evening while waiting to head back to the Shore. And now we have a couple of more weeks of daylight savings time. What a treat! I still don’t like going to work in the dark in March, however. But with more minutes of daylight in the afternoon and early evening, we gardeners can get some work done outside before dark.
The spring flowering bulbs have popped their heads out of the ground giving us a great display of color. Working in Washington in the spring is a great time. All the spring flowering bulb displays around the Federal buildings and parks are in bloom. We might not have the massive displays in our home landscapes, but we still need to do the maintenance on these beds after they have flowered.
The first thing to do is to cut the flower stalks back to the ground on daffodils, hyacinths and other spring flowering bulbs as the flowers fade. Do not cut the foliage until it dies naturally. The leaves are necessary to produce strong bulbs capable of re-flowering. To keep the plant going you can fertilize bulbs upon emergence of foliage with a 10-10-10 fertilizer, using a rate of 1 pound per 100 square feet. Repeat the application after the bulbs have bloomed. An organically based fertilizer with a 1-1-1 ratio will do just as well.
In late March and early April we can still plant bare root trees, brambles, rose bushes, flowering shrubs and trees. These plants have been kept in cold storage by the nursery and then shipped to the retail outlets or to you if you mail-ordered them. Early planting gives them more time to develop roots before their leaves emerge. Asparagus crowns and strawberries also establish better when planted early. If they show a little color in the leaf buds or have even leafed out a little bit, that’s okay. Just make sure that they get a little extra attention after planting – like watering when dry.
If you are a rose fancier, you might want to check out the new series of Easy Elegance® Roses that are being offered by Bailey Nurseries this spring. Through their rose breeding program in Oregon, conducted by internationally-known rose hybridizer Ping Lin, Bailey has introduced a line of 28 rose cultivars for the home gardener.
These roses have been bred for disease resistance and hardiness, are considered low maintenance and will provide continuous blooms over the growing season. They can be used in border or mass plantings or as container plants. New for this year in this series are ‘Fiesta,’ ‘Pink Pearls,’ ‘Snowdrift,’ ‘Showtime,’ ‘Sweet Fragrance’ and ‘Yellow Brick Road.’
Check with your local independent garden center to see if they have them in stock. If you want to check them our on the Web, go to www.easyeleganceroses.com.
While we are relishing the warmer temperatures of April, remember not to rush the season by planting those tender vegetable and annual flower plants out too early. We usually have a cold front come through at the end of April or the first of May, so wait until the soil has warmed up. Usually waiting until the second week of May before you set out the tomato, eggplant, and pepper transplants is a good idea. We will get rainfall in April – “April showers bring May flowers” – so don’t be in a hurry to work the garden soil when it is wet. If you do you will destroy the soil structure and will make it hard a concrete in July when it does dry out.
The easy test to determine if the soil is ready to work is to squeeze a handful into a tight ball, then break the ball apart with your fingers. If the ball of soil readily crumbles in your fingers, the soil is ready to work. If it stays balled, however, it is too wet to work. Wait a few days and do the test again.
For springtime lawn care, now is the time to apply a pre-emergent herbicide for crabgrass control in the lawn. The best control for crabgrass is mowing your lawn at two inches or higher. The higher the grass height, the more shade the soil surface gets. Crabgrass seed needs light to germinate so if you reduce the light, you reduce your crabgrass population, not to mention having a thicker looking turf.
By giving the grass the competitive edge, you may not need to use an herbicide at all. Make sure that your lawn mower blade is sharp. This will give a cleaner cut to the turf, reducing the ragged edges on the grass blades that give the grass a brown tinge appearance after being cut. A sharp mower blade also helps to reduce potential disease problems.
If you didn’t get your fertilizer on the lawn last fall, you can apply a ½ pound of Nitrogen per 1,000 square feet now to help green-up the lawn. Do not fertilize past the end of April. With all the emphasis on water quality and the Chesapeake Bay, don’t over fertilize and watch where the fertilizer goes. Spreading fertilizer granules into the street and onto the pavement is not only a waste of fertilizer but can contribute to excess nutrient loading in water bodies.
Oil up those pruning sheers and get to pruning. You can prune out the water sprouts and sucker growths that we find in the crabapples and other spring flowering trees. Also you can prune needled evergreens now if they need to be cut back. This includes cutting back the “rat tails” on yews.
If you want to keep the needled pines and other whorl-branched conifers from getting taller and want a more bushy appearance, pinch the candles at the end of the branches in half. This will cause the plants to branch out instead. Pinching by hand rather than using pruning shears is recommended because use of pruning shears will leave the needles with brown tips.
And by the way, ditch the pruning paint and tar. This practice of covering pruning wounds is from the dark ages of gardening. If you did the pruning cut correctly, the cut will callous over on its own.
The perennials will be poking their heads out of their beds in April as the soil warms up. Now is a good time to dig and divide fall-flowering perennials that have multiplied and overfilled the flower bed. That’s one of the nice things about perennials, after you have planted them and they become established, to get more all you have to do it divide them rather that having to go out and buy additional plants. Check with some of your gardening friends, maybe they have some extra fall-flowering perennials they need to thin and you can do a plant swap.
When purchasing bedding annuals this spring, choose properly grown plants with good color. Buy plants with well-developed root systems that are vigorous, but not too large for their pots or containers. Don’t be afraid to knock a few plants out of their pots or the tray and look at their root systems.
Look for nice white, fibrous root systems that do not have an odor to them. Do not select under-developed plants with shallow, poorly grown root systems that cannot absorb the moisture held deeper in the soil. These plants are more subject to damage from rapid change in temperature and moisture typical of the top six inches of the soil surface in the spring.
Seed some of your cool season root crops like beets, turnips, parsnips and leafy greens such as spinach and kale as soon as the ground can be worked In the vegetable garden. Early lettuce transplants can be set out but cover them if a hard frost is predicted.
Don’t forget to seed the edible pod peas and the traditional peas as they can germinate and tolerate cool soils. To help supply a natural source of nitrogen to the peas, buy inoculants for the peas and treat them before planting. This naturally occurring bacteria will grow into the pea roots and fix nitrogen from the air and convert it to a source that the plants can use.
Broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cabbage transplants can also be planted in mid to late April. You might want to protect them from hard frosts with plastic milk jugs as “hot caps.” Remove the bottom 1 inch of a plastic jug so that the sides are straight. Then cut around the jug below the handle, leaving a half-inch uncut piece under the handle as a hinge. Place the jug over a seedling, pushing it deep into the soil with the handle toward the prevailing wind. This reduces the chance of it blowing open.
The jug serves as a “hot cap” to guard against frost, a translucent shield to prevent sun scald, and a wind barrier. When the plant is well established, the top can be folded back during the day and flipped into place when needed at night. When all danger of frost is past, cut off the top hinge, leaving the bottom to provide a reservoir for watering.
With the warmer temperatures of April come the insects. One that we always see are Eastern tent caterpillars. Found in webs in the branch crotches of fruit trees, especially wild cherries, these white nests can contain hundreds of hungry caterpillars. Although they can defoliate wild cherries they are not a serious pest. If you want to control them, simply pull the nests down from the small trees or blast them apart with a forceful stream of water from the garden hose. Another effective control is to spray them with an oil spray or Bacillus thuringiensis (BT). BT is a naturally occurring bacterium that is sold as Dipel and gives effective control if applied when the caterpillars are very young. It is also great on bagworms which appear later on in late May. The key to control is to get it on early when the critters are small.