Tidewater Gardening - April 2009
K. Marc Teffeau
“April is the cruelest month” T.S. Elliot wrote in his poem The Wasteland. I have always interpreted this line as the promise of an unfolding spring with winter still in the background. The dormant landscape of winter is springing to life but we can still have some cold days and wet weather and the potential of a severe frost is ever present. That is why you shouldn’t be in a hurry to put out the tender flowering annuals or vegetable plants. My rule of thumb has always been to wait until the first full week in May to put out the tender transplants. Even then there is a chance of frost damage; especially if there will be a full moon – which will occur on May 9th this year. Be prepared to cover the tomatoes, peppers and other plants if a frost is forecast.
The 9 inches of snow that we received in the Preston area the first of March was a welcomed event. The snow disappeared rather quickly and that was unfortunate from a water standpoint. I understand that this past February was the driest on record. The U.S. Drought Monitor indicates that we were abnormally dry for this time of year. The longer time the snow cover was present the more opportunity it had to melt and recharge the water table. Maybe April showers will help replenish the deficit.
The dry soil conditions will have some repercussions in the landscape this spring. Given some of the cold temperatures that we experienced in the winter and a lack of snow cover, I think that we might see some shallow rooted woody plants, like azaleas, flower, leaf out and die because of damaged root systems. If it stays dry this might be a good time to invest in a couple of rain barrels to catch roof water during the growing season. A number of garden catalogs now sell rain barrels and there is information on the Internet regarding their use.
Spring flowering bulbs are popping out. We had daffodils in protected places in the landscape flowering in mid – March. Next year’s crop of daffodil flowers depends on proper watering and fertilizing at this time.
Fertilize daffodils as they finish blooming. Use a low-nitrogen fertilizer, such as 5-10-5 or an organic fertilizer and apply it at the rate of 1 pound per 100 square feet or at the labeled rate.
If it is a dry spring, be sure to water the plants. Do not cut the bulb foliage after flowering. The bulbs need the leaves to manufacture food reserves for next year’s bloom. Cut the foliage when it starts to brown. This is also a good time to divide and reset clumps if they have become crowded and you notice that the amount of blooms decreasing.
The only thing that you need to do to the lawn in April is to tune up the lawn mower and sharpen its blade. A sharp blade will give a cleaner cut to the turf and reduce the ragged edges on the grass blades that give the grass a brown tinge appearance after being cut. A clean cut also reduces potential disease problems.
If you fertilized the lawn last fall, no spring fertilization is needed. Fertilizer applied at this time of year will combine with stored carbohydrates and those produced by the plant’s leaves to push extra top growth. You will have to mow more frequently and the lawn will have a lack of reserves heading into the most stressful season for Eastern Shore lawns - summer.
Back in my former Extension Agent life it was always a challenge to educate the “come here’s” from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and destinations North, why they could not have a beautiful bluegrass lawn here on the ‘Shore, no matter how many chemicals you dumped on it.
If you drive by my house and look at my lawn you will see the proverbial “the cobbler’s children have no shoes” syndrome or “physician heal thyself.” The lawn does need a major renovation – maybe this fall.
I am not a real fan of applying turf chemicals at all, but if crabgrass is a problem in your lawn, April is the time to apply a pre-emergent herbicide for crabgrass control. The best long-term solution for crabgrass is mowing your lawn at two inches or higher. The higher the grass height, the more shade the soil surface gets. Crabgrass seeds need light to germinate so if you reduce the light, you reduce your crabgrass population, not to mention having a thicker looking turf.
In the landscape department, April is a good month to do some pruning on trees and shrubs. Prune out the water sprouts and sucker growths that we find in crabapples and other spring flowering trees. Wait until after the spring flowering shrubs have completed their floral display to prune them. As a general rule of thumb, remove no more than one third of the mass of a shrub at one pruning. There are exceptions to this rule, however, so if you have a question about a specific plant, check garden pruning books, ask someone at the local garden center or check on the Internet. In the counties where there are Extension Master Gardeners, give them a call.
You can also 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. Pinching by hand rather than using pruning shears is recommended because pruning shears will leave the needles with brown tips.
April is a great time to plant trees and shrubs in the landscape. Every year I like to check out the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society Gold Medal Plants award-winners. For 2009, one of their selections is a Weeping Katsura Tree – cultivar Morioka Weeping. Katsura Trees (Cercidiphyllum japonicium) are ornamental trees native to Japan and China and grown for their delicate blue green heart shaped leaves and bright autumn color mix of bright yellow, pink and orange-red. The trees are deer-resistant and can be used as a specimen tree or a border planting. Of particular interest is the scent produced by the leaves in the autumn, resembling burnt brown sugar or cotton candy.
Within Cercidiphyllum japonicum, several cultivars with pendulous branches are grown for their unique weeping habit. Two general types exist. ‘Morioka Weeping’ originated in Morioka City, Japan, and has a strong central leader and can reach over 50 feet in height. It produces white flowers in the spring.
The other type fails to form a central leader and is rounded in habit. There are several clones of this, including ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘Tidal Wave.’
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 flowerbed.
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 have dug and you can do a plant swap.