APRIL can be an unpredictable month, with the old adage of ‘April showers bring May flowers’ summing things up well.
For gardeners, it can feel like one step forward and two steps back for a lot of this month.
We are at that time of year when temperatures fluctuate, particularly at night-time, making new growth emerging vulnerable to frost damage, especially tender plants like dahlias and pelargoniums.
As spring progresses, we start to dream of summer colour in the garden, but it is important to consider night-time temperatures and not to rush into investing too heavily in planting out just yet - the time will come right and there are a few more weeks yet that we have to be cautious about to avoid disappointment.
At this in-between time of the year, employing temporary cloches outside in the vegetable garden can be a useful way to get an earlier crop of lettuce, spring onion, beetroot or carrot, and having a polytunnel or glasshouse space is invaluable for getting crops started earlier.
Watering can be tricky now also, with plants drying out on sunny days in protected environments and needing very little water on dull, overcast days, so judge each day as it comes and observe individual pots, as different plants will have water needs.
With temperatures improving, spring is a good time to take any house plants in hand and pot them into fresh compost if they need it. Taking them outside and spraying the foliage down with a fine mist to free them from any dust that may have built up over the winter months is a good idea, and will help to freshen up the leaves, freeing up any clogged pores and perking the plant up.
Now is also a good time to provide a liquid feed as plants can be tired after the winter months and in need of a boost to enable fresh growth.
Flowers are beginning to abound on trees and shrubs like blackthorn, pear and plum trees, with plenty of early pollinators flying now and collecting precious pollen and nectar on the sunnier days.
The countdown for the return of the swallows is on as we await their chirping atop the telephone wires to cheer us on in the garden this spring.
Woodlanders are coming into their own right now and there is a scramble to flower before the canopy of tree leaves emerging from bare branches above closes in.
Dog’s tooth violets, violas, bluebells, fritillarias, brunnera, wild garlic, primroses, epimediums, anemones, celandine and pachyphragma are all in full flower, heralding spring and carpeting the floor of the woodland garden in colour at this time of year.
The light in a woodland environment right now is just magic on a day when some spring sunshine is streaming through the bare branches, warming the soil and encouraging the herbaceous layer at ground level to get growing and flowering while the light is still available. Very soon the canopy will close in when the new leaves unfurl on the trees overhead, the flowers will fade and the colours become more muted at ground level.
As the herbaceous perennials are emerging from the ground, it is a great time to take some basal cuttings, with young fresh growth full of vim and vigour they will root quickly, creating new plants for sharing or planting elsewhere in the garden.4 It is also the last opportunity to divide bigger clumps of plants that may not have flowered well last summer.
Many herbaceous plants are clump-forming, spreading outwards, which can leave the centre less vigorous and so they benefit from being dug up, divided, and some of the clump replanted with some garden compost added to feed and rejuvenate the plant, resulting in better flowering this year.
Plenty of tidying up is to be done in the garden now as the spring emerges, it is good to remove the debris from last year’s growth and seed heads that may have been left in place for habitat and wildlife over winter.
Out with the old before the new emerges, and return all of the dry organic material to the compost heap where it will create nutrients for next year.
Seed sowing has begun in earnest now and even some of the more tender plants like pumpkin and sunflowers can be considered for sowing as it will be a few weeks before they will be transplanted outside.
Pricking out and potting on will need to be undertaken regularly at this time of the year to keep seedlings moving and healthy.
Damping off can be an issue with seedlings, particularly during a wet spring. It is caused by a soil-borne fungal disease and the best controls are cultural controls, ensuring that seed trays are clean before use, not sowing seeds too densely, using sterilized compost and monitoring watering and humidity carefully will all help to grow healthy seedlings and avoid disappointment.
Plant of the Week
Primula vulgaris or primrose is a native wildflower throughout Ireland that flowers in April, May and June, appearing in large colonies along banks and ditches as it freely seeds itself with gay abandon, hybridising as it goes.
This plant will grow best in a moisture retentive soil with some shade.
This clump-forming perennial produces butter yellow flowers which light up the garden at dusk. They also have a sweet scent and provide plenty of early nectar and pollen for pollinators in the spring garden.
A good ground cover plant that competes well in the hedgerows, when flowering this plant can get to about 30cm tall with a similar spread.