Here in middle Tennessee (zone 6b) April is high time to plant the main season garden. Our likely last frost date is about April 15 and by the end of the month even the most conservative gardeners are planting out tomatoes and peppers.
Spring weather can be very frustrating for gardeners – often going from too cold to too wet – be prepared with seeds, bedding plants and other supplies so that you can jump on it when the opportunity arises. By the time the weather is reliably dry for garden work it may be well on its way to becoming too dry – seize the day.
If you haven’t already planted peas, brassicas, lettuce or other cool season crops or you want to do a succession planting you have a window of opportunity early in the month to do so, but the longer you wait the less likely success becomes because hot weather will arrive before many of those can mature. However you are more likely to be successful if you set out plants instead of trying to propagate from seed. Potatoes can be planted any time, but earlier is better for this cool season crop as well.
Once the last frost date has passed most things can be planted with a few notable exceptions.
Sweet corn and beans both require warm soil (70 degrees F more or less) for reliable germination. Too much rain can also cause poor germination rates, because seed can rot. It’s probably best to wait until the end of April for these crops.
Phenology For April
- “Plant corn when the oak leaves are the size of a squirrels ear, or when apple blossoms start to fall.” Consider that a squirrels ear is about 3/4 inch more or less – This old saying is probably a great guideline for field, dent, and heirloom varieties, but you might want to wait a little longer before planting hybrid sweet corn.
- “Set out tomatoes when dogwood winter has passed, or when wild day lilies start to bloom.” Dogwood Winter is a cold front which often passes while dogwoods are in bloom or may actually trigger them to bloom. This year – 2009 – dogwood winter was April 6 – 7 and featured overnight lows around 30 F daytime highs around 40 and a rain/snow mix all day on the 6th.
- “Plant peppers and eggplant outside when bearded iris is in bloom.” This one probably applies to all manor of cucurbita, cucumbers, melons, and squash.
- Watch out for “Blackberry Winter” – A cold front associated with the flowering of wild blackberrys – often the last wide spread frost of the year occurs during blackberry winter.
Strawberries will be flowering soon (or already) and – along with other tender plants – will need to be protected from frost once you see blooms. When berries start to ripen later in the season they will need protection from birds and other berry eatin’ varmints. Plan ahead to have horticultural fleece, wire mesh or floating row covers ready to deploy if you plan on getting any fruit. Those same materials can also be used later to protect young squash plants from egg laying vine borer moths.
April is not a bad time to plant strawberries as long as you have realistic expectations. Strawberries set out in April will yield very little if any fruit this year, but by September they will each produce many daughter plants which can be transplanted at that time for a crop next year, and a great crop the next spring. A six pack of plants started now in rich soil will be a nice little berry patch by next year if you play your cards right.
It’s Almost Slug Season – Joyous Joy. Warming wet weather along with tender plants = slug paradise. Watch for the tell tale holes in vegetation and take prompt swift measures – I favor jar lids full of beer for the slimy little lushes to drink their selves to death in. Giving the kids each a flashlight and salt shaker could also be an effective – if less politically correct – form of slug based entertainment. Mulch, rocks, boards and other rubbish provide hiding places so consider removing those things from problem areas if possible. Also avoid over watering.
Get a Bird House! – While you are at the garden center consider stimulating the economy by buying a bird house. But, don’t buy one of the cutesy gingerbread looking houses that are more for decoration than for the birds – instead get one which is specifically made for a particular bird – bluebirds and wrens are particularly receptive. Birds might nest in an ornamental birdhouse, but the poor bird ergonomics can leave them vulnerable to nest predation. If you put up a bird house now it might have occupants in just a few days. Getting to see babies in the nest is a great treat for children – and adults. Educate yourself a bit by Googling for the targeted species to learn about nest box location needs.
In the GreenHouse
Late this month I will probably remove the plastic covering from my 50 Dollar greenhouse or at least remove the doors. Right now it is completely full of salad greens of all kinds, container plants, tomatoes trying to get an early start, early broccoli and cauliflower that is just starting to form heads, and tons of chick weed. However I don’t foresee a lot of use for it once the weather turns reliably warm, and the plastic will be more likely to serve another year if I don’t leave it in the hot sun all summer. I consider the greenhouse to be a great success so far – well worth the effort and small cash outlay – and I have high hopes that as I learn more about how to manage it, that it (along with cold frames) will become a key part of sustainable year around food production for my family.