By April, wherever in the country you live, spring has arrived in some form. In the north it is still tentative, and there may even be persistent patches of snow lying in deep, shady areas. For most of us all that is over, although freak April snowstorms are not unknown. There will be huge differences between what might be blooming, and what jobs you can find to do, depending on where you are. In zones 4 and 5 it will be a time of ‘baby steps’, when the first signs of life appear. In zones 6 and 7 spring is well underway, with magnolias and cherry trees in bloom. In zones 8 and 9 it is almost beach weather already, and the steady progression of interest – without that sudden, heady rush of a northern spring – is filled with possibilities.
What to Do in Your Garden in April
- Start a Garden Diary
- Trees and Shrubs that Could be Blooming (if you grew them)
- Prune Rose Bushes
- Begin to Mulch
Start a Garden Diary
Since April is the month when the first flowering shrubs are in bloom for some, or earlier in warmer states, it’s a good month to start keeping a diary of your garden. This might at first seem like a sentimental indulgence for people with too much time on their hands, but it can serve a useful purpose too. One of the most difficult things to achieve is to have a continuous display throughout as many months of the year as your local climate will allow. Making a note of what is in bloom each week will be an instant alert to make some additions when that continuity is failing. Make it a job for the same day each week – you are more likely to keep it up that way. Note the weather, the progress of plants, especially new ones, and which plants are in bloom. If you see something you like a lot – a certain combination of plants perhaps – or something you don’t like, writing it down will make it more likely that you fix it when you have the chance, or repeat it when you love it. Looking back at your notes on a winter’s day is an ideal way to plan improvements and search for suitable plants to fill those weeks when little or nothing was in bloom. You will soon have a garden that never stops flowering.
Trees and Shrubs that Could be Blooming
The first trees and shrubs will be coming into bloom, with Forsythia leading the charge in the North, with its golden blooms along bare stems. If yours never blooms it may be that you don’t have the right variety, because premature flower buds are easily killed by a frosty night. Search out varieties for northern gardens so that you too can join in the fun.
In cooler zones you might expect to see this month the pristine whiteness of the Serviceberry (Amelanchier) suddenly appear. One of the earliest small trees to bloom, it looks lovely almost anywhere, from the edge of a woodlot to a specimen on your lawn. Where early blooms are scarce it is a gift not to be passed by.
More familiar will be the magnolias, led by the Star Magnolia (Magnolia stellata) and hybrids where it is a parent. Usually white, this small, spreading tree, often only a large bush, has distinctive open flowers with narrow petals. Grow the variety ‘Centennial Blush’ to enjoy gorgeous pink blooms too. In warmer zones others, such as the Girl Series from the National Arboretum, will be blooming by now, with their more upright, lily-like blooms. Some people don’t plant these deciduous magnolias because they are only in bloom for two or three weeks of the year, but they do have attractive leaves all summer, and a beautiful rugged winter profile of bare branches to compensate – although asking a plant which is such a glory in bloom to apologize for its brief visit seems perverse. Go ahead, plant one and think only of today when you see it.
The Redbuds (Cercis) are indispensable in spring too. Their hot-pink flowers cluster all along the dark branches, and they glow out across the garden like a beacon. Choose the right species for where you live – the Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) for cooler areas, with damp summers, and the Western Redbud (Cercis occidentalis) for hotter, drier areas. There is also the Texas Redbud, a variety of the eastern species, but adapted to heat, and much more drought resistant than others. This is another plant that is in bloom for a relatively short time, but its handsome leaves look lovely for the rest of the time.
Prune Rose Bushes
This is an ideal time to prune your roses, and in warmer areas it may be your last chance. If you have used winter protection in the North, take it off early. You don’t want your bushes to sprout too soon, or frost will damage them. Removing the coverings and exposing them to cold will not damage them at this time, but it will keep them dormant, so they sprout only when the weather is more reliable.
Pruning most roses is not difficult – but wear a pair of sturdy gloves. Remove any spindly stems and cut back the remaining strong ones to leave a low framework of open growth. Don’t be tempted to leave the stems long – the best blooms will be on strong shoots that come from low down on the bush. Landscape roses, like Knockout or Oso Easy varieties, need less trimming, but a light cleaning out, and cutting back to strong buds, will pay dividends in beauty later. Always trim to an outward-facing bud if you can find one – it gives better form to your bush. Cut just a little above the bud, with a sloping cut, so that the high point is directly above the bud. This minimizes the risk of the cut stem dying back and weakening the new shoot.
If you have climbing roses – including ramblers like Lady Bank’s Rose – these should not be pruned in spring, as they flower only on older stems. Leave them until immediately after flowering, and at that time just shorten back the stems that have flowered, leaving the framework of older branches. In cold areas there are hardy climbers available, so don’t waste your time on plants that die back each winter and never bloom.
Begin to Mulch
In warmer areas this is an ideal time to start mulching your shrubs. The ground is still cool and moist – which plants like azaleas, camellias, rhododendrons, and clematis all enjoy – so don’t let that moisture go to waste as the temperatures climb and the humidity falls. Plan ahead for mulch, as your own garden compost is an ideal material for it. If you collect a lot of leaves in fall, splurge on a blower that also shreds. You can turn a mountain of leaves into a manageable small pile with one and keep those leaves over the winter in a heap. They will party rot, and they are excellent, weed-free mulch. Adding some Organic Compete Fertilizer to them will accelerate their breakdown, turning a fall nuisance into a spring mountain of gold to feed your plants the natural way.