I suspect that April might be the busiest month of the year for most local gardeners.
Lots of shopping, planting, digging, feeding, pruning and mulching. So much to do.
But just as in life, activity doesn’t always translate into accomplishment. We all know neighbors and friends who spend countless hours and large sums of money in their garden, often with only modest results. During April, it’s not just about spending time in the garden; it’s about doing the “right” things.
From a plants perspective, several of nature’s forces are combining this month, telling them what to do . . . and what not to do. Days are growing longer and your plants are getting almost two more minutes of daylight every day. Daytime temperatures are warmer in April than they were in March and soils are warming up as well.
But longer days and warmer temperatures don’t mean the same thing to each plant. In fact, they often mean very different things to different plant, especially here in mild Orange County, where we garden year round.
Plants are undeniably linked to nature’s signals. You cannot change this. The feeble wishes and desires of a wanting gardener are unheard by your plants. It is nature alone that tells your plants when to grow, when to flower, when to set seed, when to drop leaves, when to go dormant or even when to die. Savvy gardeners understand nature’s cycles and garden with them, thereby accomplishing more, with less effort, less struggle and less failure.
During April, “cool-season” annual flowers, vegetables and herbs are putting forth their final glorious surge before time runs out on them. Pansies, violas, primrose, snapdragons, stock, sweet peas and most poppies are in a concluding burst of bloom. In the herb and vegetable garden it is cabbage, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, lettuce, peas, cilantro and arugula that are nearing the end of their cool-season lives.
For another group of plants, the “warm-season” annuals, the lengthening days and warming temperatures of April make this their premier planting time. Petunias, dahlias, verbena, lobelia, zinnia, vinca, impatiens, begonias and coleus should be planted now. Edibles to get into the soil now include tomatoes, peppers, squash, beans, eggplant and cucumber. This is the time to shop for and plant basil, tarragon, oregano, marjoram and thyme. These are all warm-season plants. Two months ago nature told these plants to sleep. Now nature is telling them to grow. In a garden, timing is everything.
Since warm-season plants are beginning their growing season, this is also when they need nutrition. Warm-season flowers or vegetables planted and fertilized two or three months still languished. That was effort, not accomplishment. Those same flowers and vegetables, planted in April and fertilized now, will burst forth with new leaves, buds, blooms or fruits. These are the subtle differences of a garden that works with nature. Great gardeners understand that plants only read nature’s signals, not the words on the box of fertilizer or text of a plant tag.
A few warm-season plants are heavy, almost glutinous feeders; roses, citrus, fruit trees, clematis, fuchsias and hydrangeas fall into this category. Feed them all and always use an organic source of fertilizer, which provides continual, long lasting nutrition, rather than the quick burst from popular synthetic fertilizers.
In addition to annual plants, permanent perennials, shrubs, vines and trees also respond in perfect synchrony to the lengthening days and rising temperatures of the air and soil. Cool-season plants, like our California native’s and many others from true Mediterranean climates have been growing strong for the past several months. Soon, they will be slowing down and preparing for their summer rest. Planting and fertilizing these plants now is contrary to their natural cycles and may even be harmful.
Meanwhile, warm-season plants, like avocados, blueberries, citrus, clematis, gardenias, star jasmine, daylilies, wisteria and a myriad of others are waking up. Fertilizing these summer growers now would be a wise activity.
A great garden isn’t always the result of time, effort and struggle. A beautiful, rewarding and fruitful garden is more often the result of knowledge and timing; of knowing when to plant, when to fertilize and when to prune. Nature will provide the answer to these questions, if we just pay attention to her signals, learn her plants and follow her cycles.
Ron Vanderhoff is the Nursery Manager at Roger’s Gardens.