The Edible Garden Tips & Tasks — April

  • By Cleve Campbell
  • /
  • April 2015 - Vol 1. No. 4

Several days ago, I remembered I hadn’t sharpened the lawn mower blades; however, before I could get started on that task, I needed to make a trip to the local hardware store to purchase a file.  As I approached the store entrance,  I couldn’t help but notice several racks of stunning tomato plants on display.  Once inside the hardware store, I selected a file, and while I was waiting at the counter, I noticed that the gentleman in front of me was purchasing a dozen tomato plants. He completed his transaction, and as I was paying for the file, I asked the owner, “What kind of plants did that guy purchase?”  The owner responded, “Practice plants.

Now, having planted my share of tomato plants, I know what a tomato plant looks like, so I just had to ask, “What are practice plants?”   “Well,”  said the owner, “ we get a few days of warm weather, and folks get into this all-fired-up hurry to set out tomato plants. I tell them it’s not safe till May, and that if you set them out now, you’ll need to cover them up at night or the frost will kill them. They never listen.  Then they come back in here complaining that their tomato plants died, and buy replacements. That’s why I call them practice plants; happens ever year.” Hmmm.  Practice plants.  Never heard of them, wonder if they are an heirloom variety?  They may not be heirlooms, but I’m sure my friend in the hardware store thinks practice plants are good for business.

After a long cold winter, April can be a teaser month.   Some years April appears to have all four seasons rolled into one month; we can have days with 70-80 degree temperatures, followed by night temperatures dipping below freezing. And once in a blue moon, like in April 1971, we are even blessed with snow.  Along with the roller coaster temperatures and more than enough rain to keep us out of the garden,  April can be a trying month. It is a month when patience is truly a virtue.

On my trip home from the hardware store, I got the planting fever. The mower blades will have to wait. Remembering those practice plants, I headed to the VCE Publication 426-331 “Vegetable Planting and Recommended Planting Dates.” My friend in the store was right —  according to the publication, the average last killing frost in our area is May 10-May 15.  Then after filling in the dates at the top of the page,  I used May 10 as our last frost date and created the following planting schedule:

April 1-11 April 12-18
Asparagus Asparagus
Beets Beets
Cabbage* Broccoli*
Chinese cabbage* Brussel Sprouts*
Carrots Cabbage*
Swiss Chard Chinese cabbage*
Collards Carrots
Leeks Cauliflower*
Lettuce, Bibb Swiss Chard
Lettuce, leaf Collards
Mustard Leeks
Onions (set) Lettuce, Bibb
Peas, garden Lettuce, leaf
Potatoes Mustard
Radish Onions (sets)
Spinach Peas, garden
Turnips Potatoes
April 19-25 April 26-May 2
Asparagus Beans, Bush
Beets Beans, Pole
Broccoli* Beans, Wax
Brussel Sprouts* Beets
Cabbage* Broccoli*
Carrots Brussel Sprouts*
Cauliflower* Cabbage*
Collards Carrots
Leeks Cauliflower*
Lettuce, Bibb Leeks
Lettuce, leaf Lettuce, Bibb
Onions (set) Lettuce, leaf
Mustard Swiss Chard
Swiss Chard Onions (set)
Turnips Radish
* Denotes Transplants
The suggested dates may vary for different areas.

There’s still time.   Tomato, eggplant and pepper can still be started indoors from seeds.

April is a good time to invest in a soil thermometer. The cause of poor seed germination is often cold soil. If the soil is too cold, seeds of some plants will rot before they have a chance to sprout.  A chart providing  information on soil temperatures for optimum germination for vegetable seeds can be found in VCE Publication 426-316, titled “Seed for the Garden.”

Feeling unsure about what varieties of vegetables to plant?   VCE Publication 426-480 “Vegetables Recommended for Virginia,” provides a list of recommended varieties.

To save space in your garden, you can construct temporary or permanent woven wire “fences,” which will provide vertical support for runner varieties of beans, as well as for cucumbers.  Plants can be trained to climb the fences, saving not only space but also making harvesting easier as the vegetables will be hanging down.  For additional information on vertical gardening see VCE Publication 426 titled “Intensive Gardening Methods.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Saving Space:  Snow peas growing up a temporary fence. Note the sequential planting of “pole” Lima beans at base of fence.

One of the most important steps in planting comes before seedlings get near the garden.  This is the process of hardening off, or gradually acclimating seedlings to outdoor conditions.  These plants have spent their short lives in a warm, sunny, protected place and won’t fare well if the plants are not exposed  slowly to the elements.   A few days before you are ready to begin hardening plants off, reduce the amount of water you give them, and cease fertilizing until they are planted in the garden. About 2 weeks before you intend to set them outside, put your transplants outdoors in an area where they’ll be protected from the direct sunlight and wind.  Leave them out for a few hours and bring them back inside. Repeat this each day, gradually increasing the amount of time they are outside and the degree of exposure to sun and wind. After a week or so, leave the transplants out overnight.  If frost threatens, bring the seedlings indoors.  Additional information on hardening off can be found at VCE Publication 426-001 titled: “Plant Propagation From Seed.”

When transplanting seedlings in peat pots, gently tear off the top inch of the pot; the upper edges of the pot should be covered with soil to avoid wicking water away from the soil surface.  Wicking may reduce the amount of moisture available to the roots of the plants.

The best time to transplant is on a cool cloudy day or late in the afternoon to avoid the hot sun.  The plants then have time to acclimate themselves to their new environment.  If the following day is hot and sunny, a row cover may used to reduce the stress on the plant.  A row cover may also be used to help protect young transplants from a late frost.

Break the rule when setting-out tomato plants.  The general rule for transplanting most plants is that the planting depth should be no deeper than the soil level they were originally grown in. This rule does NOT apply to tomato plants. The general rule for tomatoes is that 2/3 of the tomato plant should be below soil level. First, gently remove the leaves on the bottom 2/3 of the plant before planting.  Planting deep allows roots to sprout along the buried stem (adventitious roots).  This results in a better and stronger root system and the end result is better tomatoes.  In heavy soil or if you just don’t want to dig deep, you can lay the plant on its side,  provided that 5-6 inches of soil is placed over the roots and stem.  For additional information on growing tomatoes see VCE Publication 426-418  titled “Tomatoes.”

Tired of losing tomato plant labels during the growing season?  Punch a hole in the plant labels and attach the label to the stake or wire cage with a thin wire.