The Ornamental Garden in April
To borrow a line from E. E. Cummings, “It’s spring when the world is puddle-wonderful!” April is truly one of the most delightful months in the ornamental garden. But it’s also one of the busiest for a gardener. To be sure, there’s lots of work to be done — fertilizing, amending, sowing, transplanting, dividing, staking, re-potting, and the never-ending task of weeding. Just remember to pace yourself. Take time out from all those chores to visit a neighborhood plant swap, plant sale, or garden center. If you’re looking for further gardening inspiration, plan to visit the properties featured later this month during Historic Garden Week in Virginia. Meanwhile, about those aforementioned chores….
Top dress established ornamental flowerbeds with about an inch of compost. If you’re digging new flowerbeds, work compost or aged cow manure into the loosened soil before you start to plant. A slow-release fertilizer and lime may also be added to the soil if a soil test indicates the need for either.
At this time of year, garden centers are overflowing with the best selections of landscape plants. If you plan to shop for azaleas and rhododendrons, select them while they’re in bloom to make sure (a) you like the color and (b) the color harmonizes with your other landscape choices. For example, some pink selections have an orange or coral undertone that, while pretty as single specimens, may clash with other spring-blooming plants located nearby. Tip: Azaleas generally look best planted as a grouping in part sun or filtered shade and acidic, well drained, organically rich soil with a pH of 5.0 to 6.0.
As you peruse the goodies at the garden centers, buy bedding plants (begonias, petunias, pentas, geraniums, and marigolds, etc.) while selections are plentiful. Don’t plant them, however, until the danger of frost is past. Wait until night-time temperatures are consistently above 50° F and soil temperatures are above 60° F to plant. Depending on the weather, that may be toward the end of April or even early May. If you just can’t wait that long, be prepared to protect those tender seedlings from frost if temperatures threaten to turn chilly.
For the gardener who prefers to start seeds indoors for bedding plants, you can still sow them during the early part of April if you didn’t get around to it during March. For the new or inexperienced gardener, Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) Publication 426-001, “Plant Propagation from Seed,” (ext.vt.edu/426/426-001) provides good information on sowing seeds. If you prefer not to start seeds indoors, simply wait and direct sow them in your garden in early May.
Plant some everlastings in your garden this spring. The term “everlasting” refers to a flower, seedpod, or other plant part that can be dried or preserved without the loss of its shape or color. Everlastings are used in dried flower arrangements, wreaths, bridal bouquets, and many craft projects. In addition to strawflower (Helichrysum), baby’s breath (Gypsophila paniculata), and statice (Limonium), all of which are easily preserved, try experimenting with other flowers such as:
- Bells of Ireland (Molucella laevis) – Annual
- Blazing Star (Liatris) — Perennial
- Cockscomb (Celosia) – Annual. The plumed, crested, and spike types (C. plumosa, C. crestata, and C. spicata) all dry well.
- Globe amaranth (Gomphrena) — Annual
- Globe Thistle (Echinops) – Perennial
- Lavender (Lavendula) – Perennial
- Love in a Mist (Nigella) – Annual. The beautiful maroon seed pods make a great addition to a dried flower arrangement.
- Love Lies Bleeding (Amaranth) — Annual
- Money Plant (Luneria annua) – Annual. The violet-color flowers are very attractive but the dried silvery white disk-shaped seed pods will last for years in an arrangement.
- Paper Moon or Starflower (Scabiosa stellata) – Annual. Grow it for its interesting buff-color seed heads.
- Sea Holly (Eryngium) – Perennial
- Wormwood (Artemisia) – Perennial
- Yarrow (Achillea) — Perennial
Plant new container-grown roses after the danger of frost has passed. Make sure the planting hole is at least twice as wide as the root ball. Keep the plant well-watered until it is fully established.
Fertilize established roses using a slow-release organic rose fertilizer as soon as new growth appears. Using the amount recommended on the fertilizer instructions, scratch it into the soil around the plant and water it in well. Roses are heavy feeders and benefit from being fertilized on a regular basis. If you are new to growing them, the American Rose Society’s website (www.rose.org/rose-care-articles/fertilizers-when-and-how) provides guidance on fertilizing and amending soil for roses based on the needs of the casual gardener, the dedicated rose grower, and the expert who grows roses for exhibition.
Cut canes of hybrid roses back to just above a strong new shoot when bud growth starts. If the plant is not a strong grower, prune out diseased or damaged wood only and pinch back the top.
Divide fall-blooming chrysanthemums and asters as they start to put out new growth. As a general rule of thumb, divide them every 3 to 5 years. You’ll know they need to be divided when (1) the clump spreads beyond the space allocated for it, (2) the center of the clump dies out, or (3) the plant does not produce as many blooms as in past years. Using a shovel or sharp spade, divide the clump into sections about a foot wide. Plant the new divisions in a sunny site in soil that has been amended with compost. Throw away or compost the woody or dead-looking centers. Tip: Try to complete this task at least 6 weeks before hot weather sets in so that the roots have a chance to become well established. Also, try to divide the plants on a cool, cloudy day.
Did your peonies flop over from the weight of their blossoms last year? If so, take pre-emptive action this spring and install an open or grid-type support ring before the peony foliage emerges. Position the ring about 6 inches above the ground. As the foliage emerges, work it up into the ring. The ring will not be noticeable once the plant fills out. Don’t delay doing this. Peonies leaf out incredibly fast once they start to sprout and are impossible to cage once they have filled out. If you don’t have peonies but would like to add one to your garden, look for selections that have been bred with stronger stems. Another option is to select a specimen with single flowers. Because of their lighter weight, the blossoms are not likely to flop over. A third option is to plant a tree-form peony, which is sturdier than the herbaceous varieties.
Stake tall ornamentals, such as delphiniums and hollyhocks, that become top heavy when they bloom and flop over. This should be done in April or May when the plants are about a foot tall. Thin bamboo stakes are good for this purpose. Be careful not to damage roots when you insert the stakes into the soil beside each plant. Tie the plant loosely to the stake with twine. A good way to do this is to loop the twine into a figure eight around both the stem and the stake so that the plant stem can still move somewhat but will not be pulled too tightly against the stake. As the plants grow taller, you may need to secure them to the stake once or twice more.
If you fed the birds over the winter, don’t stop now just because it’s spring. Continue to keep bird feeders full for hungry migrating and nesting birds. Many of the plants that birds rely on for nectar are weeks away from blooming and the birds need a source of food in the meantime. Remember to keep feeders clean and also provide a source of fresh water. If birdseed gets wet or moldy, throw it out! As the weather turns hotter, remove suet because it may spoil quickly.
Speaking of birds, who doesn’t love hummingbirds? These fascinating little migratory birds return to Virginia around mid-April. If you want to attract them to your garden, install a nectar feeder by mid-month, preferably near flowering plants and out of the sun. To make nectar for the feeder, heat four parts water to one part sugar just long enough to dissolve the sugar. Do NOT add any red food coloring to the solution. Fill the feeder with the cooled solution. Refrigerate any unused solution for up to 2 weeks. Change the nectar in the feeder at least every 3 days or more often as needed. The frequency actually depends on how hot the weather is and how quickly the birds drink the nectar. Important: Clean the feeder every time you change the nectar. This sounds like a lot of work but it’s worth it for the show the hummers provide. They will be delighted to hang out in your back yard all summer if you provide them with plenty of nectar-rich flowers. Red blossoms with tubular corollas are particularly attractive to hummingbirds. Insects that are attracted to these plants also serve as food for many birds.
Finally, as you take a break from your gardening chores, take a moment to fully appreciate all facets of your landscape. In the sunny areas, look at the myriad shapes, textures, and habits of daffodils, tulips, hyacinths, dogwoods, redbuds, crabapples, azaleas, and more. In the woods and shadier landscaped garden, allow yourself to be enchanted by bloodroot, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Dutchman’s breeches, Hepatica, trilliums, Virginia bluebells and a host of other spring-blooming plants that are emerging from the humusy woodland soil. Look around you at the rich tapestry of colors and textures. Breathe in the perfume of a thousand species in bloom. Listen to the joyful, life-affirming music of migratory and nesting birds. Feel the warm sun and gentle breezes on your face. To end on a quote (this one from a beer commercial): It doesn’t get any better than this!