Edited by Carol Mack
New England & Maritime Canada
The wood frogs are in full chorus. Deer brave the open fields, hungry for tender, new grass. It's time to put up birdhouses, and to feed and re-mulch fruit trees and berries. Tomato and pepper seedlings need to be transplanted into bigger pots. Start brassicas early but wait on squash and melons until three to four weeks before setting them out. A few pots of fast-growing annuals like morning glories and nasturtiums give a jump on the blooming season. Outside, weeds pull easily from the asparagus patch and perennial beds. When the ground can be worked, sow hardy greens, parsley, cilantro, onions, leeks, peas, and fava and garbanzo beans. May brings the return of the tree swallows, swooping and twittering as you plant carrots, beets, brassicas, annual flowers, herbs and lettuce. Summer squash and swimming are within sight, at least for the optimistic and the adventurous.
April is the crucial time to get a handle on pests like harlequin bugs — enlist your chickens for a search-and-destroy mission. Continue biweekly sowings of carrots, beets, chard, radishes, spinach and some late garden peas. When the first asparagus spear emerges, hoe the patch and mulch it loosely with hay. Try sowing some white Dutch clover between the rows of peas and carrots after a vigorous hoeing. Thin both carrots and beets within two weeks of emergence. About the fifth of April, transplant bulb onion seeds and sets. Take a gamble on setting out some early tomatoes, but be prepared to protect them from frost. Hill the potatoes when they are 8 inches high and squish the potato bugs or call in the chickens again. Come May, it's time to plant warm weather crops and weed all that stuff, too — phew. Hoe annual weeds on dry days, and hand-pull long-rooted biennials and perennials when the soil is wet.
It seems to be a Southern tradition to direct-sow summer veggies on Good Friday. Last year, monsoon-like rains made it impossible to plant until late May. Hopefully, we can return to our traditional April timetable this year and get summer staples like squash, pole beans, butterpeas, corn and okra in the ground just like Grandma used to do. Whenever you plant squash, be sure to give it plenty of room to spread out— thin squash seedlings to two plants per hill with hills 2 to 3 feet apart. For healthier plants and bigger yields, inoculate pole beans, cowpeas (aka field peas) and butterpeas with nitrogen-fixing bacteria before sowing. Soak okra seed for 24 hours in warm water for better germination. Then turn your attention to spring-flowering shrubs. Azaleas, spiraea, viburnum and forsythia can be pruned after flowering, and May is prime time to do so before energy-sapping heat makes the job worse.
What a season for wildflowers! But if you want to plant them, remember that most of the ones in bloom now germinated late last summer, and mark your calendar accordingly. Continue planting heat-loving crops. If we have a wet spring, expect early blight fungus to be a problem on tomatoes. Adequate spacing (try them 3 to 4 feet apart in the row) and removing the bottom leaves up 12 inches will improve air circulation and reduce infection. Otherwise, apply low-toxicity wettable sulfur to the foliage (be sure to cover the bottoms of the leaves) to keep this disease in check. The sulfur also will reduce the build-up of spider mites if we have a dry spring. Pecans need a foliar application to supply zinc. Anticipate that the pecan case-bearer caterpillar may be wreaking havoc on developing nutlets in early May, and ask your local extension office for organic spray programs.
Gardening has taught me one important lesson: Do not rely on the past year's weather for this year's planting schedule. Because every spring is different, watch the long-range weather reports. Purchase a good soil thermometer and monitor it carefully. Seed packets contain important information about optimum soil temperatures and weather conditions, or read about each variety in gardening books. Sudden spikes of warm temperatures unfortunately out of our control — may cause broccoli, lettuce, greens or onions planted in these months to bolt. You can, however, control cool-weather growing conditions by using season extenders such as row covers and mini-hoop greenhouse tunnels to raise the soil temperatures and keep a blanket of warmer air near the soil surface. These will speed up growth of cold-tolerant crops planted throughout these months and create better conditions for the tender crops planted in late May.
North Central & Rockies
Gardeners with cold frames or plastic-covered hoophouses already are enjoying a harvest of early greens, while the rest of us are still looking for spots warm enough to plant. Even a small angle of slope to the south can dramatically increase soil warmth. Large rocks or concrete walls collect the sun's heat during the day and protect from frost at night. We plant cold-season crops up to a month early in these areas, including arugula, kale, lettuce, pac choi, pea, radish and spinach. Inside, it's time to start flats of seedlings, to be ready for transplanting when the soil finally warms. Start tomatoes, peppers and broccoli extra early only if you can transplant them to larger pots to prevent stunted root growth. Consider saving your own seed this year — it's relatively simple for many varieties. (See "Grow Your Own Seeds," October/November 2003.) Mountain gardeners, whose growing conditions vary widely, will especially benefit from long-term selection of plants best adapted to their particular sites.
The great tomato race of 2004 starts now. Harden off young plants by exposing them to outdoor conditions for a week to 10 days before planting. Red mulch, hot caps and other insulating devices help develop productive plants faster. Heirloom and beefsteak tomatoes are absolutely luscious, but don't overlook fine extra-early varieties such as `Legend' or `Oregon Spring' for a harvest starting in July. Lettuce, spinach, arugula and other greens sown outside will appreciate cool April temperatures. For spring salads that have a variety of flavors, colors and shapes, scatter seeds of a mesclun blend in a 4-by-4-foot area. As the greens continue to grow, harvest the outer leaves. Other April sowings include many of our favorite flowers, including zinnias, sunflowers and cosmos, as well as beets, carrots, radishes and virus-resistant peas such as `Oregon Sugar Pod II,' `Cascadia' and `New Century.'
At higher elevations, lovely warm April afternoons may fool you into thinking summer has arrived, but wait until late May to plant out tender seedlings like tomatoes and peppers. Straw bales stacked around transplants will shield them from intense sun, wind or cold while they harden off, and the bales can be covered easily on cold nights. Throughout April, sow cold-hardy crops, including lettuce, greens and radishes. Plant cilantro in mid-April near where the bean patch will be planted in early June. The flowering cilantro attracts a parasitic wasp that naturally helps control bean beetles. In mid-May, direct seed summer crops like corn, squash, melons and root vegetables. At lower elevations, follow the same planting advice, but warmer nights allow for starting a month earlier. Plan ahead now for summer water conservation by landscaping with drought-tolerant plants, mulching with straw, using drip irrigation and setting out rain-collection barrels before the monsoons arrive.
Our thanks to the following for their contributions to the Almanac: Roberta Bailey, FEDCO Seeds, Waterville, Maine; Cricket Rakita, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Mineral, Virginia; Lori Hardee and Karen Park Jennings, Park Seed Company, Greenwood, South Carolina; William D. Adams, Burton, Texas; Connie Dam-Byl, William Dam Seeds, Dundas, Ontario; Bill McDorman, Seeds Trust, High Altitude Gardens, Hailey, Idaho; Rose Marie Nichols McGee, Nichols Garden Nursery, Albany, Oregon; Josh Kirschenbaum, Territorial Seed Company, Cottage Grove, Oregon; and Micaela Colley, Seeds of Change, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Mother Earth News