Gardening in April: Get prepared for the return of spring!

by Keith Jordan

On a late March morning I awoke to find a layer of snow covering the garden. Ironically, the same day a local church newsletter dropped on the doormat announcing ‘Warm Easter greetings….’.    The snowfall was light in Cambridge, but other parts if the UK received heavy falls and drifts brought by the strong easterly winds from Siberia.  It is not unusual to experience snow and cold weather at Easter time (e.g. significant snow at Easter 2008), but the recent long spell of winter is quite unprecedented.  I’ve never know such a long period of Arctic temperatures just after my garden frogs returned to the pond and started spawning and when the first summer migrant birds (Chiff Chaffs) usually arrive back from North Africa and Southern Europe.  An almond tree that normally flowers in February is only just coming into flower at the beginning of April.  As a result there has been very little point (let alone opportunity) in sowing many seeds.  However, onion and garlic sets planted earlier will be slowly growing roots and buds are swelling on fruit bushes and trees.

Interestingly I met my new allotment neighbours – they are from North Russia and are not used to do any gardening between about November and April due to snow and ice!  With more extremes of weather, some years we may have to get used to a shorter growing season and with droughts followed by heavy rain and floods. Drought could come next so get water butts fully operational.

With postponement of seed sowing, there has been a chance to catch up clearing up the allotment being generally dry (when not snow covered!). Reducing the number of snail hiding and breeding places will pay off later in the year. I used the lull in gardening to construct a pizza/bread oven using the chalky sub-soil on my allotment – mixed with sand and hay it made a fine wattle and daub packed onto a wicker dome.  I’ve yet to fire it up but looking forward to my first pizza made on the allotment!  The old raspberry canes and other saved prunings from fruit trees will provide the fuel.  I also repaired the small split in my wellies (bicycle repair kit really worked really well) and put yellow strips (old bicycle reflective belt) around the handles of hand tools to make them much more visible and easier to find on the ground.

As the soil is so cold, make use of any cold frames (easily home made using recycled timber and window frames).  These can be used to increase the temperature by a few degrees and enhance growth.  I’ve sown batches of Swiss chard, lettuce, radish, rocket and other salad crops in mine.

As soon as outdoor conditions warm up plant growth will start rapidly.  As in previous seasons the weather can quickly change to warm, dry/ drought or windy, wet conditions depending on the direction of the prevailing winds. Birds will be making nests within a day when warmer weather returns.   Just like wildlife, gardeners need to respond quickly to the prevailing weather conditions.

As well as sowing crops for harvesting in the summer, you need to be sowing seeds in the next few weeks if you want crops from January to April next year.  Many crops that mature after Christmas – such as leeks, Swiss chard, perpetual spinach, Brussels sprouts, kale and white/purple sprouting broccoli – need to be sown this month and into May at the latest.  They should have done most of their growth by the autumn, which means they need to be transplanted into their final positions by June/July. Working back, this means they need to be sown in April/May. Early (autumn) leeks really need to be sown earlier.  They are best sown outdoors in a ‘seed bed’ – a sheltered area with fine soil and kept moist.  Covering with fleece will really help their growth.  Molluscs will be a problem with small seedlings so position the seed-bed away from hedges, bags of compost and damp hiding areas.

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