Last Wednesday, March 20, was a snow day for schools along the coast of Downeast Maine. As day broke in Eastport I could look out the window just beyond my computer screen and watch the cold wind off Passamaquoddy Bay, only a hundred yards away, swirl the falling snow down the street and around neighborhood houses. The furnace blasted warm air from a vent beneath my writing desk as a snow plow rattled down the street, the same plow that woke me twice in the night. With each pass of the plow, the curbside snow pile grew higher and higher and when the plow moved on and the furnace stopped blowing I could hear the constant howl of the wind roaring off the bay and sucking the warmth out of the house.
In this weather Marjorie’s garden seemed even more remote that the 108 miles between Eastport and Ellsworth. But as I wrote the following, my spirit was bolstered by a sense that soon temperatures would climb into the upper 40s and the sun would shine, that soon I would be at work in the garden preparing for the season ahead.
Framed by the uncertainties of weather, here are a few reasons to be in the garden in April.
Prepare a garden spot for heeling-in early arrivals
The onion transplants that I ordered in early February arrived in the mail on March 22 with glazed snow still covering the beds where they will grow. When I opened the box I found two rubber-band-wrapped bundles of seedlings, Copra and Walla Walla Sweets, lying in a thin layer of dusty dry soil and covered with a blanket of planting instructions plus invoice.
My onions had been dropped shipped from somewhere in the south, perhaps Georgia or Texas, where they had been grown from seed. It was easy to see from the tangled and matted roots that each bundle had been sliced from a tray of seedlings. While the plants were dry, they arrived in otherwise good shape and just needed to be immediately heeled in until they could be planted in the garden.
“Heeling in” is the process of providing seedlings and transplants with a temporary holding area, either in the garden or in an open container such as a tub or large pot, keeping them hydrated until they can be permanently planted. Like my onions, early arrivals of rhubarb divisions, asparagus crowns, and leek seedlings are candidates for heeling in.
Be ready to heel in bareroot seedlings, root divisions and crowns as soon as they arrive by preparing their temporary storage area ahead of time. The garden is always the best place for healing in since you will be exposing the plants to the same temperature and moisture conditions that they will experience after permanent planting. If the garden’s soil is workable, dig a shallow trench in a well-drained garden bed, piling the soil along the edge of the trench. When seedling transplants of onions or leeks arrive, lean them shoulder-to-shoulder against one wall of the trench and then cover their roots with soil, leaving the leafy tops above ground. Rhubarb divisions should be heeled in up to their necks with only the leaf buds barely exposed. Asparagus crowns should be completely covered with two inches of soil. After filling in the trench to the proper depth, water the soil thoroughly.
Heeling in can also be used to temporarily store bareroot perennials as well as bareroot shrubs, including roses, and bareroot trees. With all of these types of plants, only the roots should be covered with soil.
With snow still covering the garden, I had to resort to container storage for my onion seedlings. I used a plastic storage tub that Marjorie had once used as a worm bin, but any large container with bottom drainage that can stand up to constant moisture will work. Large nursery pots and even wooden crates will suffice.
I filled the bin with moist potting soil and heeled in the seedlings in short rows across the width of the bin. At present the tub of onions plants sits in the basement, the coolest part of the house, waiting for the snow to melt. With any luck, I will have these plants in their garden bed by mid-April.
Sow seeds of early-spring crops
You can sow seeds of Swiss chard, beets, green onions, kale, kohlrabi, peas, radishes, spinach, and turnips in April, but only when the soil is workable. To check the condition of your soil, pick up a handful from one of the garden’s beds and squeeze it in your hand. If it remains in a tight clump after you release your hand, or if you can actually squeeze water out of the soil, it is still too wet to work. If it falls apart with just a little gentle prodding, grab a spade or fork and get to work, but keep your feet in the walkways. Walking on soil in which plants will be growing is never a good idea as even dry soils are compacted by foot traffic.
Your chances of getting seed sown in April will be enhanced if you are gardening in raised beds. Raised beds warm earlier and drain faster than the surrounding soil.
Small seeds, such as those of carrots and lettuce, are often difficult to sow thinly and the end result is crowded seedlings that need early thinning. For better seed spacing, try mixing some sand with tiny seeds. Or, mix the fine seeds in very soft gelatin, then put the mixture in a squeeze bottle (an old mustard bottle, for example) and squeeze out the mixture into the prepared furrow.
Try growing vegetables in containers
While waiting for the soil to dry out and warm up, try planting cold-hardy crops, such as carrots, beets, lettuce, spinach, and green onions, in containers. Use a soilless potting mix such as ProMix or one of the Fafard mixes, adding composted cow manure, worm castings, or compost as a nutrient source, one part compost or castings for every four parts soilless mix. Be sure to wet the mixture thoroughly before sowing seeds.
Plant some early potatoes
I usually wait until the first of May to plant my seed potatoes, but last weekend, up at the Ellsworth Feed and Seed, owner Harvard Jordan told me that he always plants Red Pontiac potatoes in the first week of April and enjoys new potatoes for supper in June. He plants these early seed potatoes shallow, in warmer soil.
Start weeding – and keep weeding
Some garden weeds, such as quackgrass and chickweed, start growing early in the season and are soon producing seeds if left unchecked. Get them out of the garden as soon as you notice them.
Author’s Note: An entire chapter of our new book, The New England Gardener’s Year, is devoted to the April garden, including sections on cultivation of strawberries, composting,
vermiculture (composting with worms), pruning lilacs and forsythias, sowing seeds, and much more. The New England Gardener’s Year has arrived, available from your local book seller or online.