The Garden in April
Amazing April at last, surely one of the most exciting months of the year. The whole garden suddenly begins to look much greener and almost every day there is something new to discover and admire. The longer and warmer days not only make all the difference to a whole range of plants but also gladden the hearts of all gardeners. However, April weather can be almost as changeable as it is in March with dramatic April showers and cold spells overnight meaning that frost protection for tender plants may well be needed at some stage.
The ‘March’ plants which I discussed last month did not disappoint and many will continue to add delight to the April garden. Our two Brunneras have been particularly good with Brunnera macrophylla the first to produce its forget-me-not like flowers followed by B. ‘Jack Frost’ with similar blue flowers over attractively patterned leaves. The Pulmonarias with their pink flowers turning blue with age are also still doing well and if later their leaves start to show signs of mildew as they sometimes do they will be removed to be replaced in a few weeks by ‘summer’ leaves which usually show the leaf markings at their very best.
Brunnera macrophylla Ranunculus ‘Brazen Hussy’
Mixed in with these ground cover plants are pleasing highlights such as Primulas, Hellebores, Anemone blanda (Windflower), blue Scillas, Viola odorata (Sweet Violet) and a lovely purple-leaved Celendine, Ranunculus ‘Brazen Hussy’.
Helleborus Viola odorata
In addition we have also been enjoying a plant which we added last year, Corydalis solida ‘Beth Evans’ with its masses of pink flowers and attractive feathery foliage. As with many of the Corydalis species and cultivars it disappears in the summer for a rest so it is quite important to remember where it is! In terms of trees and shrubs the Chaenomeles ‘Knap Hill Scarlet’ has just kept getting better and better each month and our Camellia x williamsii ‘Anticipation’ is now full of beautiful, pink, semi-double flowers.
Corydalis solida ‘Beth Evans’ Camellia x williamsii ‘Anticipation’
The Forsythia at the front has also flowered on its arching stems although I think our friendly Bullfinch has reduced the flowering capacity somewhat! The two Skimmias also at the front which have contributed to the winter garden with their colourful buds are now beginning to produce their small, white, star-like flowers which are being given great attention by the bees.
Most of the rest of the trees and shrubs are just beginning to come back to life and there is great promise in their swelling buds and the first of their leaves to open. I have mentioned before that I have some bonsai trees which by now have all been re-potted ready for the coming growing season and it is always a delight to watch these coming into leaf, especially the Larches and the Japanese Maples. In many ways they are at their very best in April and May when the leaves are small and in pristine condition. In the garden itself there are three trees which epitomise the April garden, ornamental Cherries (Prunus), Crab Apples (Malus) and Magnolias with their wonderful flowers and often colourful juvenile foliage. One of our shrub Cherries which I grow as another bonsai, Prunus ‘Kojo-no-mai’, has been in flower since mid-March and as I write this in the last few days of the month it is a real picture and shows why in Japan it is known as the ‘Shrub of a Thousand Butterflies’. Despite its small size it is also a magnet for lots of different species of bee at a time when nectar is in short supply. The first of our ‘real’ tree Cherries also has some flower at the end on March and each day a few more small, five-petalled, white with a hint of pink flowers open fully. This is Prunus ‘The Bride’ grafted onto a Tibetan Cherry trunk (P. serrula). It is absolutely full of pink flower buds which will open in the next week or so to produce a spectacular display and will attract bees from far and wide!
Prunus ‘Kojo-no-mai’ Prunus ‘The Bride’
Our other Cherry, on the other hand, the purple-leaved P. ‘Royal Burgundy’ is much further behind and probably won’t come into flower until the second half of April or even into May. People often say to me that they love Cherry trees but as they only flower for a few short weeks they are not worthy of a place in a garden setting. I have to agree that some of the larger trees are too large for most gardens but there are many cultivars these days which are much smaller and which also have other attractive features such as striking bark, colourful juvenile leaves and/or good autumn colour. Also our three Cherries show that although the individual flowering periods may be short by choosing different varieties the overall flowering period can be extended significantly.
Our Crab Apple trees, of which one is another bonsai, are a little behind the Cherries with their buds swelling and showing only a little colour so I expect them to flower in late April and into May. Like the Cherries they are members of the Rose family and so also have simple, five-petalled flowers although, again like the Cherries, some cultivars have semi-double or even double flowers. Ornamental Cherries of course produce fruits but they tend to be small and quickly eaten by the birds, however, the Crab apples produce much bigger, more colourful and longer lasting fruits giving them a second string to their bow. There are lots of cultivars to choose from most with white, pink and even red flowers and fruits in various combinations of red and yellow. Our tree is Malus ‘Evereste’ with its red buds and then white flowers followed by red-flushed, orange-yellow fruits.
Last, but in the eyes of many, not least comes the beautiful Magnolia although many of these are large trees and are probably not suitable for smaller gardens. We have all seen the huge Magnolia x soulangeana with its large, tulip-shaped, white or pink flowers dominating the front gardens of older houses! However, as with most plants these days there are cultivars which are much more suitable for the modern garden and many of these are based on Magnolia stellata, the Star Magnolia. The flowers, as the name suggests, are a different shape but just as eye-catching and although most are white some are tinged with pink or even dark pink. As with all Magnolias the flower buds are covered in a silky, grey ‘down’ and our M. stellata ‘Royal Star’ is at this stage as I write. If you haven’t got your own ‘April’ trees to admire then you can always visit gardens such as Hergest Croft near Kington and Aberglasney near Llandeilo where there are some great specimen trees to enjoy and which will be very keen to welcome visitors back after a long winter.
In addition to the trees there is also a lot to look forward to from a number of shrubs which by the end of March have swollen buds, the first signs of their leaves and in some cases hints of their developing flower heads. In the front garden in addition to the Magnolia we have one of the scented, spring-flowering Viburnums, V. x burkwoodii ‘Compact Beauty’. Its rounded clusters of flower buds will soon open to show their tubular, highly fragrant, white-pink blooms. We have it by the front gate to make the most of its wonderful perfume. On the other side of the gate is another Viburnum, V. bodnantense ‘Charles Lemont’ which is a scented, winter flowering cultivar. It has flowered well all winter on bare stems but now seems to be producing another flush of very welcome blooms. In the back garden it is the two Lilacs (Syringa) which are showing hints of the flowers to come. One is the dwarf shrub S. meyeri ‘Palibin’ which has fragrant, lavender-pink flowers in late April and into May and the other is one of the larger Lilacs, S. vulgaris ‘Rhum von Horstenstein’ which has large scented flower heads made up of numerous, small, lavender-blue flowers. Also showing flower buds which will open very soon are two of our Clematis plants, C. montana wilsonii and C. alpina ‘Constance’. The montana is a very vigorous plant which we grow along strong wires above a low wall. It has white, scented flowers with cream centres which according to the label come in early to mid-summer but here in West Wales ours will be in flower in April. Yet another example of plants that haven’t read their own label! ‘Constance’ is a much more delicate plant which we grow on wires on a higher wall and at the moment it is full of nodding, bell-like flower buds which will soon turn into semi-double, deep purplish-pink flowers which are followed by attractive, fluffy seed heads. We also have early flowers on a flowering currant, Ribes sanguineum, which are pinkish-red and hang like flamboyant earrings!
Ribes sanguineum Spiraea japonica ‘Goldflame’
Other shrubs provide interest in April with their colourful new leaves and in this group I would include Pieris, Sorbaria, Spiraea, the purple-leaved Hazel (Corylus) and Sambucus (Elder). The bright red new foliage on Pieris is always a welcome sight in the spring garden to be followed by the hanging clusters of small, bell-shaped, white flowers. Most Spiraeas will not be flowering until May and June but some have very colourful young foliage eg. S. japonica ‘Golden Princess’ and ‘Goldflame and make a real statement in the spring garden. This is also true of Sobaria ‘Sem’ which has Rowan-like leaves which are bronze in the spring, turn green in summer and then produce reddish autumn colour. It also has rowan-like, small, white flowers in the summer and although it does sucker a bit it can be grown in a pot to keep it in check. Our Hazel, Corylus ‘Red Majestic’ is a twisted form with purple leaves and is just coming into leaf and like all purple-leaved plants makes a real impact when grown amongst green leaved plants. We also grow it near to bronze Fennel, Foeniculum vulgare purpureum, with its feathery foliage and flat heads of yellow flowers which are very attractive to Hoverflies. The other purple-leaved plant which is just beginning to show its dark feathery foliage after a hard prune earlier in March is Sambucus ‘Black Lace’ which will go on to produce flat heads of whitish-pink flowers followed by black berries.
Sorbaria ‘Sem’ Lunaria annua
At ground level we are looking forward to even more April delights. The ever reliable Aubrietia and Myosotis (Forget-me-not) will soon be covering large areas with their cheerful blooms and many alpines flower in spring time to brighten up rockeries, gravel areas and troughs. Saxifrages are particularly good with their pin cushion mounds of foliage and masses of small flowers in a variety of pinks, creams and whites often on quite long stalks. We also enjoy the generally pink flowers on Thrifts or Sea Pinks (Armeria) in our gravel bed as well as in troughs where they seem to enjoy the gritty, well-drained soils. The same applies to the evergreen Phlox such as P. douglasii and its cultivars which are particularly good for trailing over the edges of troughs or low walls just like Aubrietia. Elsewhere in the garden the first flowers are already out on the Honesty (Lunaria annua) which despite its name is actually a biennial, growing in the first year and flowering in the second. They generally have red-purple flowers although some of our plants are white which look particularly good as the light fades in the evening. The second year plants are about 2-3 feet (60-90 cms) high which raises them attractively above the ground cover layer. The flowers are followed by the rounded and silvery seed heads, hence their popular name ‘Silver Pennies’. Like Forget-me-nots once you have Honesty in the garden unless you make a really determined effort to remove them you will always have some plants as they self-seed so easily. We tend to let them grow where they want to in the first year and then transplant them to where we want them in the autumn of that first year. Towards the end of April another blue flower will join the display, this time from Omphalodes cappadocica (Navelwort). The flowers are similar to those of Forget-me-not, each with a short tube and five petals but are generally darker blue. We are also enjoying the blues, purples, lavenders and whites of Vinca (Periwinkle) which we grow in the shadier parts of the garden. These evergreens can be invasive as they root from their creeping stems which are fairly easily removed if not wanted but are valuable ground cover plants for difficult areas and flower over a long period from spring to autumn and sometimes beyond. The more manageable ones are Vinca minor (Lesser Periwinkle) which come in a variety of flower colours and some also have variegated leaves with creamy margins. Another plant with a similar spreading habit is the Dead Nettle (Lamium). They are not true evergreens although ours are rarely completely free of leaves, they have square stems and the leaves are coarsely toothed often with white or silvery markings. Flowers are two-lipped on short spikes and come in a range of colours including yellow, white, pink and purple. Ours is Lamium galeobdolon ‘Herman’s Pride’ with attractively marked leaves and yellow flowers. It does spread quite quickly and we use it in the shady spots between shrubs and under trees. As I write it has lots of new leaves and the first flower buds are appearing. Once it has flowered we cut it back quite hard to remove the old leaves as they lose their colour and to keep it in check. It then grows new, brighter leaves over a period of a few weeks and flowers off and on through the summer.
Lamium galeobdolon ‘Herman’s Pride’
This brings me neatly on to the April gardening jobs of which there are many! Fortunately the better weather encourages us all into the garden more and the extra light in the evenings after the clocks went forward last weekend is a real bonus. The full list as always can be found in the blog archives for April 2019. We shall be concentrating firstly on the lawn which has already been treated with a liquid moss killer and we have begun to rake out the dead moss of which there seems to be very large amounts! We don’t compost moss as it is said that it slows down the composting process so instead it goes to the recycling centre along with the rest of the materials we can’t compost such as roots, rose prunings and thicker woody stems. Once the raking is finished we will re-seed the obvious bare patches and then treat the whole lawn with a granular feed mixed with grass seed. This will strengthen and green up the existing grass and will thicken the lawn generally. The alternative at this time of year is to treat the lawn with a combined feed, weed and moss killer which in most years is what we use. We will then concentrate on regular mowing starting off with the blades fairly high and then lowering them gradually over the coming weeks.
In the beds and borders the main jobs will be weeding and providing supports for the taller plants. We use a combination of wire hoops and frames in addition to pea sticks, canes and twine. The main thing is to try to get the supports in early before the plants get too top heavy and possibly damaged by wind and rain. The other task in the borders and pots is to deal with the spring bulbs especially the Daffodils as they finish flowering. This is a matter of dead heading unless you want the plants to set seed and spread in a natural way and also giving the plants a feed of something like blood, fish and bone or pelleted chicken manure. To dead head simply snap of the actual flower head but leave the stem along with all the leaves to photosynthesise and build up the bulb’s energy for next year. Please don’t cut of the foliage until it goes brown in a few weeks’ time and don’t tie the foliage in knots to make it look neater!
In both the vegetable garden and the greenhouse, or windowsill, seed sowing really gets going in April. We already have some vegetable plants in modules such as Peas, Broad Beans, Lettuce and Spinach and these will be planted out when ready. In addition some short rows of Broad Beans, Peas and early Potatoes were planted directly into the beds in late March and these rows will be completed in early April in order to give a succession of cropping. Other vegetables as well as half-hardy and tender perennials will also be sown under glass either in pots for pricking out later or in individual modules. Later in the month we will plant French and Runner Beans, firstly in the greenhouse and then directly into the beds in early May. Our Tomato plants which we sowed in late February/early March in the house are now on the windowsill and will soon be potted on into larger pots ready to grow on in the greenhouse. We shall transfer them there in a couple of weeks’ time but may still bring them back into the house on particularly cold nights even though we try to keep the greenhouse at a minimum 5 degrees Celsius. During April we will be sowing Courgettes in the house on a windowsill to help germination before transferring them to the greenhouse where the light levels are better.
In the garden in general the planting time for bare rooted trees and shrubs has ended but this is still a good time to plant container grown plants as the soil is moist and warming nicely. It is also still possible to move plants such as herbaceous perennials and small shrubs by lifting them with as big a root ball as possible, transferring them straightaway to an already prepared hole with some added fertiliser and organic matter and giving them a generous watering in.
We will all be busy in the garden this month but do also take the time to enjoy the garden and all that it has to offer at this lovely time of year. Let’s hope that the good weather at the end of March carries on into April and allows us all to get into the garden as much as possible. With pandemic rules relaxing we might also be tempted to visit other gardens for ideas, inspiration and simply a change of view! We are certainly looking forward to visiting one of our favourite gardens at Aberglasney before too long as well as getting back to the Old Railway Line to see our friends and to do some serious retail therapy!
The next blog will be a summary of all those that I have written in the last twelve months and will be followed by the ‘Garden in May’ which will mean that I have covered a whole year in the garden! Where does the time go when you are enjoying yourself? I will continue to write monthly blogs after that but they will be based on a much more interesting garden than ours- more on this next month!
Until then stay safe and enjoy your gardening.