April might be the cruelest month, as some poets have asserted, but to me it’s one of the busiest and most delightful.

April is when we discover all the outdoor gardening tasks we failed to complete last fall, as well as all the perennial bulbs, rhubarb and herbs that greet us each spring. I like April, despite the sometimes snowy and windy days, and all the mud that goes with it.

This is the month to prepare. If our flower and vegetable seeds aren’t planted and under grow lights, then we’d better get cracking. If the garden tools aren’t spick and span, then it’s time to hunker down beside the outside faucet with detergent, maybe some bleach and lots of elbow grease. Those buckets — used for planting extra seedlings or purposely planted for a lack of garden space — will soon be filled with soil and fertilizer.

Container gardening

This magical earth that we all occupy works nearly as well growing food and flowers in large plastic buckets as the backyard garden does.

Five-gallon buckets, often seen for sale for very little, can be purchased at roadside stops. Just drill a couple of holes in the bottom to allow for drainage. And make sure they are clean and have held no toxics.

Sometimes, particularly at yard sales, you can find big, cheap planters. Those work well, too. Inexpensive plastic window boxes also provide plenty of space for planting such greens as lettuce and spinach. I usually plant my first lettuce crop in some old plastic window boxes so we have our first, very fresh salad early in May.

I plant one or two large pots or window boxes with lettuce or spinach every two weeks throughout the season to ensure a healthy salad every day.

Over the years, along with my vegetable, herb and flower beds, I’ve planted in pots at least a dozen tomato plants, including the smaller varieties (such as grape and cocktail), as well as early girl, Roma, and other types.

I particularly like growing Roma tomatoes in large pots. I place them next to the front porch, where they are watered more often than their cousins in the garden. And because they get just a little more heat by being next to the house, we frequently have fresh, just-picked tomatoes into late October and early November. One year, I grew the largest plum tomato I had ever encountered. It was just over six inches long, plump and delicious.

If the weather gets too cold and the tomatoes are still green, one way to preserve them until they ripen is to pull the entire plant out of the pot or garden, and hang them upside down in a cool, dark, basement or cellar. They will ripen right there. I’ve had luck serving real, homegrown tomatoes in a salad at Thanksgiving doing this.

I also grow a variety of hot and bell peppers in large pots. Our cayenne peppers did particularly well last year. We’ve used them in chili, pasta sauce, salsa and many other hot dishes. A couple of dozen are still hanging around the back kitchen window, ensuring that we’ll have enough hot seasoning until the new crop comes in during late summer.

Sprinkling a few flower seeds or planting a few pansy and viola seedlings in pots also works very well.

One edible flower — and there are several — is the dainty pansy. I’ve often dressed up a plain, green salad with a couple of beautiful purple or yellow blossoms. Not only do those individual salads look gorgeous, but they also taste delicious, too.

To plant either vegetables or flowers in containers, use a mixture of soil, fertilizer (like chicken or pigeon poop) and peat moss.

Fill the pots nearly full, plant the seeds or seedlings, then water very well. Watering plants in pots frequently is extremely important because they don’t hold the water like plants that are mulched in the garden do.

Perennial and other bulbs

A quick walk around the exterior of my house reveals numerous tulip, daffodil, day lily, grape hyacinth, and perennial poppies poking through the soil. We are in Zone 4, so none of ours has blossomed yet, but those living in Zone 5 or on the coast in Zone 6 are probably enjoying their beauty right now.

The beds from which they are growing should be well-weeded, and some of the decorative mulch should be removed and replaced with fresh mulch. But before covering the soil around these perennials, add more soil, if needed, as well as a little fertilizer.

The time to plant more of these bulbs comes in the fall. But right now, those gladiola and dahlia bulbs, among others, that someone may have dug up and stashed in a cool, dry place over the winter, can now be replanted. Add enough soil and a little fertilizer to cover well. In a few weeks, they will be up and blossoming.

Our hens-and-chickens succulent perennials survived very well through the winter and are beginning to turn the purplish colors they are so known for. Hens-and-chickens are perfect plants to grow where nothing else will thrive.

Right now, we have some growing in a stony corner of a daffodil garden and more that managed to ward off the salt that was mixed in with the sand during the plow crews’ frequent road care during the winter months. It always amazes me just how hearty these little plants are. Occasionally, they will send out a tall, thin blossom – not beautiful, but certainly very interesting.

Early vegetables

Our parents and grandparents often planted peas in April so that when a fresh salmon catch came in, the New England traditional peas and salmon meal could be served in the summer. The goal was for the peas to be ready by the Fourth of July.

If that’s your goal, April is when those peas must go into the earth.

If the soil is thawed and tilled, plant a couple of rows of peas to accompany that salmon, along with snap peas for stir fries.

Most pea varieties require some kind of support. Use chicken wire, stick-tepees, or any other kind of light-weight wire for that support, using wooden stakes every few feet to bear the weight of the growing pea plants.

Also appropriate for early planting are most varieties of lettuce, spinach, parsley and radishes. In just a few weeks, the garden will produce plenty of nutrient-filled vegetables for using in sandwiches or in salads.

Fiddleheads and asparagus

We can’t leave April without mentioning fiddleheads, those curly, young ostrich ferns that so many people value for their unique flavor. Fiddleheads grow along the banks of rivers and streams and sometimes near bogs. Make doubly sure that the fern being picked is an ostrich fern, and that these greens are still quite tight. Once they become fledgling ferns, they are too tough to eat.

And always make sure that landowner permission is granted before hiking out to the stream with a bucket. A thorough description of the fiddlehead fern may be found on the University Maine Cooperative Extension website.

As for asparagus, soils must reach 50 degrees before those yummy, regal plants appear. If not done already, be sure to remove the dead ferns from last season, then fertilize. If this is a new bed, or has been in for only two years, don’t pick them. The third season is when they can be harvested.

One year, I let our old asparagus bed keep growing and growing once I’d picked all we had planned to eat. These lovely, feathery ferns grew at least six feet tall. On a chilly autumn day, heavy dew settled on each of the branches. Such a beautiful sight.

Happy gardening. Remember just how magical our earth is.

Eileen Adams may be reached at [email protected]


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