Now that April has arrived, it’s finally time to drop our winter habits and start gardening again. But sometimes, it’s hard to know what to do with the brown landscape of early spring. Some gardening tasks must wait until May, but for the most part, here in Zone 5, April is the time for garden clean-ups, pruning, preparing soil, reviving lawns, and even planting. Here’s some ideas to get you started!
As the snow recedes in Zone 5, our garden often looks like it’s just waking up after an all-night party. Before you start your clean-up, make sure to wait until daytime temperatures are consistently above 50 degrees.
Here in our balmy Zone 5, it’s finally time to sink your hands in the earth again. Wait until the soil is dry enough to resist compaction, and prep your soil by doing the following:
- Dig up any grassroots, dandelions, or thistle roots that you didn’t weed last year.
- Remove any finished compost from your pile and spread it onto your garden.
- Till fresh compost into your vegetables beds, unless you already did so in the fall.
- Turn the compost pile to help it kick into gear after winter.
Clean Up the Garden
As the snow recedes in Zone 5, our garden often looks like it’s just waking up after an all-night party. Before you start your clean-up, make sure to wait until daytime temperatures are consistently above 50 degrees. Precious pollinators overwinter in the leaves and you don’t want to rake them away. Once it’s warm enough, you can:
- Cut back last year’s dead plant foliage and remove any dead annuals.
- Rake away any mounded mulch or soil around roses or from other plants that needed protection.
- Trim back ornamental grasses before they begin to grow.
- Top up mulch onto your flower beds if it’s getting thin.
- Divide and transplant perennials as necessary.
- Remove any coverings from plants that you wrapped for the winter in early April.
Prune shrubs to remove dead or damaged branches and to keep them in a manageable size. Remember to wait to prune spring-flowering shrubs until after they bloom. Here’s a checklist for April pruning in Zone 5:
- Prune flowering shrubs after they flower: some spring-flowering shrubs, like lilacs, set their blossoms last summer. If you prune them now, you’ll remove those precious blooms. It’s best to wait until after they flower.
- Spray fruit trees with Orchard Spray: apply the spray in late April, but not while they are flowering.
- Prune berry bushes: before you prune, check to see what age of branches your berries will grow fruit on. For example, blueberries grow fruit on one-year-old branches. Prune to maximize your berry harvest and to let the berries receive sunlight as they ripen.
- Shape hedges: get them off to a good start by shearing them into shape. Following the DDD rule, you can also remove any dead, diseased or dying branches in April and anytime throughout the growing season.
Start Seedlings Indoors
Starting seedlings indoors is one of the most exciting tasks of the pre-season. Depending on the plant at hand, you can begin your starts as early as March. The seed package usually tells you the right schedule, but here’s a typical timeline:
- Peppers and tomatoes: 6-8 weeks before the last frost date.
- Cucumbers: 4-6 weeks before the last frost date.
- Squash and melons: 3-4 weeks before the last frost date.
- Additional Tip: to keep seedlings from getting long and leggy, keep an oscillating fan on low in the room. This simulates wind and makes the stems stronger.
Note: in Zone 5, here in Chicagoland, May 15th is considered the last frost date. The city is a few weeks ahead, with a last frost date of April 30th.
Start Planting the Vegetable Garden Outdoors
You don’t have to wait until the last frost in Zone 5 before you sow vegetable seeds. You can plant many cool-season crops about two weeks before the last frost date and transplant any seedlings outside that are frost hardy. Here’s a checklist of what to plant in the vegetable garden in April:
- Frost-tolerant vegetables: lettuce, arugula, beets, radish, carrots, spinach, peas, swiss chard, kale turnips, parsnips, and Asian greens.
- Potatoes: they are frost sensitive, so you may want to cover them overnight if there is a risk of frost.
- Frost-tolerant transplants: broccoli, Brussels sprouts, onions, cabbage, cauliflower, and kale.
- Berries: strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, serviceberries, blueberries, and any other Zone 5 berries.
Revitalize Your Lawn
Revitalizing the lawn is usually top of the list for most homeowners, but as mentioned above, make sure you wait until it’s at least 50 degrees consistently during the day. That way you’ll let any pollinators in the leaves wake up from their hibernation. Once it’s warm enough: raking away debris, dethatching, aerating, and adding compost or fertilizer are the tasks at hand, as well as the first mow of the year. Be sure the ground is firm and not soggy before you walk on it and take out the heavy equipment.
Other Tasks for Zone 5 in April
- Check sprinkler system: water is essential for plants. It pays to make sure your irrigation is running smoothly. Check for leaks and repair as needed.
- Start a garden journal: easily overlooked but well worth the effort, a garden journal can help you keep track of and plan your garden year-by-year, allowing you to solve problems and improve the garden each season.
- Enjoy the fresh air and sunshine!
Platt Hill Nursery is Chicago’s premier garden center and nursery.