April is here and with it more spring blossom as well as forget-me-nots, later flowering daffodils and the first tulips – not to mention lots of fresh new growth of perennials and shrubs. There is much to be getting on with in the garden while enjoying the longer days and lighter evenings. Here are my top jobs for April, I hope you can get outside over the long Easter weekend and get your hands in the soil…. 

  1. FEED AND MULCH YOUR ROSES 

By now you should have pruned your roses. If you haven’t, you really must! I wrote about how to do this last month which you can read here. You should also feed your roses now with an organic seaweed feed and mulch them with a rich compost or well-rotted manure. You’ll be glad of this extra care when you are rewarded with magnificent blooms soon! 

  1. PRUNE HYDRANGEAS 

Hopefully you have been leaving this job until the risk of frosts has passed, which is still not quite yet in South East London – we’ve had a few frosty mornings which have taken their toll on the new growth emerging on my mophead Hydrangeas. They will recover but will need some fiddly snipping in order to remove the damaged leaves in a few weeks’ time. However, you should be safe to prune away in the next couple of weeks – do just check the forecast in your area before doing so in case of any cold snaps in the week ahead. Different Hydrangeas require different pruning – here is a basic guide:  

Paniculata varieties (such as Limelight and Snowball) and Arborescens varieties (such as Annabelle) –pruning these fairly hard will encourage better flowers for this year. It also keeps their size in check as some varieties can get up to 2.5×2.5m – if left to get to that size you probably won’t get the best view of the beautiful blooms! First remove any dead, damaged or crossing stems. You should then cut back all stems to a pair of healthy buds – either to a high bud if newly planted and you’re looking to grow a larger plant, or hard pruning to the lowest pair of healthy buds to create a low framework of branches and large flower panicles.  

Mophead and lacecap varieties – with these it is more deadheading than full on pruning as they flower on last year’s growth. Again, remove any dead, damaged or crossing stems. With more mature plants, you may need to remove some of the oldest stems at the base, to create space and air within the plant. Deadhead the remaining stems by cutting just above the highest pair of buds, or possibly the one below that in order to keep all stems approximately the same length. 

Now is also a good time to feed, water and mulch them for an extra boost as they grow and develop their flower buds. 

  1. WEED (SELECTIVELY) AND MULCH 

Homemade compost mulch

With the weather warming up and the fair amount of rain we have had, you may have noticed a lot of ‘weeds’ springing up in the garden. It’s a good idea to get on top of those that you don’t want before they establish too much and, while you’re at it, it is an excellent time to mulch as well.  

Mulch will suppress weed growth and both improve your soil quality and plant health. As it breaks down over time it will add nutrients to soil as well as decrease water loss and give a lovely appearance to your beds. Weed your beds, ensure the soil is moist, add a layer of mulch 2-3inches in depth – it’s well worth the effort! We recommend using an organic, biodegradable mulch such as good quality peat free compost, homemade compost or Melcourt fine composted bark.   

Of course, not all weeds are bad! The definition of a weed after all is simply a plant growing where it is not wanted. One of my favourite phrases is ‘one person’s weed is another’s wildflower’. Many ‘weeds’ are excellent for pollinators – for example dandelions, which are probably one of the most maligned wildflowers! However, they are brilliant for bees, so I would encourage you to consider leaving the flowers and cutting them off before they go to seed. The same can be said for lots of our wildflowers/weeds – many of which are native species which have evolved alongside our pollinators, and therefore are often the most beneficial for them. I do suggest removing weeds that are likely to get out of hand, are too close to herbaceous perennials so could out-compete the intended plants, and/or any that you really don’t like the look of – but leave some if you can!

Where space allows, having a nettle patch is a great thing to do as there are some species of butterfly which only feed and lay their eggs on nettles. 

  1. DEADHEAD YOUR BULBS 

Now that many narcissi/daffodils and hyacinths are coming to an end, be sure to dead head them so that all of the energy can go back into the bulb for next year’s flowers, rather than be used on making seeds. You can cut the flowering heads off and leave the stems, and most certainly leave all the foliage. It’s needed to feed the bulb and must be left to die back naturally. If you spot a bulbous growth below the fading flower head, this is where the plant is setting seed so you should snip it below this. It used to be quite common to tie the fading stems up, especially with Narcissi/daffodils, but this really isn’t necessary (and in my opinion looks a bit strange!). I recommend simply tucking the fading foliage under nearby emerging perennials and letting them turn completely brown until they come away when tugged gently. These can then be added to your compost heap.   

  1. PROTECT YOUR PERENNIALS 

Slug susceptible perennials such as hostas, lupins and delphiniums will be starting to grow now. As they do, you may wish to protect the really tasty ones from slugs and snails. We’ve had success with copper rings and you could also try “Strulch” (a mineralised organic straw mulch). What do you normally use? Whatever you do, please don’t use any chemicals or poisons. They’re incredibly harmful and can be ingested by other wildlife such as hedgehogs, foxes, badgers – even by domestic dogs and cats. A better idea is to use non-harmful deterrents such as copper rings/a dry mulch and also to encourage predators to your garden. Plant trees and shrubs to attract birds, and why not establish a wildlife pond to encourage frogs? You can also include a log pile somewhere in your garden for beetles to hide in. Not only will these alternative options attract slug and snail predators but I promise they will also bring you a lot of joy from watching the wildlife that will visit them!   

  1. CUT BACK PENSTEMONS AND SALVIAS 

This is another job to do once the last risk of frosts have definitely passed. 

Once you see signs of lots of new growth at the base of your penstemons, or low down on existing stems, they are ready to be cut back. When you see the new shoots, cut to just above the lowest ones. Don’t worry that you are reducing the plant size significantly, it will grow back and this type of pruning will stop penstemons from becoming too woody and leggy.  

There are three main types of perennial salvias that you may have in your garden. Each one requires slightly different care.  

Firstly, there are herbaceous perennial salvias which are hardy and come back year on year, in the right conditions. These include Salvia nemerosa such as the popular ‘Caradonna’, and Salvia x sylvestris such as ‘Mainacht’. These should be cut right to the base of the plant as all the new growth emerges from below the soil every spring.  

Secondly, there are tender perennial salvias which include Salvia Amistad and Wendy’s Wish. These can come back year on year but might succumb to cold weather and/or soggy soil. These can be pruned as per the hardy herbaceous perennials if they’ve survived the winter, which they may well do, especially here in the South. If you love these Salvia and want to grow them, it’s worth taking cuttings from fresh growth to root and grow on under cover as an insurance policy, in case those planted out in the garden do die off over winter. 

Salvia greggii Icing Sugar
Shrubby salvia: the beautiful two tone pink Salvia greggii ‘Icing Sugar’ at its best. Prune soon to maintain shape and remove and dead, damaged or diseased stems.

Lastly there are shrubby salvias which are woody and hardy, some are evergreen or semi-evergreen. These are our favourite Salvia and include Salvia x jamensis (such as ‘Hot Lips’ and the rest of the ‘Lips’ series), Salvia greggii (such as ‘Icing Sugar’) and Salvia microphylla (such as ‘Trebah lilac white’). These don’t require too much pruning – you can simply remove the twiggy ends down to where the new leaves are emerging, and as always cut back any dead, damaged or diseased stems. You might choose to reduce the size of the plant by about a third to a half so that it doesn’t get too big or leggy. Always cut to just above a growing point, where there are a pair of leaves with a shoot between them.  

  1. ADD STRUCTURES FOR CLIMBERS 

Before climbers such as clematis, climbing roses and jasmines really get going, make sure they have a solid structure to climb up and be attached to. Tie in shoots as soon as they become long enough to ensure a sturdy start for growth. This will make for a healthier plant overall and it’s much easier to have the structure waiting for the plant, rather than trying to fit wires in around existing growth. We like using flexible steel wires which can be tightened up over time, and we use natural twine to attach the climbers to the wires.  

  1. DO YOUR BIT FOR WILDLIFE 

As well as taking care not to use chemicals in the garden and aiming to introduce more plants for pollinators (see our article about some of the best small trees and shrubs) you could also think about increasing habitats for wildlife. A compost heap provides a home for many small creatures and also does wonders for your soil health. We will be writing an article soon on the benefits of making your own compost, so do get in touch if you have any specific questions about this.  

Remember not to be too tidy, but to allow some piles of leaves and twigs at the backs of borders or under shrubs, as well as creating log piles if you have suitable material. If you have any old wood which is starting to rot down, you can create a beetle habitat by partially burying the wood in the ground – the buried wood might even attract stag beetles which are now an endangered species, as well as offering shelter for other insects and small creatures such as frogs and toads above ground. 

There are so many things you can to do encourage and support wildlife in your garden – we’ll be writing more about this soon so let me know if there are any areas in particular you would like us to cover. 

  1. GROW YOUR OWN 

With the days and the soil gradually warming up we are now in full on sowing season – pretty much all crops can be sown now (except those which need to be started off earlier like peppers and aubergine – if you haven’t sown them you can look for small plants, or wait until next year to try growing them from seed). You can now sow beetroot, squashes, cucumbers, courgette, peas, beans and sweetcorn directly where they are going to grow – although with the chilly nights we are having they would still benefit from being started off in the greenhouse or even in the house – just be sure to plant them out once the risk of frosts has passed, but before they put on too much growth and become leggy and weak. 

If you don’t have much space to grow, why not try dwarf varieties of runner beans, compact cucumbers and tomatoes for containers or hanging baskets? There are several dwarf varieties available. Try to buy high quality organic seeds from companies such as Vital Seeds or Real Seeds.  

You can also still sow annual flowers including sweet peas, cosmos and sunflowers. 

Start or keep sowing salad leaves and herbs to give you a succession of crops – sowing a small sprinkling of seeds in one pot every few weeks is much better than sowing multiple pots all at once, as they will all be ready around the same time and you might not be able to use them all. 

  1. PLAN AHEAD 

Last on the list is planning and planting. Have a think about anything you’d like to add to your garden this year. Where were there gaps last year? Do you want more colour or more structure? Do you have bare fences or walls that a climber could be grown on? Now is a good time to start assessing what you would like to change or add, keep observing through the summer months and plan your additions for the Autumn – it’s never worth rushing these things!

If you can’t bear having gaps you could plug them with some hard working annuals for the summer such as Cosmos. These will be great all summer but won’t come back next year, so keep note of any gaps, get to know your soil and start researching and planning the right plants for the right places. If you’d like some ideas on small plants to add to the garden, have a look at our suggestions here, or perhaps you’re after a larger specimen such as a tree. We have a list of some of favourites to support pollinators here too, do take a look.  

What will you be adding to your garden this year?

So, there you have my top jobs to be getting on with in April – from cutting back tender perennials and feeding your roses, to supporting wildlife and having a go at growing some of your own veg and flowers. Do let me know if you have any questions, and happy gardening!