April Garden Chores

March 31, 2013

YESTERDAY, while photographing the ‘Grand Maitre’ crocuses in my Serpentine Garden, I discovered I wasn’t alone. Meet the helpful garden-guest I encountered, and then — when you’ve finished screaming — have a look at the month’s (plentiful) chores:

Say “hello” to Gerta the Garter snake. She obviously enjoys purple flowers as much as I do. More about Gerta, and how she promotes good health in the garden.

Do snakes dwell in your garden, too? And if so, do they freak you out? You can let me know by leaving a note in the comments field below.

Meanwhile, here are the April chores, at least as I practice them in New York’s Hudson Valley, zone 5-b:

Mulch. My policy is to consider how much I’ll need, and then obtain twice that amount. This way there is plenty on hand for beds and paths. Shredded woodchips, which many of us can obtain for free, makes a fine mulch for beds, as long as the material has composted for at least one year. Fresh woodchips make a cushy paving surface for informal paths.

Boxwood. Late this month or early next, hire a professional to shear and shape these enduring evergreens. I always save some of the trimmings to make new plants.

Roses. Uncover and prune shrubs. I prune my David Austin roses back by about half, and then apply a balanced, organic fertilizer beneath the drip-line of each. To conserve moisture and reduce weeds, mulch beds heavily with either shredded leaves or shredded, composted wood chips. Here are some of the better roses I grow for their handsome form and intoxicating perfume.

Weeds. Every weed pulled now is a thousand you won’t have to confront later. A forked tool is useful for pulling up weeds with long tap roots. I spray plain white vinegar on weeds which emerge in my brick, gravel, and blue-stone paths. (And this year, instead of cursing my dandelions, I’m going to eat them.)

Cool-Season Vegetables. To enjoy abundant harvests before hot weather arrives, sow peas, lettuce, and spinach early this month.

Tender Annuals. Sow these in milk-jug greenhouses. Transplant seedlings to the open garden following this schedule.

Perennial Beds. To avoid damaging emerging shoots, clean up beds by hand. Then apply a balanced, organic fertilizer over the old mulch. Place fresh mulch over the fertilizer.

Peony. Apply a trowel-full of wood ashes and one of manure or compost (triple these amounts for huge plants). Also, set ringed supports around plants before heavy growth makes the job impossible. If your peony refuses to bloom, it is either planted too deeply or set in a too-shady location.

Chrysanthemums. Lift and divide. Then plant the rooted divisions 18 inches apart.

Iris. Remove and destroy old leaves. Also, remove any surrounding debris in which the eggs of the dreaded iris borer may lie. As you can see in the photo above, my own iris bed is in desperate need of attention.

Winter-Sown Perennials. When large enough to handle, transplant seedlings to permanent quarters mid-month. My transplanting method for winter-sown seedlings.

Ponds & Fountains. Clean out leaves, but watch that you are not cleaning out frogs, too. These are emerging from their muddy hibernation now.

And finally, don’t work so hard that you miss out on the miracle of Spring!

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Related Posts:
From Wild to Woodland
Newspaper Mulching
Welcome to My Herb Garden

Comments

  1. kath parran moriarty says:

    We have black snakes here in VA. I know they’e great for keeping down VERMIN, but yikes. They do extend rather a long distance, and occasionally surprise one by falling out of trees…..

  2. Robin says:

    I love my snakes. I feel like the garden has been blessed when one visits. We have garter snakes, hognose, rough green snakes, ribbon snakes, brown snakes, ringneck snakes – all of which stay reasonably small. We get bigger kingsnakes, northern racers and water snakes, too. I’m not such a fan of the water snakes – they’re aggressive.

  3. Carol Hanson says:

    I like having the garter snakes and don’t mind the bull snakes but absolutely loathe rattlesnakes. so far not had one in my flower beds but am ever vigilant about where I stick my hand!

  4. Donna says:

    Hey Kevin:

    The boxwood propagation link isn’t working for me.

    Love the crocus!

  5. Donna – Thanks for the alert. Boxwood link is fixed!

  6. Linnea says:

    If you think of your garden as one world, one ecosystem, then everyone has its place. It is when we disrupt the balance that something becomes a pest, when too numerous, usually because we did in its natural predator. Let’s hope no one ever declares us humans ‘pests’! :-)

  7. Anne says:

    SCREAM, SCREAM, SCREAM !!!!!!! SO FAR i’VE NOT ENCOUNTERED ONE OF THOSE SSSSSS CREATURES IN MY GARDEN. WHEN I VISIT YOU HOWEVER, MY EYES ALWAYS SCAN THE GROUND.

  8. Hi Linnea – Good observation. I don’t use chemicals here, so my garden is pretty much ecologically-balanced. Lots of beneficial insects to eat the harmful ones.

  9. Renate simsa says:

    April chores sound excitong, but my garden plot still has 2-3 feet of snow on it with more forecast next week. They may be rightt, it is getting colder. And we have had no rain to knock the snow down. Evaporation is a slow progress and grey in grey weather oes not hlp, but we can dream.

    I am reading up on a neem, kelp, and EM 1 mixture, as well as Bokachi and Kaolinspray for garden veggie and fruit trees. Anyone have an opinion?

    Thanks.

  10. Stephen D Fritz says:

    Garter snake, stepped over one yesterday. They really like my stone terrace! When I was growing up Grandma would send me out in the morning to pick the raspberry and currents and any other berries. She did that because the snakes would be curled up in the bush tops getting sun.

  11. Lori G. says:

    I love my snakes! We have an abundance of garter snakes of every stripe here in Central Nebraska. I give them a nice place to hide and some sunny rocks on which to warm themselves and they stick around. I do have to keep an eye on my neighbor who unfortunately kills every snake she sees. It makes me sad and I’ve repeatedly told her to just come knock on my door if she has a snake she wants removed and we’ll take care of it. Alas, she’d rather hit it with a shovel. So, I make my garden space as attractive to the snakes as possible and in return they help to keep the insect population under control.

    My crocuses are all done already. With the wild weather we’ve had, I didn’t get to enjoy them very much. But now I have some teeny, tiny daffodils flowering. I forget the variety but they may very well be my favorites. So diminutive and sweet!

  12. Beverly, zone 6 eastern PA says:

    I am in a 50 year old suburban neighborhood. I have seen snakes twice in 23 years, once in my driveway and once hanging on a low branch of a crabapple, sunning themselves. Both were garter snakes. I have loads of rodents, bugs, slugs and salamanders, a well rounded ecosystem supported by my vigilant organic methods. No toads (yet), a few turtles…. I wish I would see more snakes because I know they are beneficial.

    The nearby park with an old mill race and lots of thick undergrowth sports a number of different snakes, LARGE, fast movers and moderately scary. My dog rolled in the remnants of one of these big fat things after a Great Blue Heron had been feasting. I could have done without that.

  13. Renata Simsa – I’ve read great things about kaolin. If you try it, let me know how it works out for you.

    Stephen D Fritz – Yes! The warmth and hiding places that stone walls/terraces afford are very attractive to snakes.

    Lori G. – Could the daffodils you described be ‘Tete a Tete’? I have them too, and they are indeed adorable.

    Beverly – My dog likes to roll in such things, too. Yuck!

  14. Erin Brady says:

    Ugh , snakes already! They don’t bother me so long as they don’t scare me… I wish they had bells around their skinny little necks…. Happy easter!

  15. Juanita Trent says:

    If I ran into a snake, there would be no garden

  16. Marylou Smith says:

    I figure the snakes were here before me, so we leave them alone. However, each spring I remark to the Lord the following: “Lord I know these are your creatures and they have a right to belong here. However, you also know I’m not really a very good fan of snakes. So, is it possible to just not let me see them?” So far it has worked. I don’t know what I’d do if it didn’t. When I say I am not a fan, that’s putting it ever so lightly! Happy Easter everyone!

  17. Ngoc says:

    Hi Gerta! Your crocuses look lovely :) lots to do before spring

  18. Sylvia Shelnutt says:

    I have a resident black snake. I have seen him for the past two years in my garden. He was about 4 feet long when I saw him the first year; once crawling up my Carolina Jasmine next in the garage stretched out on the cool concrete floor on a very hot day. This past year I saw him in spring crawling out from under my deck. He is considerably longer and bigger around this year. However, he is fickle. My neighbor saw him crossing the street and because he is now so big he stopped and took pictures him. A few weeks later the neighbor across the street, who lives in the house where the snake was headed, showed us pictures of a black snake he had found in his garden. I had taken pictures of my black snake both years. This past year on our deck, stretched out to his full length in the sun. The other neighbor happened by and showed his pictures of this big long black snake he saw crossing the street in front of my house several weeks earlier.
    Bottom line, that was my snake!
    He is fickle but thank goodness my neighbors only took pictures instead of using a shovel. I’ll be looking for him this spring and will let ya’ ll know when my black snake comes out of hibernation. I am sure he lives under my deck but goes out to visit my neighbors occasionally.

  19. Harleygalnc says:

    sorry, can’t do the snake thing… I have moth balls around everywhere to keep them away !!
    But we now have wicking beds so there is no use for them here :)

  20. Lisa Grandstaff says:

    I love seeing snakes in my backyard ecosystem! Ha ha ha… I’d love to call it a garden, but really… with deer, chipmunks, squirrels, mallards, song birds, a hawk’s nest every year, rabbits, one large groundhog… well, gardening is iffy. I do grow things that I think won’t be eaten, hoping that everyone will concentrate on the hickory nuts and other wild edibles around, and stay down by the creek that flows through my property.

    But last summer, at work, a building guy found a baby snake, I think it was a garter snake. I heard him notifying a supervisor on our maintenance channel. I was sick thinking he might kill it, but when I got to him, he had it in a plastic bag! Yay! I took it… about 8″ uncurled, and knowing it was probably hungry and I had nothing to feed it, I decided to store him/her cryogenically. I took my salad out of my lunch box and put it into a refrigerator, then put the snake in its bag in my lunch box, so as not to freak anyone out.

    I work as an electronics technician in a large factory on the night shift… and cannot believe there was a live snake in our engine room! I can’t find them on my property! At any rate, I took the baby home and released it at the foot of my elevated deck, where there is a mossy stone wall. I hoped that it would find safety and happiness somewhere on my 3/4 acre.

    I never see toads, either, save one, once, about seven years ago. Dunno why. Everything else is thriving well.

    Snakes and toads… BRING ‘EM ON!!!!

  21. Ed Morrow says:

    Kevin,

    I’m a newcomer to your blog, but even in a short time I’ve learned a lot.

    You mention using wood chips as mulch. I though you’d like to take a look at Linda Chalker-Scotts’s research on the use of wood chips. There are some myths that keep gardeners from using wood chips as much as they might. One example is the notion of wood chips depleting nitrogen in the soil. Here’s the URL

    http://www.puyallup.wsu.edu/~linda%20chalker-scott/horticultural%20myths_files/Myths/magazine%20pdfs/Woodchips.pdf

    Regards,
    Ed Morrow
    Carmel Valley, CA

  22. Joy says:

    I once saw a baby copperhead catch & swallow a tiny little froglet in the shallow end of garden pond. A nice red rat snake lives in the house foundation, and any number of garter snakes call this home. Emily Dickinson was right on the money when she wrote,
    The Snake
    A narrow fellow in the grass
    Occasionally rides;
    You may have met him,—did you not,
    His notice sudden is.

    The grass divides as with a comb
    A spotted shaft is seen;
    And then it closes at your feet
    And opens further on.

    He likes a boggy acre,
    A floor too cool for corn.
    Yet when a child, and barefoot,
    I more than once, at morn,

    Have passed, I thought, a whip-lash
    Unbraiding in the sun,–
    When, stooping to secure it,
    It wrinkled, and was gone.

    Several of nature’s people
    I know, and they know me;
    I feel for them a transport
    Of cordiality;

    But never met this fellow,
    Attended or alone,
    Without a tighter breathing,
    And zero at the bone.

  23. Danielle says:

    I get a bit freaked out when there are snakes around my place, but then, I live in Australia! Nearly stepped on a tiger snake last summer…that was a heart racing experience!!

  24. mary ann says:

    you did say the snake was in the Serpentine Garden????? how fitting
    have not had a snake nor frog in many years upstate NY Rochester 5B also
    all my neighbors kill everything…..sad

  25. Carrie says:

    I mulched my flower beds last May with beautifully composted shredded leaves and immediately developed a slug problem – they were demolishing the plants! After nightly slug hunts for a week, I’d had enough and removed the mulch and the slugs went elsewhere! Is there something I can put on top of leaves this year, like a thin layer of topsoil or compost or wood chips that would discourage them?

  26. Honor says:

    Tons of garter snakes here. I really, really don’t like them. I know it’s a great sign that the ecosystem is healthy, but they scare me. I particularly dislike when they sun themselves on top the boxwoods outside my front door–they are right at eye level, and not the least intimidated by me. Also strongly dislike it when they get into the house–old stone house/foundation–they seems to come in to shelter and occasionally to shed their skins. Can’t tell you how freaky it is to move the couch to vacuum and find a snakeskin under it! Bleck!

  27. Honor says:

    I should add that though they aren’t my favorite native wildlife, I do live and let live. Occasionally I’ll move one into the woods in the back, but I don’t harm them.

  28. Annie B says:

    Several snakes (especially a most beautiful black and yellow king snake) live in my yard and garden. We welcome them. They are fascinating and helpful, even if one makes me jump every now and then with an unexpected sighting.

  29. Annie B says:

    Love Joy quoting Emily Dickenson!

  30. Joy – How appropriate! Love Emily Dickinson!

    Carrie – You can stop snails by spreading iron phosphate (sold as “Sluggo”) beneath your plants. Iron phosphate, a completely natural product, is non-toxic to people and pets. I used it one season, and it worked like a charm.

  31. Janet Hatcher says:

    Snakes only startle me. We have garter & little green red belly snakes. I know there are Pine snakes or Fox snakes, too. They are all harmless here in northern Wisconsin-Wasburn Co. Still not in favor of seeing the larger ones. Never kill creatures either:)

  32. Susi says:

    Love the snakes; usually it is I who startle them as I move quickly from here to there and disrupt a sunbath!
    Kevin, do you have seedlings already?

  33. Carol S says:

    I see toads every spring and tiny lizards. Sometimes I see little garter snakes. I’d LOVE a big ol’ snake to eat up some of my chipmunks!

  34. Marlyn says:

    Snakes don’t bother me, it’s more they startle me when I do see them. We have mostly garter snakes here in central MN. One of the weirdest things I’ve seen while mowing my grass was to come upon a snake emerging from the grass, right in the middle of the lawn! I don’t believe there was a hole there before I saw this garter snake squirming itself out of the sod.

  35. wolfgang says:

    Kevin,

    I have not had good luck with the vinegar as an herbicide, I used 4+ gallons with about a 50% temporary decrease in weeds, then I read somewhere adding a drop or two of detergent/soap increases its effectiveness. Anything in your experience in increasing the effectiveness of vinegar on weeds?????

  36. Joann says:

    Hi Kevin……I can’t wait for some warm weather here in Schuyler County but was greeted by a lovely song from a bluebird that was perched on a bluebird house in the garden. I see some signs of life out there but can’t wait to go outdoors without the need for a jacket.
    Snakes are welcome in my garden even though I don’t see too many of them. Hope you had a nice Easter !!

  37. Hi Wolfgang – Dish soap and salt are said to increase the effectiveness of vinegar, but I have no experience with these additives. My trick is to spray straight vinegar on weeds while the sun is beating down on them. Annual weeds seem to die instantly, while the perennial-types need repeated hits before they give up the ghost.

  38. Edna G says:

    Kevin, my Dad used to feed us dandelion greens every spring. He was something of a wild greens forager.

    The only way I ever got my daughters to eat them was disguised as a quiche.

    Edna

  39. Meg says:

    I find garter snakes in my garden quite a bit. I am a little snake phobic, but I do like to see them sunning themselves in the garden. I’ve had 2 unfortunate incidents, one where I ran over one with the lawn mower, and one where I stabbed a snake with my garden pitchfork while digging in the ground, although that was not a garter. I felt guilty and horrible both times.

    Question for you – I am also in zone 5b, and this weekend I purchased a gorgeous niger hellebore and a companion sedge grass for it while in Chicago. When do you think they would be safe to plant in the garden? I know the hellebores come up around this time, but wasn’t sure if I should wait to plant them? Normally I’d wait to plant, but it appears from your list that you may be planting the milk jug perennials in the ground already.

  40. Hi Meg – I’d go ahead and plant the hellebore and sedge grass now. Both are hardy.

  41. Mary Ann says:

    I love our snakes, and don’t mind them in the garden at all! I even don’t mind the black snakes in the henhouses, but I DO look before reaching in to get eggs!

  42. badger gardener says:

    Would love to see a garter snake in my yard to take care of the undesirable garden critters, but have not spied one yet.
    Sping has sprung although temps dropped back down into the 20′s today. Not unexpected as we always have cold weather for the Brewers home opener. There are finally some sprouts in my milk jugs and I see the garlic and chives coming up. Thinking of direct sowing my radishes and sugar snaps this week which feels weird since there is still snow cover in some spots.

  43. Elizabeth says:

    Nah, I don’t mind the garter snakes. It’s the rattle snakes I could do without (Texas).

  44. Pat G. says:

    My cat discovered a California King snake just outside our greenhouse. After I removed my cat from the area, I took some great photos. He is a beautiful snake. I hope he eats as many mice as he wants.

  45. Kimberley says:

    Not a big fan of snakes, but I have come to accept them. Last spring I was working one day in my vegetable garden, and when I turned around, I saw one spread out on the dirt but five feet from me. Amazingly, I did not scream and run. It was a garter, and I think it had very recently shed its skin, because its stripes were really vibrant and pretty–almost robin’s egg blue in spots! We have a lot of rocks here, so of course there are snakes. Just garters and ribbon snakes around the house. Could be rattlers and copperheads in the surrounding woods, but I pretty much stay out of there!

  46. Candy says:

    Oh yes, I have seen garter snakes in the garden around my pool. I am trying to not get freaked out when they appear as I know they are harmless but I do get spooked by their presence. I guess they are attracted to all the chipmunks we have in the area.

  47. sherry says:

    I don’t mind snakes when I know that they are present; it is startling to see them at first! When we lived in North Carolina, we had so many snakes in our woods. Neighbors would ask me to shoot them, but I did not because they ate the rodents, etc. Our immediate neighbor thought his 2 labrador retrievers would keep his yard snake free. He moved their doghouse one time and…..underneath was a nest of copperheads! They loved the warmth of the doggies!! I wouldn’t kill a snake unless I found it in my house. Found a huge water snake in my laundry room once. that shook me up for a long time!!!!

  48. Henrietta says:

    I do not care for snakes in my flower or vegetable beds.In the pass when I have seen a snake in the flower bed I screamed and went one east and the snake went west and out of the flower bed.

  49. Charla says:

    Kevin thanks again for the much needed chore list! I put peas and lettuce in the ground last week here in MO. I always look forward to your emails and blogs. Keep them coming love, love, love your advice!

  50. Susi says:

    Kevin, I am SO excited! Despite this cold and wicked weather, I see signs of green in my nicotiana ‘ perfume white’ !! We’ve had a few days of sun. Perennial alyssum has a few seedlings as well! YAYY!!
    Planting some tender annuals now.

  51. Chef Debra says:

    I wish I had a nice large black snake here that would keep the rats away. We’re in city so we’re waging a battle. They chewed through my garbage containers and I stopped up those holes with rolls of armature screen which they chewed up a bit, but it’s kept them out for now.. I do envy your country life at times.

  52. christina says:

    worked in Upstate NY at a school one year and found a snake while moving a kids’ picnic table- put it right on his/her tail! I felt so bad – picked it up and once it calmed down from the shock/pain of the insult I took it around to show all the kids in the various classrooms we had there. Love snakes and all things nature. :)

  53. Vince S says:

    Live a bit north of you…further upstate. Garter snakes abound in our veggie and ornamental beds. This old science teacher says thanks for promoting the benefits of our reptilian friends. Readers, please be careful if you handle garter snakes. When scared or stressed, they can exude a stinky musk out their anus. (properly a cloaca, Latin for sewer)

  54. anita says:

    Beautiful peonies.
    Snakes and worms and all wriggly things make me squirm, even though I know they are beneficial. We used to have one that was curled up by the mailbox all the time. I used to talk to it whenever I got the mail — “don’t look at me, don’t look at me”. Thankfully, (kath, Comment #1) I’ve never had one fall out of a tree, God forbid. I used to live in warmer climes, where they would come into the house, some poisonous.
    Thanks, Joy, for the Emily Dickenson poem. Love all the tips in the comments.

  55. kate says:

    Hi Kevin, Beautiful snake! such beautiful creatures (but not so beautiful when your heart goes into super hyper beat upon discovery!!). In one of your blogs you mentioned a hosta that you thought was the “only” hosta deer won’t eat. I cannot find that blog again and did not bookmark it at the time. Do you have the name of that hosta on the tip of your tongue? Many thanks in advance if you share it with me again. Keep on blooming Kevin – you ROCK!

  56. michele says:

    i love snakes, so I think he is just darling!

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