Spring is in the air, the days are longer and now it’s the perfect time to get sowing and grow seedlings on a windowsill, a cold frame or even directly into the ground. Depending on the weather they might still need some protection in the form of cloches or fleece, but most of them will happily germinate without any problem.
April is known as the ‘hungry gap’ where broccoli, cauliflowers and cabbages still play a big role in our home-grown meal. A few spring delicacies will complement our wintery produce and new chard and spinach beet leaves are a taste of what’s soon to come.
Sow, plant, propagate
- Plant out your leeks and onions seedlings by putting them into a cold frame and getting them gradually used to the outside temperatures before planting them into the ground.
- Make a successional sowing of peas every couple of weeks and make sure you put support in place as early as you can. Twigs make the best supports and should be in place by the time peas start showing. If staking is an issue sow dwarf varieties. Sow seeds thicker than you would do in the summer; at this time of the year they are at the mercy of unpredictable weather and pests such as mice.
- Plant out cabbages and sprouts as soon as the weather allows it.
- April is a good month to start sowing outside but it’s worth waiting a couple of weeks until mid April to start sowing in the ground when the temperatures have hopefully improved and the soil has warmed up. Most root crops such as beetroot, carrots and turnips can be sown outside this month, together with peas, radishes, spinach, chard, lettuces, kohlrabi and calabrese (broccoli). Intercrop lettuces and spinach amongst your rows of Brassicas, peas or beans in order to maximise your use of space. Lettuces don’t need a dedicated area and can be planted wherever there is some space and particularly with slow-growing crops. Have some fleece or cloches ready and be prepared to cover your newly sown beds if you feel it is necessary.
- Sow second early potatoes and mains from mid April. Red skinned Sarpo Mira is a very good blight-resistant variety. See notes on potatoes from March tips.
- Plant out cabbages and Brussel sprouts as soon as you can.
- Start sowing outdoor tomatoes in a heated propagator or on a windowsill from mid April. Start cucumbers, squashes, pumpkins, French and runner beans and corn by the same method towards the end of the month. All these crops can be damaged by frost so don’t plant them outside until the end of May onwards.
- Towards the end of the month most winter greens such as brussel sprouts, sprouting broccoli, kale and cabbage can be sown in a seed bed, ready for transplanting later. If you can’t wait to start sowing, any of the above crops can be started in small pots in a greenhouse or windowsill to plant out later.
- Plant asparagus crowns.
- Herbs: most herbs can be sown or planted outdoors now. Create a herb patch if you have space but also plant your herbs amongst other crops (see top tips on companion planting below for more details).
- This is also the perfect month to propagate existing herbs. Lift and divide mint, marjoram, oregano and chives and propagate thyme by layering, which consists of pegging long stems to the ground or in pots until they develop new roots and can then be severed from the mother plant.
- Check out the RHS website on how to raise seeds to get a good grip on outdoor and indoor sowing and the advantages and disadvantages of different ways of doing it, including making a seedbed.
- Swiss chard and spinach beets – this month’s delicacy!
- Spring cabbages
- Leeks – last chance to harvest any leeks still in the ground
- Asparagus – watch as the first asparagus poke their head through the ground and enjoy their goodness as soon as they are about as thick as a finger.
- Overwintered lettuces and salad leaves
- Kale – last month to enjoy one of the hardiest veg around
- Sprouting broccoli
- Try to protect pear and plum blossoms from frost.
- Although it’s too late to plant bare root trees, it is a good time to plant container grown trees and bushes. Bear in mind that their roots have been constricted for a long time and will need even more care as they get established. Provide them with a good welcoming soil and water regularly.
- Make sure cane fruit and bushes are kept free of weeds around the base of the plants as they will take precious nutrients from your fruit.
- Strawberries will start producing flowers now – if they belong to new plants that you’ve introduced last autumn pick them so that the plant will use all its energy into developing strong roots and be healthy.
- Feed your strawberries with an organic liquid fertiliser.
- Observe your fruit trees and bushes carefully as pests will take over if not kept under control. Check swollen buds on blackcurrants for big bud mite and inspect the under leaf of red and white currants and gooseberries for sawfly larvae, which look like caterpillars.
Jobs to do
- Start a new compost heap that will host all of your summer green waste. The compost you’ve been adding material to all winter should be ready by the autumn.
- Hoe between outside crops and keep on top of weeds which are now active and also a very good place for slugs and snails to hide.
- Prick out seedlings once they have developed their ‘true’ leaves, which are normally the second set of leaves a plant develops. Be sure to handle seedlings by their leaves and not their stem as this will damage them.
- Pot on plants that cannot be planted directly into the ground but obviously need more space.
- Protect tender and young crops against frost with fleece or cloches.
- Now it’s the perfect time to sow hardy-annuals and provide flowering nectar plants for pollinators such as bees, butterflies, moths, hover flies and even beetles. Poppies, Nigella, nasturtium, pot marigold, sunflowers and corncockle are just some examples of pollen-rich flowers that will attract beneficial insects into your food-growing area.
- A lot of pollen-rich flowers are also edible, colourful and extremely attractive and can make salads and cocktails look wonderful. Have a look at Garden Organic for an extensive list of beneficial flowers for the insects and bees and see this long list of edible ones.
The cut-and-come-again salad box:
- This is an easy and economical way to keep yourself in salad throughout the summer.
- Start with a packet of seeds (lettuce, mizuna, rocket, mixed salads, or peas for pea shoots), some compost and a container at least 4 inches deep.
- Fill the box or pot with compost, leaving 1/2 inch of space at the top, water and allow to drain.
- Scatter seeds across the soil or sow in ‘drills’, cover with about 1/2 inch of soil.
- Keep the compost moist and the box in a sheltered, sunny position (indoors or out).
- In about 3-4 weeks, when the leaves are about 3 inches tall, you can make the first cut. Leave at least an inch of the plant or pick only the outer leaves.
- The salad can be cut about two more times.
Planting different types of plants next to each other can have many benefits. Taller plants can provide wind protection and shade for more vulnerable plants and pests and diseases can also be deterred. There are many different combinations to try and some are more effective than others, so here are a few ideas to experiment with:
- Plant lettuces under the shade of sweet corn or climbing beans to help prevent the salad bolting in the summer.
- Try planting flowering marigolds with tomatoes. The strong smell of the flowers will help keep white fly off your tomatoes.
- Nasturtiums near beans can help deter black fly. The nasturtiums will attract the flies and decrease attacks on beans.
- Plant chives with strawberries. Chives are thought to enhance the flavour of strawberries and help protect them from fungal diseases.