Your April fruit and veg jobs
Want bumper harvests all year round? We share our top tasks for growing edibles this month
April on the veg patch is usually the month when at some point I decide to throw all caution to the wind and do some gardening in short sleeves. It’s usually a very brief foray into the world of skin exposure but while the warmish April sun lasts for an hour or two, the feeling of new beginnings is intoxicating. This is the month when plant growth accelerates, seedlings seem to spring up from nowhere, soil slowly starts to warm and there’s a wonderful middle ground between crops developing quickly but nothing being out of control. A month for planting, sowing and getting your new brood of edible plants used to the great outdoors after weeks cooped up undercover, each small task carried out in April offers tasty rewards in the months to come.
More fruit and veg advice:
Train your crops
Support climbing crops
Climbing beans aren’t ready to be planted until towards the end of next month but April is a good month for getting the supports in place. Whether you grow them up a wigwam, pillar, pergola, or a double row of canes connected by canes tied horizontally at the top, getting them in place starts to give the veg patch some structure. I’m not the most organised of gardeners but I like to get the supports up early so that I make sure I have space earmarked for my runner beans and climbing French beans. Because they are planted out late, it’s easy to fill up all the space with other crops then wonder where on earth you’re going to fit the climbers when it’s planting out time next month. Try and choose a sheltered corner for your climbers to take the pressure off the supports during gales. It’s also a good idea to make sure they won’t shade any sun-loving crops. Growing salads that you don’t want to form a solid heart in the shade at the foot of your climbing crops can work well, as long as you still have access for picking your climbing beans.
Prop up peas
Every year I wish that I grew more peas. It’s impossible to ever have enough and these fresh and super sweet treats rarely survive the journey of a few metres from the veg patch to the kitchen. I spend February and March picking up small but sturdy twiggy branches that have fallen from trees in windy weather (it’s a long winter…) and save them up for my pea stick pile. Now’s the time to push them into the soil at an angle along rows straight after planting out your peas, so they can tangle around them and hold their pods above the soil. It seems to keep pigeons away too. Pea netting is a good substitute in the absence of free twigs and it can be used year on year.
It may seem a lifetime ago that you ripped open the bag and started chitting your seed potatoes but the time to plant is finally here! Having said that, if a few cold nights or very wet days are forecast, I hold off planting for a few days longer. Plant them in trenches 12cm deep and 30-40 cm apart, with 60cm between each row, or in planting bags or large containers, planting on top of a 30cm layer of compost then covering the tubers. Lining the trench with a layer of compost is especially helpful if your soil is thin and sandy, because it will help retain moisture. Put the tubers into the ground or compost with the fattest shoots pointing upwards. Water the crop well and remember to add a label because the area will be bare for the next few weeks while you wait for the new shoots to poke their heads above soil level.
Plant onion sets
If you’re quick there’s still time to start an onion crop or add to your current one. Just check that any sets that you want to buy are still firm when you squeeze them and aren’t showing any signs of rotting. Onions give a very good return for the little space that they take up and even if you’ve only got small pots or a window box spare, you could still grow them and harvest as spring onions. Push them into the soil or compost so the tip is only just above ground level. Plant one onion set every 15cm, or 10cm if you’re planting for spring onions. Before they start shooting, keep checking the sets to see if any of them have been pulled from the soil by birds. It’s a habit that they share with inquisitive two-year-olds…
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Start more veg from scratch
Sweet and succulent leeks are such a useful crop because they can be harvested over a long period of time, from late summer right into winter. They are a great choice if you’ve got clay soil and haven’t had much joy with carrots or parsnips. There are a few ways to start them off, depending on how much space you have on your windowsill! If you have room for a module tray, fill it with peat-free multi-purpose compost and sow two or three seeds per module, just covering the seed with sieved compost. Move the tray outside at the start of next month, just moving it indoors on cold nights before planting out at the end of May, when seedlings are about 20cm tall, selecting the strongest ones and lowering them into 15cm deep holes, spaced 15cm apart. Or make a drill direct in the ground with the corner of a hoe blade and sow the seeds thinly along the row. Cover them along the row with sieved compost. These can be thinned out once the seedlings are big enough to handle.
Make the most of the opportunity to grow crops from seed this month. There’s still plenty of time to start most vegetables and it will save you from having to buy pots and trays of young veg plants. These can be very expensive and often still require you to thin out the plants that you buy, so it’s won’t always save a lot of time either.
In April, the increased light levels compared to March should help your seeds to germinate quickly and you’ll soon have young plants for a fraction of the cost of ready-bought ones. There’s also the bonus of having a wider choice of varieties and the possibility of spare plants to share with friends or give as presents (a further money-saver!).
Simple ways to get a better harvest
Get on top of weeds
I often liken weeding at this time of year to washing dishes. Keep on top of the small amount of work by doing it little and often and you wonder what all the fuss is about. In fact, the task is almost therapeutic (almost). But leave it too long and it becomes a ‘cancel that event in the diary to catch up’ event. Hoeing every couple of days in April and uprooting any quick-spreading perennials such as creeping thistle and bindweed this month really will take the pressure off in May and June. It will also give you bigger yields. Prioritise hand weeding in between crops growing in rows, then tackle those growing in the gaps in between rows. Then sit down in the garden with a coffee and congratulate yourself on your efficiency, grinning smugly at the trugful of spoilers that you’ve removed!
Checking your plants daily, to see if they need watering, helps gain an understanding of your plants that you can’t put a price on. Some will let you know they are thirsty by drooping but it’s rarely fatal at this time of year, with a quick drink soon seeing young veg spring back up like a jack-in-a-box. Check each morning, pushing your finger into the compost. If it’s dry at the bottom then your plants need water. Peat-free composts often look very pale and dry at the top but are wet further down so it pays to check before you water. If your seedlings and young plants are turning yellow at this time of year, then overwatering is a very likely reason. Out in the garden, fruit bushes and trees planted in the last year will benefit from a good soak if the soil surface starts to look dusty and dry. Water in the morning so that the soil, compost and plants aren’t soaking wet at night, which will attract slugs as they begin their nightly munching.
Harden off tender veg
Towards the end of the month, start leaving your tomatoes, chillies, courgettes and tender beans outside during the day, to get them used to outdoor conditions. Wind is their number one daytime enemy, so keep pots bunched together in high sided boxes or trays if possible, or in a cold frame with the lid open, and keep them close to a wall that provides some shelter. If nights below 6°C are forecast, bring the plants back indoors, before putting them out in the morning once it’s warmer. If chilli plants are starting to get a bit top heavy and are blowing over easily, remember that you can pinch out the growing tips of the plants to make them bushier.
Solitary bees will help pollinate our crops and they begin to emerge at this time of year. Your garden can be a tremendous nesting site for them. Holes in garden walls will be attractive for nesting, and you could make a bee hotel. It can be as simple as a wooden bird box filled with dry hollow canes, and logs with holes drilled in the ends.
Short areas of grass are also valuable ground nesting sites for solitary bees such as the tawny mining bee. Nectar-rich spring flowers that provide food for solitary bees this month include blue grape hyacinths, daffodils and heathers.