A fool for April
Everyone’s a sucker for spring in Virginia. What’s not to like? Pale confetti flowers shower from cherries and crabapples onto candy-colored drifts of azaleas, daffodils and tulips all surrounded by that jazzed-up green that nature saves just for April.
The lawn care industry uses such idyllic scenes to sell products that poison the Chesapeake Bay with excess nutrients and pesticides. Turn your head from those insidious commercials and strike a blow for Earth Day by refusing to join the lawn zombies in their annual ritual of dumping bags of pre-emergents and nitrogen into the watershed (a lot of those little pellets roll into the street and down the drains).
April’s the time to luxuriate in lilacs. After the ecstasy of bloom comes the necessity of maintenance: dead-heading, for the sake of next year’s flowers.
Warming temperatures and spring rains green everything up just fine. Save fertilizer for the fall when roots can use it. The best thing you can do for your turf right now is to get the pH right with soil tests and lime, mow with sharp blades, and leave grass cuttings to decay into natural nitrogen. Fight the power, baby, and learn to love the dandelions and violets.
The third week of the month, April 19-27, Virginia Garden Club (vagarden week.org) offers tours of Casa Maria and Blue Ridge Farms in Greenwood. Both sport gardens designed by esteemed Richmond landscape architect Charles Gillette during the early 1920s and epitomize the classic Virginia garden.
Along with dogwoods and azaleas, the lilac is indispensable to that picture. For smaller spaces, there are dwarf varieties like “Miss Kim,” but for my money nothing beats the common Syringa vulgaris for deep musky fragrance and a range of colors from pure white through pinks, lavenders and blues. They’ll tower up to 12′ over the years and make a bold hedge if there’s room.
Lilacs like a sweetish soil, with a bit of lime or wood ash worked into the top few inches every year or two. Their wont is to sucker up in colonies, so let them run and over the years cut out older trunks to make way for young ones, as is nature’s brutal way. Give them the most sun and best air circulation, and after they bloom, you should dead-head religiously to ensure a good bud set for next year.
In July and August, they can flag and the thick blue-green leaves look sad and mildewy, but these are mere superficial blemishes to be politely ignored during this difficult season. They don’t need to be sprayed; perhaps a deep watering if possible, and topdressing of leafmold or compost. Pair them with butterfly bushes and sunflowers and Mexican hyssop as distractions.
Cleopatra swore by the healing power of aloe vera.
New mulch has become as much a harbinger of spring as daffodils and Scott’s Turf Builder. Millions of happy homeowners wander about murmuring, “I love the smell of fresh mulch in the morning.” Last month I inveighed against volcano mounds around trees and made the case for fluffing up and raking out instead of just piling it on year after year.
We turn now from quantity to quality. Those who can afford aged shredded hardwood, have no fear. You’ve got good mulch there that should last for at least a couple of seasons, hold down weeds and conserve moisture. Pine tags, leafmold and pinebark are other organic mulches that add nutrients and texture to the soil as they decay.
Beware of saving money on cheap mulches from unknown sources (we will not speak of the abominable orange material). Unless you know your supplier and what they’re selling, you may be getting insects like the deadly ash borer or acidic newly chipped wood that burns plants. There’s more than one way to lose your head in April.—Cathy Clary
Garden questions? Ask Cathy Clary at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Mediterranean native from the lily family, aloe vera might not be a blooming houseplant, but it is a botanical medicine cabinet boasting the ability to cure sunburn, gastrointestinal complaints and wrinkles.
Aloe vera plants flourish on neglect. They only need water once a week, and only if the soil is completely dry. Be especially careful not to overwater during the winter months. These shallow-rooted plants like a very well-drained potting mix; use organic kelp fertilizer or worm castings.
Remove new shoots, since they can crowd the mother plant. To grow new plants allow the shoots to reach about 4.5" and then remove the whole plant and separate them by hand so as to get sufficient roots.—Lily Robertson
April in the garden
Mow with sharp blades
Take a Garden Week tour
Enjoy the lilacs