April: What Needs to be Done in the Garden and on the Homestead in Upstate New York, U.S.A.?
Your first task after snow melt should be to go around and repair winter damage to your fencing and arbors. Take note of any erosion.
Try to follow the flow of the water that caused it. Make plans now how to prevent that from happening in the future by adjusting the lay of the land.
When the snows are gone rake any leaves or garden debris from the gardens. These provide hiding and breeding places for a multitude of insect pests.
The Proper Time to Work the Soil
Wait until the soil drains out properly before working it.
You can tell when the soil is ready for tillage and planting by taking a handful of dirt, squeezing it into a ball and dropping it from waist height onto the soil. If it falls apart when it hits the ground its ready. If the clump holds together; it’s still too wet yet. Any tillage will result in clods and break up the tilth of the soil.
If you are gardening an acre or more a good rear-tine rototiller is, if not a must, a good idea.
We have always used planting beds because our land needed terracing and the bed method utilizes space more efficiently than planting in rows.
If your land is flat and you are relying on tractors, then you will want to go with the row method.
For the past 15 years I have not been tilling at all. I loosen the soil with a garden fork, the rake the beds into shape with a rake. The tilth of the soil is not shredded as with a tiller, and the layers stay more or less intact.
It is not as back-breaking as it may sound. In fact it is quite easy. I can fork up an acre-sized garden plot in 2 days.
Sow radish box: To get the earliest, albeit small, radishes, broadcast radish seed (I prefer French Breakfast radishes) in a cold frame. Lightly rake it in. Water, and then cover. By mid-May you will have baby radishes.
Sow lettuce box: To have baby lettuce greens in May, broadcast lettuce seed in a cold frame.
We use 4x8 foot cold frames with a lid of 4x8 corrugated Poly-carbonate plastic. Cheap, durable. Ours have lasted 20 years and counting.
Lightly rake them in. Use a rake turned upside down (Not the toothed side in other words.) Water thoroughly and replace the lid.
I often start open-bottomed tubes of newspaper strips filled with potting soil with a lettuce seed each for transplanting out in early May.
Sow spinach: Spinach can be treated like lettuce and radishes and broadcast into a large cold frame or direct seeded into a row.
If direct seeding; do so rather thinly to save waste by thinning later to a foot apart. I usually sow some radishes right in with the spinach seed because Spinach germinates rather slowly, longer than a week, whereas radishes are up in 5 days or less. The radishes mark the row of spinach nicely and are harvested before the Spinach needs the room.
You can also use the little newspaper tubes for spinach too, like lettuce.
Last Chance to Plant Peas Until July
Peas: If you haven't done so yet, do so now. Peas are like spinach, they thrive in the cool of spring. Unlike the rest of the garden you don't need to wait till the soil has dried out to plant these.
prune grapes: Cut back the grapes before the buds break to ease the sap loss, which will stun you. Cut out all the “Bull Vines”, those long, long, long, branch-less vines (up to 20 feet on Concords) with no fruit buds. They do not, will not, produce any grapes.
Dig up your grape scions you cut last fall. Hopefully you labeled root from top ends. If not, observe the direction the bud(s) is pointing. Buds always have pointed end upwards.
Simply use a wrecking bar or rod jammed into the earth where you wish to grow the grapes. Insert the scion eight inches or so, water good, push the earth closed against it. Just keep it watered during dry spells.
These will break bud somewhat later than your vines will.
Herbs and Perennial Flowers
Transplant herbs: Now is the time to break up your perennial herbs and replant them.
Cut your sage back now to about a foot high.
Trim Lavender back now too, to about 4” tall.
Lemon Balm is a favorite of bees and makes a refreshing solar Ice Tea and a great hot tea for colds and flu, but it is a nuisance in how it spreads aggressively. Deal with it severely to keep it within bounds or you will have to do it later with greater effort. All those tiny flowers also spill seeds later too, which sprout and create an impenetrable forest of roots.
Make a Barrel of 'Tea'
Manure tea: If you use this, now is the time to get it brewing.
The basic idea is this: Find a 55-gallon barrel. Install a faucet or valve at the bottom. Set it up in a sunny location on 3 cinder blocks, one on each side, and one toward the back. The front is left open for a pail. Fill an old feed sack with manure, (I'd mix straw in as well occasionally, or Comfrey leaves). Fill the barrel with water.
Wait a month, then use to water around young plants not going to be eaten raw. As you use some, refill the barrel. Over time it will get too weak to bother with. Remove the sack and replace with a fresh one and start over again.
The sludge left in the first sack can be added to a compost pile or directly to a garden bed.
Burn brush if you didn't when it was safer in the winter with a good snow pack. But if you didn't it still has to go or it will make an unassailable sanctuary for rabbits, mice, and Ground Hogs. (Assuming your local Fire Department is OK with it of course.)
If you can burn it where you are trying to eradicate weeds all the better.
Just make sure you choose a windless, drizzly day and keep hoses, buckets of water, shovels, rakes and leather gauntlets handy to manage the fire. And a cell phone.
Start your fire on the edge of the pile furthest away from where the wind is coming from. That keeps it from roaring out of control. Once the end furthest from the wind has burned up, light the windward side. The burned off area on the other end will now act as a firebreak.
Tiller, mowers: Change the spark plugs if they won't fire up easily.
Check and sharpen mower blades.
Keep a 5 gallon can on hand of gas to cut down on trips to the gas station. Clean or change the air filters. I recommend using either ethanol-free gasoline or adding a stabilizer to any ethanol mix gasoline, as ethanol will kill your carburetors by gumming them up as the mixture breaks down. (If that does happen you will know it because the machine will act like it’s trying to run, but just peters out. Dead give-away.)
asparagus: rake the mounds you put on the plants in the fall level gently with your hands to avoid breaking the new spears.
Clear away all debris from last year to give the Asparagus Beetle less places to hide.
Carefully cut away the brown stumps of last year’s growth. Sometimes they can be pulled free by pulling and twisting steadily but gently.
In this warming climate Asparagus has been sprouting strongly in April. However, there are still below freezing cold snaps which will kill emerged spears.
If a freeze threatens cover the plants with bushel baskets, pails, burlap bags, whatever is on hand in sufficient quantities. The frost will only damage the spears exposed, not the whole plant. It will simply keep kicking out spears.
An Old Method for Planting Vining Plants
A good use for the sod you dig out if expanding your growing area is to start vine plants such as Cucumbers, Squashes, and melons.
When you dig up your sod, cut it into 6”x6” squares at least 3” deep. These are placed sod side down in a cold frame.
A shallow scoop is made in 6the center of each square for the seeds.
Place 5 seeds into each square, and cover with about an inch of soil (also saved from removing the sod).
Make sure to use markers to tell you what is what.
At the end of May or early June take up the sod squares and plant them, making sure you cover all the grass with soil. (Using this method with sod that contains Couch Grass is not a great idea as the grass will not die.)
As soon as the soil is ready transplant out any leeks or onions you started in February.
If you overwintered any members of the Brassica family for seed, you can set them out toward the end of the month.
Clean out the chicken coop. The bedding and manure will be parleyed into compost bins, multiplying the potential additives for the soil.
The first new bedding of the season I used was of dried grasses from our hayfield that I raked up as it dried out in the sun from the covering of snow.
The hens will start producing eggs more frequently again now, but the molt will be beginning. After that the hens egg production is slashed. In my experience second-year hens lay every other day. (We never used a light to promote year-round egg production, feeling it was better to give the hens some re-coup time.
You can build your own incubator but ones for small-scale use are readily available and inexpensive. These are “Still-air” types, meaning there is no mechanical ventilation.
Usually they are simply a Styrofoam box with a simple electrical element heater. Set it for 99 ½ degrees Fahrenheit and keep it at 85% humidity.
A rule of thumb is that if you see droplets of water on the viewing port it’s too moist. The humidity is ‘controlled’ in these simple incubators by adding or removing a plug from one of two small portholes and by adding warm water to a series of troughs in the base of the little machine.
Start collecting eggs collect for the incubator. Take only perfectly formed eggs. Don’t use ones with ridges, thin shells, or are cracked. Nor very large or very small ones.
Store them in a cool (no lower than 50 degrees F.), moist (about 75% humidity) area. They can be stored like this for 10 days, maybe up to two weeks, and still be viable. Do not wash them, rub off any dirt or manure. If you wash them you take off the “Bloom”, which protects the eggs from drying out.
Turn the eggs at least twice daily.
When you have enough eggs for your needs or that fill up the incubator, start up your incubator to get the temperatures stable for at least a day before actually putting your eggs in there.
While the eggs are incubating for the 21 days till they hatch, turn them 4 times a day.
Three days before hatching candle them.
Once again, you can make or buy a Candle-box, but it is simpler to use a strong flashlight in a dark room. Hold the lit flashlight against the egg on one side while you look through the egg on the other. Fertile eggs will show a dark mass inside. Infertile ones will show clear, or some veining. Discard these.
The single biggest problem I have run into with these simple incubators is keeping the humidity high enough. A give-away for that is if you hear the chicks pipping in the shell, but the chick dies without emerging or if the shell sticks to the emerging chick.
Care for the Newly Hatched Chicks
Let the hatched-out chicks stay in the incubator for 12 hours until they are fluffy. Then move them to a nursery with a heat lamp.
The lamp(s) should be set at a height that the chicks can stand under.
You will know if the height and temperature are right if the chicks gather under it and fall asleep drowsily.
If they stay at the fringes of the light, it’s too hot.
If they crowd under it and look like they’d like to go on tip-toes to get closer to the heat, it’s not hot enough.
Feeding and Watering
Immediately provide them with fresh water. Change the water as needed; they will soil it quickly. Keep it filled; they can go through quite a bit..
I prefer to not feed them the first day. I find less problems with intestinal compaction if they live off their yolk for 24 hours.
Instead I put a lump of charcoal in there for them to peck at, and a dish of clean sand. The charcoal is to absorb toxins in their systems, the sand is to provide some grit.
The next morning start them on either an organic growing mash or fine-ground organic corn.
Keep the sand available for them until they are old enough to get outside and pick up their own grit.
Prepare the potato field, or patch, or row(s) where you intend to grow them this season. If it is sod; turn it over with a shovel as soon as the snows are gone.
Let it decompose for two or three weeks, then rake it smooth, gathering up and disposing of any roots or sod clumps that haven’t broken down.
Then lay out your lines marking the rows of potatoes. Using a hoe, or trenching tool on a wheel-hoe or rototiller, dig out trenches following those lines 8” deep.
I usually start tomatoes indoors now around April 15th in peat pots.
I find that starting them earlier leads to weak plants that in the end don’t produce much earlier than the later started ones.
I used to simply sow the seed in a cold frame I used for starting seeds but using the peat pots results in less shock to the roots (even though tomatoes are quite forgiving about that), and you don’t have to wait for a cloudy day to transplant them or have to cover them with a flower pot to keep the sun off them.
I fill a 4-inch peat pot half full of potting soil. Then put one seed in per pot. Lightly cover the seed with soil and water the peat pot thoroughly. After the seeds sprout and begin to grow, fill in the pot with potting soil to within an inch of the rim. Tomatoes are one of those plants who will strike out roots wherever a stem is in contact with the soil. By burying the stem as it grows, more roots develop, giving the plant a solid start.
Keep these little pots in a warm place (70degrees or higher). I will place all of them on old cafeteria trays to catch any water or dirt.
If starting peppers this way, it helps to keep the pots even warmer, and stretch Saran Wrap over the tops of the pots to keep it steamy in there for them.
If you wish to make a Hot-Bed to start your own Sweet Potatoes now is the time.
I set up a 3 foot by 6-foot frame of planks nailed together to make a rectangle. The wood used were 1x12s, untreated rough-cut pine.
Dig out the soil inside the frame the depth of a shovel.
Dump in and spread 3 heaped wheelbarrow loads of last winter’s chicken coop bedding you just cleaned out. It should be thoroughly impregnated with plenty of manure.
Wearing boots, get in there and tromp it down.
Soak it the next day with 20 gallons of water.
Then add 3inches of soil to cover it. Snug your Sweet Potato tubers a foot apart into the soil a bit, no deeper than half the thickness of the tuber. Imagine the tubers floating on the soil.
Now cover the whole frame and tubers with sand, to a depth of at least 1” over the tubers. Sprinkle with water from a sprinkler can.
Cover with glass windows and cover the windows with burlap, a tarp, old blankets, whatever.
The temperature down 8” will be at 25 degrees Celsius in less than a day. By early June you will be transplanting out your own Sweet Potato sets. Each tuber in the cold frame produced for me an average of 8 shoots.