2018 Update: I think compared to other regions of the country, we in Cascadia have gotten off quite easy so far this spring. There’s a reason they are called Nor’easters and not Nor’westers, I suppose.
Time to bring back this old favorite:
Which isn’t to say there haven’t been some odd moments. Twice in the last month or so it’s hailed enough to form hail drifts at my house. Oh, destabilized polar vortex, you so crazy.
Mid-March in Seattle touched 70 degrees. A week-and-a-half later, it snowed. Up-and-down temperature swings are hard on the anxious gardener, but even harder on our poor plants. Of particular concern are fruit trees and bushes. An early warm spell followed by a cold snap can coax spring blossoms out, only to freeze them solid. When this happens, a terrible fruit year often follows. I don’t think the March freeze was enough to really damage blossoms in my yard, but gardeners at higher elevations might note if their summer berries and tree fruit yields seem smaller than they’d otherwise expect.
Looking forward, I expect a pretty typically April weather: highs bouncing around 55 (and probably a bit warmer by month’s end), lows a few degrees either side of 40. NOAA Long-term weather shows a decent chance of higher-than-normal precipitation for April. Our normal precipitation is already plenty, so a fairly soggy month may be ahead.
If March was the month of starting seeds indoors, April is the month of transplanting those starts out and direct sowing. With middling temperatures and decent rain expected, right now is a really good time to go get your low-tunnels installed if you haven’t already. Every single start or seed you plant this month will be happier if you plant it under the protection of a low tunnel or cloche.
In addition to lots of wonderful time playing in dirt that’s no longer frozen, April brings first harvests, noticeable plant growth, rapid increases in day-length, delicious perennials (hello, rhubarb!) and the beauty of blossoms. After a long, impatient winter, spring is really here.
Here’s what you should be doing this April in your maritime Northwest garden.
Printable At-A-Glance Grow-Guide!
We’re all flipping busy, right? Wouldn’t you love a one-page, at-a-glance, printable guide to what you should be doing in your garden this month? Yup, I thought so.
So, here you go – your April garden chores, in a form you can take into the garden and get all dirty. Click the image or go here to download the PDF.
Plan and Purchase
By now your garden plan should be pretty finalized and you should have a general idea of what will be planted where. (Read more: Year Round Garden Planning.) Many of your earliest crops may already be sown or transplanted out.
Nurseries are full-to-bursting now with fruit tree, berries, edible landscaping shrubs, six-packs of cabbages and little starts of peas.
If you haven’t been starting your own early season crops, you can put a spring garden in with purchased starts this month. It’s just going to cost you a bit more. (Read more: How To Spot And Avoid A Crappy Seedling.)
Last call for perennials!
- Bare Root Fruit Trees
- Bare Root Fruit Bushes, Rhubarb, Cane Fruit and Vines
- Seed Potatoes
Many things can continue to be sown indoors through April, especially if you have a badass grow light. I grow under this T5 grow light and recently added this inexpensive LED grow light. The T5 is very reliable and intuitive; I have had success with the LED but there is a learning curve to LED growing that I’m still working on mastering.
If you want, the brassicas can be started under lights, but at this point it’s perfectly fine to sow them outside directly too. It’s just what you like better. Slugs decimate my direct-sown spring plantings so I prefer to transplant. Start these as soon as possible for transplant out in late April or early May.
- Broccoli – I really like Belstar.
- Brussels Sprouts – I grow Brussels Sprouts as a cool season crop, and will start them in June to mature in mid-September for harvest through fall and winter, but if you want earlier sprouts, get going now.
- Cabbage – Farao is a great early variety I’ve grown several years in a row.
- Cauliflower – A bit more finicky than other brassicas, give special attention to your cauli seedlings with consistent moisture and lighting.
- Kohlrabi – easier as a fall crop, but delicious if you like this odd space-ship relative of broccoli.
The name of the game here is ASAP. We are bumping up against the end of the window to start tomatoes and other nightshade crops and still get them to ripen before fall. But I just have a feeling this will be a good year for heat lovers, so I think it’s ok to roll the dice this year. Plan on setting out 4-week old transplants in early May.
In general, small fruiting varieties are better in our climate than large fruiting ones. If you’re starting this late, try cherry tomatoes, fingerling eggplants, and smaller hotter peppers for a reliable harvest.
- Peppers – Remember to use cool-climate cultivars. In the Maritime Northwest, I have good results with King of the North pepper and most of the spicy varieties.
- Eggplant – a small Asian type like Little Finger will give most reliable results.
Leafy Greens and Herbs
- Basil – start around mid-month under lights for transplant out about mid-May. Start a lot. It’s basil, the Queen of Herbs!
At this point I think you might as well direct sow the rest of these outdoors, but if you want, you can start inside:
- Swiss Chard
- Salad Greens
- Hardy Herbs – Think parsley, chives, fennel, chervil, oregano, dill, mint, sorrel, marjoram, lemon balm, pansies etc.
These tender melon-family babies can be started indoors if you are careful not to jump the gun too much. Plant to start them maybe 3 weeks before you’d direct sow. Promise you will transplant them out into pre-warmed soil before they are even thinking of being root bound. That’s key to successful transplant of the cucurbits.
- Summer Squash
- Winter Squash
- Onions – You can buy plants to transplant out from your local nursery or a specialty supplier like Dixondale.
New to starting your own seeds? Here are some resources to help:
- Seed Starting 101: Key Components For Healthy Seedlings
- Seed Starting 101: A Step-by-Step Visual Guide To Growing Seedlings At Home
- Seed Starting 101: Up-Potting
- Seeds Started Under Lights vs On A Windowsill
- Which Seed Starting Supplies Are Worth It (And Which Aren’t)
- I’m a big fan of High Mowing Organic Seeds. If you’re in British Columbia, West Coast Seeds is fantastic. Johnny’s was a recommended favorite for a long time, but they sell seeds from a Monsanto subsidiary, which is a bit of a turn-off for me.
Sow Directly & Transplant Out
If February and March is the time for starting indoors, April is the months to sow directly outside, and to transplant out all those sturdy cool season crops you’ve been caring for inside.
If you have cloches in place over your beds, make sure to prevent heat build-up by venting them during the day, especially if it’s sunny! Keep the ground moist enough to assist germination.
The important thing if direct sowing these crops now is slug protection. If you don’t have ducks, get Sluggo or set up beer or other traps for snails and slugs. Transplants can also fall victim to those damned mollusks, so be on the lookout (preferably at night, with a sharp pair of scissors in hand.)
- Cabbage (early types)
- Cauliflower (early types)
- Kohlrabi (spring types)
Normally, we wouldn’t be talking about transplanting nightshades out until May. But with some season extension in place, like a cloche or a wall-o-water, you can likely move tomatoes out to the garden in late April.
It’s better not to push the heat-loving crops. Soil temps need to be above 50, and nighttime temps have to be up about 55 for tomatoes to be happy in the early season, so if you aren’t sure or you’re in a cool microclimate, be patient. Eggplant and pepper are happier at even warmer temps.
- Favas – any time and as soon as possible
- Peas – Sugar Ann and any of the Sugar Snap varieties are great options, but all fresh-eating peas do very well in the Northwest.
Leafy Greens and Herbs
Go crazy. The time is right. Make like Demeter and scatter seeds everywhere.
- Asian greens – Asian greens that are in the mustard family bolt at the drop of a hat at this time of year. If you grow them, harvest promptly.
- Fennel (bulbing)
- Salad Greens (Arugula, Lettuce, Spinach, etc.)
These can all be sown at any time. Just make sure your soil is dry enough to rake to a fine tilth. Roots do best in deep, fluffy soil.
- Potatoes – The gardener tradition is to sow potatoes on St. Patrick’s day (March 17th). They can go in anytime at this point. For best results, chit your potatoes before sowing fairly deep in loose soil.
- Radishes – You want the super fast maturing spring types, like Valentine’s Day Mix.
- Turnips – Grow the spring types at this time of year, like Tokyo Market.
As long as the ground isn’t waterlogged, bare root fruiting trees, bushes and perennials can all be planted out. The sooner you can get them in, the better. Don’t let roots of bare root perennials dry-out or freeze.
Potted perennials, like the blueberry bushes I totally impulse bought (above) can go in any time.
- Bare root fruit trees – these should be put into previously prepared ground while still dormant.
- Bare root fruit bushes (currants, gooseberries, blueberries, etc.) – Apparently I’m trying to open a blueberry farm in the suburbs. It’s getting ridiculous.
- Bare root cane fruits (blackberries, raspberries, etc.) – I’m a big fan of Triple Crown Thornless Blackberry.
- Asparagus crowns – check out my tips for better soil for asparagus before planting.
- Rhubarb crowns – these can be had by dividing established plants. They are practically unkillable.
- Horseradish roots – these can be invasive! It’s a good idea to plant them in a very large container sunk into the ground to control their roaming. I didn’t, so now I have multiple large horseradish plants!
The goal of almost any vegetable that’s survived an entire growing season and gone through winter at this point is to make seed as soon as is reasonable. Eat those kale shoots! Harvest any remaining overwintering root veg – they are probably bolting already.
- Salad Greens – New season arugula and lettuce is coming on strong and we’re already eating a salad a day. Spinach is lagging, but what can you do?
- Asparagus! – Holy crap it’s early! Eating raw stalks straight out of the garden.
- Rhubarb – Harvesting for rhubarb simple syrup.
- Sprouting Kale – eat kale florets like broccolini. (Read more: When and How To Harvest Kale Florets)
- Jerusalem Artichokes – This moderately aggressive perennial is starting to shoot, but can still be eaten if your digestive tract can handle it.
- Chard – If yours overwintered it’s putting on nice new growth you can harvest.
- Turnips and Rutabagas – The unopened florets are good to saute.
- Herbs – chives, rosemary, fennel, thyme, oregano, sage…all the perennial herbs are in good shape and putting on loads of new growth. Grow herbs! (Read more: The One Edible You Must Grow)
How is your April garden this year?