April in the Garden
Folks in South Africa are lucky to have two ‘spring’ seasons every year – the traditional spring in September when plants from the Northern hemisphere flower, and another one in April when many of our own flowers abound. Now is the time to spend long hours in our gardens, planting and sowing with abandon!
Keeping the theme for Earth Day on 22 April 2019 in mind, which is to “protect our species”, we give you an annual menu to encourage sunbirds to your garden all year long. The plants suggested are naturally indigenous and April is a perfect time to plant them:
For summer: Plant a dwarf coral tree (Erythrina humeana) which covers itself with scarlet red “pokers” drenched in nectar. Also go for summer flowering aloes like the very pretty Aloe cooperi, with apricot flowers with green tips.
For autumn: Wild dagga (Leonotus leonurus) – the velvety bright orange flowers resemble huge rain spiders sitting at the ends of each stem. Their rich nectar is irresistible to butterflies, bees and sunbirds. This large shrub will supply colour throughout autumn. There is also a form with creamy white flowers, which is well worth planting.
For winter: Any winter-flowering aloe specie or hybrid will do to attract many other bird species as well, but the centerpieces should be the other coral trees. The coastal coral tree (Erythrina caffra) is a large tree, producing magnificent flowers smothered in nectar. The smaller, common coral tree (E. lysistemon) is equally generous with spectacular flowers, but more suitable to smaller gardens. The broad-leaved coral tree (E. latissima) will produce its pretty blooms from late winter to spring. Every frost-free garden should at least have one of these species. For colder gardens there is the local mountain bottle brush (Greyia sutherlandii) and woolly bottlebrush (Greyia radlkoferi) – perfect and showy for small gardens with well-drained soil.
Note that planting these species will not only attract sunbirds all year long, but also other nectar-loving birds and critters like bees, butterflies and even bats.
April is the best month to enjoy the flower bounty of many well-known and easy to grow African plants.
- Bush violet (Barleria obtusa) – this spreading little shrub which thrives in the light shade and climbs gently over other plants, remain unobtrusive in other months of the year, but bursts out in colour in March and April, with masses of mauve, pink or white flowers. Always worth waiting for, even if the flowering phase is a bit short.
- Egyptian star cluster (Pentas lanceolata) – a handy little perennial to fill open spaces in full sun or in the light shade of other shrubs and trees. It has minty green leaves and flat inflorescences made up of masses of small star-shaped flowers in spring and these appear again in autumn. Ideal for mass planting.
- Fynbos like ericas, acmadenias and buchus (Agathosma) are easy to grow and lots of species flower in April. As their root systems are very fine, they should never be allowed to dry out completely if growing in containers or newly planted in the garden, until well established.
- Fill up garden beds with lots of lasting and tough golden daisies (Euryops pectinatus).
- Ribbon bushes (Hypoestes aristata) will start flowering now. Plant masses of them around shade trees and expect a cloud of mauve flowers.
Spend the Easter weekend planting dozens of spring and winter flowering annuals – available in numbers and variety at all GCA Garden Centres. Remember to give them the best chance to create clouds of winter and spring colour – do this by preparing your garden beds with ample amounts of compost, bonemeal and seedling fertiliser.
- Fairy primulas (Primula malacoides) – the stalwarts of the shady winter garden
- Petunias are perfect for full sun in summer rainfall areas and can be used to fill up beds, pots, window boxes and hanging baskets. Rejoice in all the colour and shape options available!
- Iceland poppies love the cold, full sun, and well-drained alkaline soil.
- Pansies will enjoy full to morning sun, and will fill your pots and window boxes with their happy faces. Use them as colourful border plants in shrubs beds too.
April is sowing month
You need to shop for: Seasonal, fresh seed (the seed packet shelves are frequently changed according to sowing seasons), seedling trays, seedling medium, vermiculite to cover the sown seed, and a watering can with a fine rose spray.
- Simply fill up your seed tray up to about two thirds with seedling medium and lightly tamp down with a piece of wood.
- Sow your seed evenly (if they are very small, mix with a little river sand or mealie meal to help this along).
- Cover with a thin layer of vermiculite and tamp down lightly again.
- Water gently with your watering can.
- Cover the tray with a sheet of plastic or an old glass pane and place in a shady but light spot.
- As soon as germination takes place, remove the covering.
- Plant out the seedlings as soon as they have grown about four leaves, into small pots or seedling trays and harden off in morning sun to make them strong enough for the garden.
- Feed regularly with a growth stimulant – find the best option at your local GCA Garden Centre.
Prepare for healthy lunch boxes
Take the kiddies off junk food by sowing ‘Darling’ carrots and ‘Sugar Queen’ peas – both are sweet and crunchy. April is also strawberry planting month. They will over-winter and by spring the kids can harvest their own lunch.
Flowering annuals like Namaqualand daisies, bokbaaivygies, lobularias (alyssum) cornflowers, toadflax, Virginian stocks and Queen Anne’s lace can be sown directly into well-prepared beds.
Remember that seeds sown directly should be watered every day (if the weather is still temperate, even twice a day in the early morning and late afternoon) until germination. Use a soft sprayer and take care not to create muddy pools which will wash your seeds away.
The tall and the graceful…
Plant out seedlings of Larkspurs, Delphiniums and foxgloves into well prepared beds. They enjoy deep, rich and well-drained soil in a sunny to lightly shaded spot. Tall bi-annuals like these will need staking and this is best done when planting them out. Never water these plants from the top – wet foliage can encourage disease. Rather soak the soil at the base of the plants. These plants are gross feeders – fertilise them every two weeks with a water-soluble fertiliser or once a month with a granular product.
Roses in April – fill in the gaps
As roses are deciduous, their bottom leaves will soon turn brown and start dropping off. Planting cool-season annuals in front of them will screen the bare stems at the base of the bush. Choose sun lovers like sweet alyssum, Calendulas, dwarf snapdragons, Lobelias, Namaqualand daisies, Phlox and Pansies.
Bulbs – plant them now!
Start planting spring flowering bulbs as soon as the soil and night temperatures have cooled down. Do it in batches from now to the end of May, to stagger the flowering period from early spring into early summer.
- Friable soil and good drainage are essential. Dig in lots of compost and rake smooth before planting.
- Plant all bulbs with the pointed side up, except Anenomes, which should be planted with the pointed side down. Bulbs with fingers or claws like Ranunculi should be planted with the fingers pointing downwards. Small bulbs like Anemone, Leucojum, Muscari, Lachenalia, Tritonia and Ranunculus should be planted 5cm deep and larger ones like Hyacinth, Freesia and Dutch iris should be planted 10cm deep. Use a dibber or bulb planter to do the job.
Clear away fallen leaves and rotten fruit under fruit trees. This will prevent rose beetles and fruit fly from breeding and overwintering there. You can also dig around the base of the trees and lay down a fresh layer of organic mulch. While grafting away, also fix the walls of the earth basins that should be around their main stems – a great way to get to most value out of watering sessions as you simply have to fill up the ‘wells’ when watering.
Turn the compost heap over regularly to check for larvae and pupae of fruit fly and rose beetle.
- Young fruit trees, especially deciduous types like peaches, plums, nectarines and apricots can be planted this month.
- Stake climbing sweetpeas and pinch out side shoots to encourage strong and healthy growth on the main shoot. You can also plant a batch of pretty little knee-high sweetpeas, which will be available in nurseries now (they need no staking)
- Prune back old canes of raspberries that have finished fruiting.
- Keep your Gardenias well-watered now. Although these plants flower mostly in summer, they still form new buds until late autumn, which mature on the plant and will open as soon as temperatures rise again. If they experience a lack of water in this phase, the buds fail to open and fall off.
- Plant the full range of Cape daisies (Osteopermums), African daisies (Arctotis) and diascias for instant colour – they flower now and love the cooler weather.
- Keep on spraying conifers against Italian cypress aphids, which are active in the cooler months.
- Don’t waste fallen leaves. They can be used as a mulch for woodland plants such as Azaleas and Rhododendrons.
- Move frost-sensitive plants which are in pots, to a protected place and buy frost cover to start protecting sensitive plants in the garden.
- Clean out hanging baskets and plant them up with trailing ivy-leaved pelargoniums.
- Keep on weeding, but leave some seed heads for the birds.
- To ensure a great harvest of lemons, you’ll need to fertilise at least four times per year – in July, September, January and April – use a balanced granular fertiliser.
- Add ‘pot toppers’ to container plants around the garden and on the patio. A ‘pot topper’ can be in the form of a living mulch like a flat-growing groundcover, dwarf ornamental grasses like mondo grass, bark nuggets, small pebbles, shells or peach pips.
- Sow Flander’s poppies for late winter and early spring colour. If you do it between natural grasses you will create a lovely meadow garden.