When in doubt, there's always African Violets!

April Is The Cruelest Month?

by Peter Gribble
Ah, April; celebrated in poetry and song for the arrival of spring! Yet there are Aprils that poets and lyricists seldom rhapsodize about: the cold and rainy ones. Robert Browning never wrote: “O, to be in the Lower Mainland, now that April’s there!” T. S. Eliot may have been closer to the truth when he wrote, “April is the cruelest month.” This year’s warm January lulled us into a global warming complacency while seducing some plants to put out their first spring growth. February and March’s snow, rain and cold temperatures forced us back indoors and blighted those plants’ new growth with winter burn. You can prune off the ‘burned’ bits and all should be well in a month’s time (God willing.) Yet neither temperatures nor precipitation were that far off from average. It was January that was the cruellest month.

If you planted pansies in the fall, they looked bright and cheerful in January while February and March reduced the flowers to wet tissue paper. They will be recovering with fresh blooms now, especially if you’ve been deadheading them (removing spent flowers before they go to seed.)

By May or June you will need to cut the pansies back when the weather warms or replace them.

March temperatures slowed the flowering of my daffodils and ‘dispersed the bloom’ with some varieties showing an early bloom and some a later one. Most years, daffodils – mine anyway – display a generally unified flush of flowering. As for early vegetables, I did manage to harvest two lone, thin spears of asparagus, a profligate’s banquet. However, a slow, hesitant season makes uneasy banqueting for emerging pollinators.

Several years ago, the UN environmental agency, in its first ever report on the subject, added its voice to the alarm around the world concerning the severe decline in bee populations. While the Colony Collapse Syndrome is complex, a contributing factor is the loss of habitat and flowering plants. So if you’ve the space and you’re not more than three floors from the ground you could grow some pollinator friendly flowering plants.

Another rewarding project: raising mason bees (if Strata rules permit). At larger garden centres there are instruction manuals, a helpful DVD, little wooden bee “condos” or “cottages” with plastic inserts as well as the mason bee cocoons in small boxes. Inside are ten cocoons: five males and five females but purchase them early as they can sell out quickly. Docile, solitary and fascinating, mason bees look like houseflies when they emerge. The males eat through their cocoon casing first and wait for the females to come out. They mate, then the female starts building a series of individual cells one by one in the bee condos. In each cell she collects and stores pollen for an egg she lays before sealing the cell with a mud plug and continuing on. Unlike honeybees who can travel several miles to find sources of pollen and nectar, mason bees don’t forage very far – barely the equivalent of two West End city blocks from their nesting site. In this weather, who’d want to go farther?

Gardening failures are such great teachers. One spring, I was excited to discover blueberries I thought I recognized from my youth and so bought five and potted them up. My mason bees were certainly happy with all the flowers the plants produced but all the activity resulted in ONE blueberry! I didn’t realize blueberries needed a different variety for successful pollination and fruit set. I quickly remedied the situation but that spring, I dutifully harvested the single, bountiful blueberry, sliced it in half and shared it in reverent ceremony with my partner. Never was a harvest so memorable.

Even if April’s weather is miserable, rhodos, azaleas and pieris are blooming, as are the spring camellias (C. japonica) and the early clematises though ornamental cherries and magnolias are late in some areas of the city.

Tulips have begun to show their colour while daffodils are looking ratty. There’s the old trick of planting forget-me-nots (Myosotis) over daffodil bulbs the previous fall. As daffodils begin to die back in the spring, pinch off any forming seed heads but don’t cut off the browning stems for these are feeding the bulbs for next year. The cheerful blue, pink or white forget-me-nots flowers disguise the unsightly die back.

Garden centres are filling up with everything you want to grow but don’t be tempted! These plants have been growing in heated greenhouses. Nighttime temperatures are still too cool for many of them, unless you have protected areas for them or you can cover them when there’s risk of frost. Watch out for ‘abnormal temperature trends.’ Even snow can fall in the middle of April as it did in 2011.

Cool weather plants such as lettuces, kales, Brussels sprouts, broccoli and cauliflower (members of the Brassica Family) and potatoes all can be planted in the ground or in pots as can peas. For the ambitious, there’s rhubarb and horseradish, though for all potted vegetables and herbs make sure you use a planter box mix and augment it with soil amender. A south-facing balcony is essential. Mint is an exception, tolerating partial shade, though it may not flower as much as in full sun. Also keep mint in its own pot as it will take over and crowd out anything planted with it. And don’t even think of growing basil until nighttime temperatures are consistently above 16 C (60 F.)

In West End parks you can hear song sparrow songs growing more complex and chickadees more insistent. Bird populations are changing. Canada geese are returning while the juncos start flying north to their nesting sites. In 2016 juncos had vanished by April 9. They must’ve known 10 days later we’d be breaking records for high temperatures. 2015 was the year of the drought where a wide range of plants were flowering a full month earlier than usual. Some roses bloomed in April.

It won’t happen this year.

So if the drippy, chilly weather dampens your gardening courage, snuggle up to your houseplants for solace instead. African violets never looked so endearing.

There’s always May. Tra la.