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April gardening chores from the Bard (and yours truly)

“April, dressed in all his trim, hath put a spirit of youth in everything.”

— William Shakespeare, "Sonnet 98," 1609

More than 400 years ago, Shakespeare wrote of “lilies white” and “deep vermilion in the rose” of springtime. One of 125 poems written to an unknown “Fair Youth,” the bard’s Sonnet 98, and for whom it was intended, has remained a mystery for centuries.

The climes of spring are equally mysterious, prompting Mark Twain to observe in 1876, “In the spring I have counted one hundred and thirty-six different kinds of weather inside of four and twenty hours.” Temperatures in our area are not quite as fickle as Twain claimed; however, today I’m wearing a sweater as protection from chilly winds, but the forecast promises shorts and a t-shirt tomorrow.

Despite such fluctuations, I have several items on my gardening to-do list, and I’m counting on Shakespeare’s “spirit of youth” to complete them all by the end of April. The following includes recommendations from the OSU Extension Service and the Jackson County Master Gardener Association.

This month is the time to plant grape vines in moist, well-draining soil. Trim roots back to 6 inches and cut the top of the main stem back to three buds.

There are also several kinds of vegetable seeds to sow this month for transplanting into garden beds once soil and night temperatures have warmed up in May and early June. These include: basil, cabbage, cantaloupe, cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, squash, tomatoes and watermelon. Plant seeds for basil, cantaloupe, cucumbers, eggplant, squash and watermelon in peat or cow pots, and plant the pots directly into the garden soil when it’s time. These plants have delicate roots that are easily damaged when transplanting.

My garden soil temperature is now at 56 degrees, which is within the optimal germination range for cool-season crops, so it’s time to direct seed beets, carrots, chives, cilantro, dill, fennel, lettuce, parsley, potatoes, radishes, scallions, Swiss chard and turnips. Radishes tend to bolt during early warm spells, so I use a bolt-resistant, organic variety called Celesta, available from Territorial Seed Co. Peas may still be direct-seeded in the garden provided they are resistant to a disease common to our area called pea enation virus. Resistant varieties include Cascadia snap peas and Oregon Sugar Pod II snow peas.

April is also the time to begin transplanting a number of vegetable starts: early varieties of broccoli and cauliflower and mid-season varieties of cabbage, as well as onion sets, Asian greens, bok choi and rhubarb. Be prepared to use frost-protection fabric to guard young plants, including transplants of early tomato varieties.

Another gardening task this month is to feed established artichoke and blackberry plants with high-phosphorous fertilizer to help set fruit and flower buds. Look for a lower ratio of nitrogen (N) compared to phosphorous (P) or potassium (K) levels on the label (for example, 5-10-5 or 10-20-20). I’ve been using Fox Farm’s Bloom Big Liquid Plant Food with good results, but it’s more spendy than some other brands.

My herb garden also needs some attention. Garden sage and thyme that have overwintered and grown lanky need to be pruned back and fertilized with fresh compost. (Avoid over-fertilizing herbs, because this may reduce plant oils and flavor.) Some of the mint I grow in containers is already beginning to spread rampantly, so I’ll transplant some of it to new pots.

For more information about early spring gardening, check out the "Garden Guides" on the Jackson County Master Gardener Association website at www.jacksoncountymga.org.

Master Gardeners will host a Spring Fever Garden Tour from 12:30 to 3 p.m. Saturday, April 16, at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center, 569 Hanley Road, Central Point. Cost is $5.

Shakespeare mentioned springtime in many of his plays and sonnets. In "King Henry VI" (1591), the bard reminds us of yet another garden chore this month: “Now ‘tis the spring, and weeds are shallow-rooted. Suffer them now, and they’ll overgrow the garden.”

Rhonda Nowak is a member of the Jackson County Master Gardener Association and teaches writing at Rogue Community College. Email her at rnowak39@gmail.com.