Maine Home Garden News — April 2011

April is the month to . . .

By Richard Brzozowski, Extension Educator, Cumberland County,

  • Walk around your yard or property to assess winter damage. Make a “to do” list of items or changes you want to accomplish in your yard and garden this growing season.
  • pruning a branch from a treeInspect trees and shrubs in your landscape and prune out any damaged or dying branches. Use sharp pruning tools. Wear eye protection. See Bulletin #2169, Pruning Woody Landscape Plants for more information.
  • Consider purchasing new pruning tools needed to work effectively such as hand shears, loppers, and a pruning saw.
  • As the snow leaves your lawn, rake out any mole hills. Reseeding is probably not necessary in these areas. Moles are carnivores (meat eaters) and are attracted to your lawn area by underground grubs, earth worms, and insects. The University of Arkansas has an informational fact sheet on effective mole control. See Controlling the Eastern Mole — FSA-9095 [PDF] or call 1-800-287-1471 for a copy of the fact sheet.
  • Freshen up mulch around trees and shrubs by removing stray weeds, breaking clods, and adding new mulch where needed. Avoid piling mulch directly against the base of plants.  Use a flat tined fork to loosen soil beneath mulch. Consider integrating compost or fertilizer (organic or synthetic) before applying fresh mulch.
  • Visit your local garden center for ideas and new products.
  • There’s probably still time to prune fruit trees and blueberry plants before they break dormancy. Be cautious as your pull or remove cut branches from the tree so as not to rip off buds on remaining branches.
  • As the soil thaws, consider getting the soil tested. Are there specific gardens or lawn areas that did not perform well last growing season? A soil test can provide useful information to make this growing season more production. Contact your local county Extension office for soil testing forms, boxes, and fact sheet or see Bulletin #2286, Testing Your Soil. Some Extension offices have soil sampling probes for borrowing. The probes make soil sampling faster and easier. The price for a soil test from the Maine Soil Testing Lab is $15.00 per sample. Make your liming and fertilizing decisions on real facts and figures. Don’t guess; do a soil test.
  • If you have not done so already, start planning your vegetable garden. What do you want to grow? How much? There are some frost tolerant crops such as peas that can be planted in late April if the snow is gone and the soil is workable.
  • Consider extending your growing season this year by planting some cold hardy vegetables well before the traditional planting time of Memorial Day weekend. Seed germination is influenced by seed age (viability), soil temperature, and moisture. Avoid excessively wet soils when sowing seeds. Spinach, lettuce, and mesclun will need protection (plastic or glass) from cold days and nights. Peas, however, can be directly sown as soon as the soil is workable (not soggy). Replant peas if spring rains reduce your planting.
  • Rake out and level any turf areas damaged or disturbed by the snowplow. Do some spot seeding is necessary. Garden centers generally have a suggested turf seed blend for such situations.
  • Two Garden Angels help a program participant who is wheelchair-boundEncourage a friend to garden this year. Gardening is a great way to stay active, be outdoors, socialize, and enjoy nature.
  • Be aware of individuals in your neighborhood or community who might need assistance with their garden this growing season. People who lack the physical ability to garden by themselves due to age or disability appreciate others who lend support. You would be surprised at the friendships you can cultivate!

The University of Maine Cooperative Extension is encouraging everyone to get involved in combating local hunger by participating in the Maine Harvest for Hunger Program. The goal of this program is to connect people with excess, high quality produce to those in need of fresh fruits and vegetables. There are many ways to participate: dedicate part of your garden harvest to a local soup kitchen or food pantry, become part of a team to harvest excess crops from farmers’ fields (gleaners) or help coordinate pick-up and deliveries from participating farm stands to food pantries. To learn more about the program, visit our Maine Harvest for Hunger website or contact your local Extension office.

Spring is Lurking . . . Preparing for Gardening Season

By Alice Elliott, UMaine Extension Master Gardener Volunteer, Kennebec County

April is a difficult month for a gardener in Maine. As the days lengthen and the bright sun pushes the temps into the 40s most gardeners I know feel the siren call of the trowel, but here in Maine, mud season is generally in full swing. Despite the mud, there are still ways you can get your gardening fix, yet not damage garden soils by working them wet.

April is a great time to work on your garden plan. Have you divided up your plantings into like families for ease of crop rotation, or figured out a companion planting scheme? Even in small gardens it makes sense to move things around from season to season. A garden plan organized by plant families will make rotation easier.

Lately I’ve been developing a spreadsheet in Excel that I will use for a permanent garden record and planning tool. On one page of the spreadsheet, I have created a planting calendar to help me do a better job with succession planting. Excel has a nice feature that will calculate dates for you. Enter the desired harvest date and the days to maturity, and it will calculate the sowing date. I also track my harvest totals, expenses, and create a plot plan. If you have access to Excel or some other spreadsheet software, you might want to try it.

Early spring is a great time to get your tools cleaned, organized, and sharpened for the season. A little oil and some steel wool will clean any rust, and a file will sharpen the edge of your shovel or trowel to make digging easier. Unvarnished wooden handles can be sanded smooth and oiled with linseed oil to protect the wood and remove splinter sources. A trick I read once suggested before you sharpen a new pruner blade, you run a permanent marker along the edge bevel — you’ll be better able to tell when you’ve filed it evenly. It works for me. Once the tools are clean and sharp, put them away neatly, reorganizing the storage area if necessary. I use a 5 gallon bucket with a nylon tool apron, and this is a good time to dump the collected grit out of the bucket and prepare for the season.

As you are planning for the season, it is a good time to read up on some new vegetable varieties to try. Many Asian greens are cold hardy and would thrive planted early in addition to being tasty and loaded with nutrients. Page through the garden catalogs and take a look at the options. Some varieties of Pac Choi, Tatsoi, and Chinese broccoli can be harvested in 35-45 days.

You could give these greens and other cold-hardy greens like Mache, arugula, spinach and lettuce a try in a simple window box. Keep it by the door and on your way out to work set it out in the sun, and on your way home, set it inside for the night. A little snow won’t hurt things, and if a rainy day threatens a flood, leave it inside for the day.

If you don’t have a window box, for about the same price you could try building a grow box: a wooden framed shallow planting box designed for shallow-rooted, quick-maturing vegetables. The University of Maryland extension service has good instructions about making boxes, plus information on growing media, fertilizing, and a list of vegetables that are suitable for growing in these boxes. These boxes are simple to construct with just a drill-driver, staple gun, and materials. I haven’t made a box yet, but it is on my list — as soon as I make some new tomato cages.

I don’t know about you, but in the early spring with those sporadic warm and sunny days my garden energy is off the charts. These small projects allow me to channel that energy to good use at a time when I’m not busy keeping up with the flood of tomatoes, and prevent me from the classic mistake of starting tomatoes too early.

Cold frames with covers open for ventilationOther great projects include constructing a simple a cold frame, making tomato cages, or making seed mats for carrots. Just don’t start your tomatoes before mid-April!

Alice Elliott is a Master Gardener graduate of the 2010 Kennebec County class and may be reached at

Is Your Home Garden Produce Safe to Eat?

By David Handley, Vegetable & Small Fruit Specialist, Highmoor Farm, Monmouth,

In recent years, we have seen a lot of publicity about contaminated produce making consumers ill. Food contamination may be the result of unsafe production practices or, more frequently, unsafe handling and storage practices. One of the reasons people state for gardening at home is to avoid purchasing contaminated produce. But how safe are the fruit and vegetables we grow ourselves? Contamination of home garden produce is possible, even likely, if practical food safety measures are not followed. This could lead to illness for you and your family. Here are some food safety tips to help keep your produce safe and healthy to eat throughout the gardening season.

Preparing the Vegetable Garden Site

  • Locate vegetable gardens away from manure piles, well caps, garbage cans, septic systems, and areas where wildlife, farm animals, or the family pets roam.
  • Use compost safely. Compost can be a great amendment for garden soils adding valuable organic matter and nutrients, but it can also be a source of contaminants from bacterial pathogens. If you make your own compost from garden waste, manures, etc., it must reach a temperature of at least 130°F during the composting process in order to destroy potential harmful bacteria. Check the temperature with a compost thermometer. Do not use any animal waste (including pet waste), meat scraps or dairy products in your compost bin.

During the Growing Season

Water: Know the quality and safety of the water you use in your garden.

  • If you get your water from a public water system, you can be sure that it is safe and potable (drinkable).
  • Surface water (lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams) can be polluted by human sewage or animal waste, fertilizers, and pesticides from lawns and farm fields, or chemicals from industry.
  • Well water is less likely to have microbial contaminants than surface water. Keep sources of contamination away from the well head, such as waste piles, manure, compost, and pesticides.
  • Conduct a standard water test at least once a year to determine if your well water meets the standards of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Animals: Animal waste can be a source of bacteria, parasites and viruses.

  • Keep cats, dogs, and other pets out of the garden.
  • Curtail nesting and hiding places for rats and mice by minimizing vegetation at the edges of your fruit and vegetable garden, e.g., keep the grass mowed short near the garden.
  • Do not feed wild animals, even birds, near your garden. Fencing or noise deterrents may help discourages other wild animals.

Harvesting Garden Produce

  • Use clean, food-grade containers. Food-grade containers are made from materials designed specifically to safely hold food. Garbage bags, trash cans, and any containers that originally held chemicals such as household cleaners or pesticides are not food-grade.
  • Always wash your hands before harvesting or use clean gloves. Brush, shake or rub off any excess garden soil or debris before bringing produce into the kitchen.
  • Do not eat unwashed produce from the garden

After Harvest

  • Vegetables and fruits should be brushed clean or washed of any loose soil remaining after harvest.
  • If produce is going to be stored it should be dry and placed into clean containers.
  • Fruits and vegetables needing refrigeration can be stored at 40° F or less.
  • Fruits and vegetables stored at room temperature (onions, potatoes, tomatoes) should be in a cool, dry, pest-free, well-ventilated area separate from household chemicals.

Remember when preparing produce from your garden for meals to always wash your hands first; rinse the produce under cool, running, clean water (no soap) even if you do not plan to eat the skin or rind; and avoid cross-contamination with raw meats, residues, dirty work surfaces, utensils, dishes, etc. Keep the preparation area and your hands clean, and wash between handling any meats or other sources of contamination (pets, toys, etc.) and returning to preparing your produce.

For a handy 2-page chart on proper storage of fresh garden produce, see Garden to Table: Storing Fresh Garden Produce [Word].

Adapted from: Five Steps to Food Safe Fruit and Vegetable Home Gardening, University of Rhode Island. 2006.

University of Maine Cooperative Extension’s Maine Home Garden News is designed to equip home gardeners with practical, timely information.

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Maine Home Garden News was created in response to a continued increase in requests for information on gardening and includes timely and seasonal tips, as well as research-based articles on all aspects of gardening. Articles are written by UMaine Extension specialists, educators, and horticulture professionals, as well as Master Gardener Volunteers from around Maine, with Professor Richard Brzozowski serving as editor.

Information in this publication is provided purely for educational purposes. No responsibility is assumed for any problems associated with the use of products or services mentioned. No endorsement of products or companies is intended, nor is criticism of unnamed products or companies implied.

© 2011
Published and distributed in furtherance of Acts of Congress of May 8 and June 30, 1914, by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, the Land Grant University of the state of Maine and the U.S. Department of Agriculture cooperating. Cooperative Extension and other agencies of the U.S.D.A. provide equal opportunities in programs and employment.

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