April: Month-by-month guide to planting, gardening and produce – with recipes

01/01/2014 12:00 AM

02/11/2014 4:12 PM

Stalwarts in the sun-loving, water-efficient garden must include plants such as rosemary and lavender. But there are hundreds more plants that perform admirably in our climate, many of which offer year-around interest.

Generally, best bets are plants with silver or gray foliage since they are uniquely adapted to dealing with heat and sunshine. Many silver-leaved plants have a downy or hairy appearance, which lets them reflect light and conserve water so they can easily survive hot, dry conditions. Plants with small, needle-like leaves – English lavender, for example – are also suitable for low-water gardens. Unless it is a plant intended as a focal point, avoid planting just one of many different plants because it makes the garden look choppy.

Instead, plant in groups of odd numbers, because this looks more natural. Choose at least three of one plant. This gives the garden continuity and cohesion.

Here are a few of my favorites. I’ve chosen plants for each month of the year sometimes because of beautiful foliage, sometimes for their flowers, sometimes for autumn color or striking berries. Most provide year-round interest, although a few are herbaceous and die back when the weather turns cold. Include plenty of these plants in your garden, and you’ll have flowers to pick, foliage to enjoy and beauty in the garden all seasons of the year.

Rockrose ( Cistus sp.): Most gardeners discover rockroses while driving down the freeway. Suddenly one spring morning those hardly noticeable dark green shrubs growing along freeway ramps and medians are covered in bright pink or white crepe paper-like flowers, and you simply must find out what they are. Later that evening when you drive by again on your way home, the flower petals will be lying on the ground at the base of the shrub. But next morning, the plant will be again covered with flowers. The process repeats itself every day for about a month.

You’ve discovered the wonderful, amazing, carefree rockrose, which comprise the genus Cistus. The genus contains about 20 small to medium, sometimes aromatic shrubs. Some make low mounds while others hug the ground or grow to 6 feet tall. They are happiest growing in harsh conditions – not too much water or pampering after they are established.

You will need to cut them back about a third each year to keep them from getting woody, and may need to replace them after a few years, because no matter how hard you try, the bushier, taller varieties will eventually get woody in the middle of the plant. After six or eight years, you’ll have long bare branches with clumps of foliage only at the tips. When that happens, it’s definitely time to replace the plant.

They are easily started from cuttings. The low-growing ones, especially the ground-hugging ones, can be part of a fire-resistant planting, and take less maintenance as far as pruning.

Varieties to look for: I love them all, but look for Cistus “Sunset,” (hot pink flowers, gray green leaves), C. salvifolius (sage-leaf rockrose, ground hugging), and C. “Warley Rose” (cerise colored flowers, grows to 4 feet tall). C. ladanifer, also called crimson-spot rockrose, is best known for its smooth sticky leaves. It produces a gum-like resin, believed to be the source of biblical ladanum.

Red Hot Poker ( Kniphofia sp.): The strappy foliage of the old-fashioned red-hot pokers ( Knipohofia sp.) can become floppy and unkempt, and the flowering period is short. Flowers are dying on the same stalk as ones that are blooming, and the buds at the top of the spike never fully open.

Luckily for area gardeners, these South African natives are undergoing a renaissance of sorts. Hybridizers and plant enthusiasts have been tinkering, so take a look at the local nursery, and you’ll see things have changed for the red-hot poker.

The foliage of today’s hybrid kniphofias is stiffer and neater, and come in shades of gray green, yellow green and plain green. Many still sport flowers in the typical reddish orange tones, but many more now come in cream, lemony yellow, coral red, buff and almost white.

They can stand alone, or mingle right alongside perennial stalwarts like lavender, yarrow, sedum and cannas. Kniphofias look great paired with fiery-colored crocosmia, with pink lavateras, or orange or blue monardas. Also try them with agapanthus or lobelia for a stunning blue and orange combination. Plant them with blue oat grass ( Helictotrichon sempervirens), creeping manzanita, purple leaved New Zealand flax, and hardy geraniums.

Massed in the back of the border, or as a hedge, they are spectacular. Hummingbirds love the flowers. In fact, the plant can attract masses of them when in bloom.

All are tough survivors that can tolerate a range of planting conditions, and, depending on variety, they bloom all during the year, January to December. Even while winter storms rage, the hybrid K. Christmas Cheer is blooming. They are not overly thirsty, but do require regular watering.

When they get messy, I cut them to the ground, and within a week or two, the new foliage is up and growing.

What's in season in April: Chard

The Sunset Western Garden Book says chard is a form of beet grown for its leaves and stalks instead of its roots, and that it likely originated in the Mediterranean.

Gardeners love its big crinkly leaves, and the newer cultivars with their bright red, yellow, pink, purple, white or orange stalks make chard one of the most beautiful greens in the garden. It's one of the easiest vegetables to grow, although it demands plenty of water, and rich soil. You can sow it directly in the garden or buy starter plants.

It's easy to start from seed, and great thing is the seeds are fairly large and easy to handle. You can start harvesting chard leaves as soon as you think they're big enough. The more you harvest, the more the plant will produce. During mild winters, it can keep growing and producing leaves until the following spring. When the weather gets hot, it will go to seed. That's the end of any major production for the plant, so pull it out and toss it on the compost.

You can plant chard almost any time of year although plants started mid summer and fall can last well into the winter if the temperatures don't dip too low.

- Pat Rubin

Fresh: Store unwashed chard in damp paper towels in a plastic bag in the refrigerator and use it within 5 days of harvest. To wash, gently bounce leaves in a bowl of cool water and lift out, letting the soil and sand settle to the bottom. The flavor pairs well with fish and cured meats. It can be substituted for spinach in most recipes.

Preserving: Dehydrated chard makes a healthful snack. To dehydrate, trim and wash thoroughly; shake or pat dry; blanch 4 minutes. Dehydrate 6 to 10 hours in a dehydrator until crispy.

- Gwen Schoen

Bacon and Swiss chard pasta

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes

Serves 6

This seems like a lot of chard but, as with other greens, the quantity reduces dramatically when cooked. This recipe is based on one from Bon Appetit magazine.

INGREDIENTS

1 pound linguine

12 ounces bacon, cut into 1/2-inch slices

1 large red onion, sliced

2 cloves of garlic, minced

12 cups of Swiss chard, chopped, stems removed

Salt and pepper

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

3 tablespoons olive oil

2/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

INSTRUCTIONS

Cook linguine according to package directions. Drain, reserving 1 cup of cooking liquid.

Cook bacon in a large skillet over medium heat until it begins to turn crisp, about 10 minutes. Transfer the bacon to paper towels to drain. Drain the bacon drippings from the skillet, leaving about 2 tablespoons of drippings in the skillet. Add the onion to the skillet and stir-fry until soft, about 6 minutes. Add the garlic and cook 1 minute. Add chard and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add the reserved pasta cooking liquid. Toss the chard until wilted and tender, about 4 minutes. Sprinkle vinegar over the skillet mixture and cook 1 minute longer. Add the linguine and oil to the sauce in the skillet and toss to coat. Transfer the mixture to a large serving bowl. Sprinkle with bacon and Parmesan before serving.

Success in the April garden

Thin the fruit on fruit trees. Fruit should be about 6 inches apart.

Top dress roses with compost, ditto for garlic, shallots, onions and tomatoes.

Resist impulse buying at the nursery. Make sure the plant that wows you and that you think you can’t live without will thrive in your garden and that you have space for it.

Earwigs are on the prowl. Seedlings and flowers are their favorite foods. Walk through the garden with a flashlight at night, and you’ll likely see them everywhere. You can handpick them and toss them in a trash bag. There are baits that kill them, but be careful if you have kids or pets. Sluggo Plus works on earwigs, slugs and snails, and is nontoxic to pets and children.

Be diligent about eliminating standing water to control mosquitoes. Use mosquito fish in ponds.

Last chance to plant pansies and primrose. Summer bulbs are still available in nurseries: gladiolus, tuberous begonias, cannas and callas.

Pinch back chrysanthemums for bushier plants. Old stems from last year should be cut to the ground.

The soil should be warm enough for transplanting tomatoes and peppers into the ground.

Keep harvesting leaves from chard, arugula and lettuce to keep plants producing. Once the weather gets warm, the plants will bolt (produce flowers and make seeds). There’s nothing you can do about it. Replace them with heat-tolerant greens.

Frost tender plants can go outside this month.

Keep planting marigolds, cosmos, zinnias, petunias and coreopsis.

Feed camellias, rhododendrons, azaleas and gardenias with an acid-type fertilizer. If the foliage on the plants is yellow, spray with a foliar fertilizer containing iron and zinc.

Clean up fallen camellia flowers to prevent the spread of petal blight.

Pull out your hats and sunscreen. The sun is more powerful this time of year than you may think.

Trim frost-damaged limbs, winter damaged perennials back now.

Mulch garlic plants to discourage weeds and conserve moisture.

Keep row cover, newspaper, blankets handy for late frosts.

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