April is the ideal time for a walk in the Piedmont woods.
Along Mallard Creek, choirs of native pinxterflower azaleas with long pistils and stamens sing pink and purple madrigals worthy of Thomas Morley.
Closer to the ground you may find blooming bloodroot, bleeding heart, Jack-in-the-pulpit and, if you are lucky, the queen of Carolina wildflowers: trillium.
Meanwhile, there’s plenty of garden work to do between nature walks.
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With daffodils and other spring bulbs, deadhead finished flowers as ruthlessly as Henry VIII beheaded unwanted wives. But don’t immediately cut off the leaves. Leave the foliage alone until it turns yellow so it can store solar energy to make next year’s flowers.
Don’t fertilize your fescue lawn; it’s too late. Most people can’t keep up with fescue now, anyway, since it grows so fast. In fact, to keep it a healthy 3 to 4 inches tall, you may have to mow more than once a week.
Pick up extra grass clippings so they don’t clump on your lawn, even if you normally grasscycle (as you should). You can use clippings for mulch after they dry.
Alternatively, when you rake up lingering leaves as part of spring cleanup, mix together grass clippings and leaves to make a spring compost pile or two (a good way to do that is by spreading clippings over leaves and running the mower over everything). They will become black gold for your garden as early as October.
On Tax Day, April 15, our traditional frost-free date, University City gardeners can plant summer vegetables and annual flowers.
Fortuitously, April is also the time for local spring plant sales, offering a chance to pick up choice varieties while supporting some excellent local gardening programs. Two of the best sales take place here in University City.
• UNC Charlotte’s spring plant sale takes place on campus at the McMillan Greenhouse, near the corner of Mary Alexander and Craver roads. It begins with a sale from 3 to 6 p.m. April 18 for members only. Dr. Larry Mellichamp, a botanist and the garden’s director, said anyone can join on the spot for $25.
The sale opens to the general public from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. April 19 and 20, and from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. April 21. The sale will feature “hard-to-find native and appropriate exotic trees, shrubs, vines, ferns, wildflowers, carnivorous plants and annuals,” Mellichamp said.
“Don’t open your windows until May 10.” Mellichamp added. “That’s normally the last day for wild pollination of spring trees.” Between now and then, he explained, pines and hardwoods – such as oaks and maples – will be shedding “tons of pollen.” Showy flowering trees such as dogwoods and redbuds do not shed pollen and don’t generally cause hay fever.
• Central Piedmont Community College’s Horticulture Technology Program will have its plant sale from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. April 19 and from 9 a.m. to noon April 20 at CPCC’s Cato Campus on W.T. Harris Boulevard at Grier Road, only five minutes from UNCC. CPCC’s sale offers an exceptional variety of tomatoes and peppers (including heirlooms), along with herbs, flowers and select shrubs (including a few blueberries).
• Another hidden gem on the edge of University City is Whitener’s Greenhouses, at 12337 Old Statesville Road in Huntersville.
For more than a half-century, this local farm family has been providing transplants to area nurseries and residents, offering an excellent selection of healthy plants at very reasonable prices.
Linda Whitener remembers the early days. Whenever cows from their herd managed to get out, they were easy to find, chowing down on succulent veggies and flowers in the then-new greenhouse. Whitener’s has warm- and cool-season vegetables and bedding flowers – including tomatoes and zinnias – and also carries some organic products like Fafard’s organic potting mix, for starting your transplants at home.
Besides those University City options, gardeners may want to explore Winghaven’s sale, also Wednesday through Saturday in Myers Park. It offers a wide selection, including a very good collection of herbs and daily special garden speakers and events. And it is never a bad time to visit Renfrow Hardware in Matthews, a local garden institution.
“We are finally hopping,” said Renfrow owner David Blackley. “But the ground still needs to warm up and dry out before the big-time gardeners are out. We like to tell folks that if it can be grown and eaten in these parts, we have it – vegetables, herbs, berries, fruits, crowns, bulbs, corms, seeds and chickens.”
With such an array of great local gardening sources, who can resist that April urge to get out there and grow something?