MARCH IS A REAL TRANSITION MONTH here in Zone 5B: It can be garden-cleanup season, or still deep winter, or some of both. Sticks and stones picked up or raked away often are replaced with another supply from on high, as if you really needed a do-over. Oh, well. This month’s to-do list:
WHILE INDOOR CHORES such as seed-sowing commence on schedule regardless of which kind of March we’re dealt, outdoor chores sometimes have to wait until April. Caveat emptor: Be sensible and don’t muck around in too-wet soil or walk unnecessarily on sodden lawns. Love your soil, and protect it.
YOUR PLANT ORDERS should be in the mail by now. When things arrive, bare-root woody plants will take priority in planting, so think ahead.
GET YOUR JOURNAL, calendar or notebook ready to record bloom times, timing of tasks, successes and failures, and valuable information from catalogs or seed packets.
TAKE A WALKABOUT: Check to see if mulches are in place or heaved, or if burlap and other protectors have come loose, exposing vulnerable plants. Once soil drains, pull and dig up perennial weeds now, before they get a foothold. After some sunny, dry days, rake snow mold off lawns. Empty bird boxes of old nests, and cut down ornamental grasses before they sprout anew.
SEEDS & VEGETABLES
STIFLE THE URGE to start vegetable seedlings too early. Small, compact seedlings are better than older, leggy ones for transplanting. Only leeks and onions should be started indoors before mid-month. After that, the pace quickens: Sow cool-season crops such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kohlrabi and Brussels sprouts mid-March, to set out six weeks later. (Tomatoes and other warm-season vegetables get sown here April 15. Patience!)
GETTING READY for seed-starting provides a distraction, and one could always order a few more packets to soothe the soul. My favorite sources are in the right-hand sidebar. Did you do your germination testing yet to see what leftovers are viable?
PREVENT DAMPING OFF, a fungal disease that kills seedlings, by starting with clean containers and sterile soilless mix. Wash previously used flats, cell packs or pots with a 1:10 solution of bleach and water.
IF YOU HAVE A cold frame, sow an early crop of spinach and lettuce. In fact, you can start spinach in the open ground if snow has melted.
AROUND ST. PATRICK’S DAY, or as soon after as soil can be worked, sow peas. Lettuce can follow shortly, along with radishes.
DON’T CULTIVATE till soil is beginning to be crumbly, not sodden, which might even be April. When the time arrives, turn in several inches of compost and an all-natural, organic fertilizer rated for vegetables.
HOUSEPLANTS ARE AWAKE again, nudged by longer days and stronger light. They will need more moisture and an occasional half-strength fertilizing. Be brutal with any leggy messes: haircut time.
KEEP AN EYE OUT for signs of pests like spider mites, mealybugs, and scale insects. If tackled promptly, nonchemical methods work: a simple shower, insecticidal soap spray (as directed on label) or with the most tenacious (like mealybugs) sometimes an alcohol swab and Q-tip. Overwatering is the biggest risk…go easy.
TREES & SHRUBS
PRUNE GRAPE VINES to no more than four fruiting canes with 7 to 10 buds apiece.
CUT OUT CANES OF raspberries that have borne fruit, and any that are thinner than a pencil. Shorten the remaining young canes by at least a foot.
PRIME PRUNING TIME for deciduous trees and shrubs (including fruit trees) is now, while they are dormant. Don’t paint wounds—let them heal naturally. Always use sharp tools to make clean cuts, and be on the lookout for dead, damaged, or diseased wood and prune out. Remove suckers and water sprouts, too.
DID YOU CLEAR TURF OR WEEDS from the area around trunks of fruit trees and ornamentals to reduce winter damage by rodents? Hardware cloth collars should be in place year-round as well.
MOLE PATROL continues, in perpetuity: I am still setting out mousetraps under boxes, buckets or cans in gardens where I see activity, to rid them from beds and borders.
FORCE BRANCHES of spring-blooming shrubs and trees like pussy willow, forsythia, apple and cherry once buds begin to swell. Cut on an angle and put indoors in water. I submerge them overnight, then place them in a bucket of water in my mudroom, draped with plastic, until the buds push off their coverings. The closer to actual bloom date, the higher the success rate (no big surprise).
FEED SPRING BULBS with an appropriate all-natural organic fertilizer as green tips push through the ground.
LIKE TUBEROUS BEGONIAS? Get them going indoors late March for setting outside late May. Start them in trays of moistened vermiculite, then pot up individually in a month. Grow in a bright, warm spot.
EASY ROSE-GARDEN groundcover: Scratch up soil under roses or elsewhere to sow sweet alyssum seeds as an annual flowering carpet.