MARCH IS THE MONTH when I need two versions of the garden to-do list: one labeled, “If frozen…” and the other, “If thawed…” The glacier is nowhere near receding here, but the chickadees say emphatically that it will, and besides, certain seeds need starting indoors, anyhow. Shall we find our way together gingerly into spring, with the March garden chores?
Particularly up North, it’s an if-and-when kind of month, as in: Do things on this list if and when the snow melts, the ground defrosts, and mud starts to drain off and dry. If and when. Not before! The biggest caveat: Don’t walk or work in too-wet soil, or trod on sodden lawns. Love your soil, and protect it.
Speaking of garden stewardship: Did you take my more mulch, no sprays pledge for greener growing in 2014? Order mulch now, preferably a bulk delivery—skipping all those plastic bags, and ideally choosing a locally produced material. What makes good mulch, and how to use it.
No matter what the weather: Empty nest boxes of old nests, and maybe add more birdhouses. My nestbox 101 is here.
Muck out water gardens of fallen leaves and other debris at the earliest opportunity, using a net. Watch for tadpoles and salamanders and egg masses in every heap; return them to their watery hideouts. (I turn each netful of debris gently into a wheelbarrow with water in it, and poke around in each load for hostages.) When the weather settles, remove floating de-icers (remember my fall regimen for water-garden care?), and get pumps and filters going again, following all my spring water-garden tips.
Sketch out what will go where in the vegetable garden–space, water, and your maintenance time are not infinite commodities! 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.
WHEN TO START WHAT? My seed calculator tool will help time sowings properly, no matter where you live. Don’t rush. Stout, sturdy seedlings are better than older, leggy ones for transplanting. For perspective: I don’t start tomatoes here in Zone 5B until mid-April.
STILL ORDERING SEED: Yes, like the weather, I am slow this year, so I’m browsing the catalogs one more time—including all those in my recent seed series on radio and the blog, and my favorite salad source or this giant collection of herbs, and others in my Resource List.
IF YOU HAVEN’T READ the seed-shopping rules we live by here at A Way to Garden, meant to help you resist buying every last sexy thing you see, here’s that info in a video format. My 20 seed-starting FAQs are also at the ready to help.
FIRST SEEDS FIRST: Only leeks and onions get going indoors under lights before mid-month in my Zone 5B area, but after that, the pace quickens: In mid-March or so, I sow first batches of cool-season crops such as broccoli (I love ‘Piracicaba’ and spigariello, a leaf broccoli, spring or fall), plus cabbage, cauliflower, kohlrabi and Brussels sprouts, to set outside six weeks later. I sow peas (these are some varieties I love) and spinach around mid-March outdoors, too, if the soil allows. I pray I can get them in no later than the end of the first week in April, so they don’t bump too hard into summer heat at harvest time. Again: if and when.
INVENTORY LEFTOVER SEEDS, whether by checking my Seed Viability Chart and/or doing germination tests, to see what’s still viable. Not just viability (the ability to germinate) but also vigor (the ability to thrive after that) are at work; more on that important topic here.
WHAT SEED-STARTING GEAR and lights will you use? No windowsills! Best to get the equipment in order—or built or bought. In 1989, I had this proper rig built (lights and all) but a couple of years ago, I got a miniature version with stronger, new-fangled grow bulbs that I love. Also: Do you have fresh seed-starting medium (not potting soil–that’s too coarse for seeds) and flats, trays, pots, labels?
PREVENT DAMPING OFF, a fungal disease that kills seedlings, by starting with clean containers and sterile soilless germinating mix. Wash flats, cell packs or pots with a 1:10 solution of bleach:water. My friend Ken Druse fights damping off this clever way.
WARM-SEASON CROPS such as tomatoes don’t get sown here indoors until April 15. Patience! If you are already at tomato-starting time, read on. I prefer not to plant tomatoes or potatoes, in particular, in the same place, to help avoid tomato troubles. Rotation isn’t enough, though, so I’ll follow tips from tomato breeder Tom Stearns for better “tomato hygiene,” too.
first cleanup and prep tasks
KEEP THE PHRASE “as soon as the ground can be worked” in mind, and when it can, focus first efforts on spots where must-be-planted-early things will go. Examples: plants that are sold “bare-root,” such as asparagus crowns, or raspberries, strawberries or rhubarb, for instance, and even roses from some suppliers. Onion and shallot seedlings or sets, and seed potatoes tend to show up early, too.
ANOTHER EARLY ROW to prep: for peas or spinach or other things I direct sow soon. Double back and make ready for tomato transplants later, but cool-season crops can’t wait.
DON’T CULTIVATE till soil is beginning to be crumbly, not sodden, which might even be April. When the time arrives, turn in (or top dress with) several inches of compost. Expert Lee Reich never turns it in, or otherwise cultivates; here’s why.
WITH CUTBACKS, it’s also first things first. I cut down my faded ornamental grasses before they sprout anew, and leaves of earliest bloomers like epimediums, or things that emerge fast and would prevent easy cutback, like tall sedums. Cut back evergreen groundcovers whose leaves will fade when new crop pushes, including those epimedium, hellebores, and European ginger (Asarum europaeum).
STICKS AND STONES can be picked up or raked away—but they’re often replaced at once with another supply from on high in the next March storm, as if you really needed a do-over. Oh, well.
PULL AND DIG PERENNIAL WEEDS when possible, such as garlic mustard, before they get a foothold. Help with weed ID and management.
COLLECT CARDBOARD AND NEWSPAPER while you wait for full-on garden season, to smother areas for new beds, or thwart weeds under fresh mulch in existing ones.
RAKE SNOW MOLD off lawns, but not until after a stretch of sunny, dry days.
HOUSEPLANTS ARE AWAKE again, nudged by longer days and stronger light. They will need more moisture and an occasional half-strength fertilizing, but overwatering is still the biggest danger to their health; feel around in the soil for guidance on when they need more. 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.
trees & shrubs
I’M FINISHING UP fruit-tree pruning (here’s how), and about to start on twig willows and dogwoods, and this month or next some clematis, most roses, buddleia, Hydrangea paniculata and more. My pruning FAQ is here. Remember that if you prune early bloomers such as lilacs now, you’ll have fewer flowers this spring; maybe wait until just after bloom.
I’M WAITING a bit longer to cut back twig willows and dogwoods because I’m enjoying the show. Maybe late month or even April with those, though their colorful twigs would make good indoor arrangements, so I may steal a few trimmings now before stooling later (cutting to maybe 8 inches from the ground to rejuvenate, every other or third year).
PRUNE GRAPE VINES to no more than four fruiting canes with 7 to 10 buds apiece.
THINKING OF BLUEBERRIES? Have greater success by following this blueberry-growing primer.
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.
FORCE BRANCHES of early spring-blooming shrubs and trees like pussy willow, forsythia, apple and cherry, once buds have begun to swell. Cut on an angle or hammer the ends to make for better water uptake, and put indoors in water. I submerge them overnight, then place them in a bucket of water in my cool mudroom, draped with a plastic bag, until the buds push off their coverings. The closer to actual bloom date you force things, the higher the success rate (no big surprise).
SOMETIME IN MARCH, the intermediate witch-hazels will try to bloom (it was too cold in February this year). Other extra-early blooming shrubs in my garden include the pussy willow called Salix chaenomeloides. Consider adding them to yours.
ALWAYS BE on the lookout for dead, damaged, diseased wood in trees and shrubs and prune them out as discovered. Remove suckers and water sprouts, too.
WHILE OUT THERE PRUNING, I’ll make a list of beds that will get simplified with the use of some favorite groundcovers, for instance.
SCOUT FOR VIBURNUM BEETLE egg cases on bare viburnum twigs October through April. Remove cases by pruning off affected wood to reduce larvae and beetle issues. The bump-like cases are usually on the underside of youngest twigs. (I also watch in May for larvae hatch and rub the twigs then to squash the emerging pests I missed.)
VOLE AND MOUSE PATROL CONTINUES, in perpetuity: I am still setting out mousetraps under my special homemade boxes in the gardens where I see any activity, to reduce them in my beds and borders.
FEED SPRING BULBS with an appropriate all-natural organic fertilizer as green tips push through the ground.
LIKE TUBEROUS BEGONIAS? Get them going indoors this month for setting outside after the weather settles. Start in trays of moistened vermiculite or fast-draining potting soil, then pot up individually in a month or so. Grow in a bright, warm spot. More on tuberous begonias. Also: I start my cannas that way, though a bit later, and dahlias–especially oldtime varieties.
ANNUAL POPPIES like these can also be sown now, right in the garden. Don’t disturb them during cleanup!
Note: My chores are timed for the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA) area where I live, which is Zone 5B. Adjust your timing to suit your zone.