Margaret's garden clogs and trowelMY BEST MARCH GARDEN ADVICE: Make like a daffodil. Poke your head up and have a look around—but be prepared to abort the mission, perhaps several times, and even get snowed on. Be nimble, ready to act when the forces are willing, but be patient, too, especially up North.

Except in frost-free zones, make two to-do March task lists: one labeled, “If frozen…” and the other, “If thawed…” It’s glacial as the month begins in my Zone 5B garden, but the woodpeckers who have started drumming emphatically and even a few tentative songbirds clearing their throats forecast that it will be spring sometime soon-ish, and besides, certain seeds need starting indoors.

The March garden chores really amount to a horticultural improvisation act, juggling between Plan A and Plan B.

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 soggy soil, or trod on sodden lawns. Even if the snow melts, I don’t tread unnecessarily on frozen lawns. Love your soil, and protect it.

Days are noticeably longer (calculate how long for your location) and will seem more so when we awaken to changed clocks on Sunday, March 8, in Daylight Savings Time (in effect until November 1). Even if snow persists, one friend takes advantage of late-winter sunny days by pruning his fruit trees in snowshoes. Now that’s being flexible, the way March demands.

new feature for 2015: regional links

THE ORGANIC-GARDENING approach and the how-to tips I offer in the chores will apply most anywhere–pruning a rose or sowing a tomato seed is similar, wherever the rose or tomato may grow. But the when is not the same. To help adjust the timing: My garden is in Zone 5B, in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA) area, where frost can persist well into May and return in October. You may need next month’s chores, or last month’s (the archive is here). For more Zone-specific advice, I’ve rounded up a new page of links to calendars and checklists from around the nation (and the U.K.). Again, I encourage you to read on first, because I’m betting there’s something here for you, wherever you may dig, weed, or prune.

be environmentally conscious

HAVE YOU SET THE TONE for the 2015 garden? This year’s mantra is “Be thoughtful, keep weeding,” with the “thoughtful” part standing for “thoughtful organic gardening,” as in thinking carefully before any action is taken. My resolutions. (A year earlier, I’d suggested, “More mulch, no spray,” another way to say: Be kind!)

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.

IS YOUR COMPOSTING operation just not yielding enough, or taking too much work?  Nobody does it better than my friend Lee Reich, who composts like this.

wildlife-gardening chores

BIRD HOUSES: No matter what the weather: Empty nest boxes of old nests, to encourage a new family to choose the box, 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.

WANT MORE WILDLIFE, including birds? Here’s how to create a habitat garden, and also a Q&A with wildlife ecologist Doug Tallamy of the University of Delaware on creating backyard habitat. Speaking of wildlife magnets: Will this be the year you add water, whether in-ground or simply an easy, seasonal trough like this?

SICK OF DEER? Maybe it’s time to plan for upgrades in deer control. If by this point in winter you have tired of deer damage, perhaps this will be the year you fence the yard, or at least a key area, using one of these approaches.

SICK OF MOWING? Do you want to mow differently (as I did the last two years to good result, making more semi-wild spots for insects and birds to enjoy).

garden-design to-do’s

ARE POLKA-DOTS dominating your ornamental gardens—you know, lots of “onesies” (a single plant of each kind, instead of an impactful group or drift of each variety)? Last year I forced myself to divide plants and repeat sweeps elsewhere–rather than buy so many new one-off’s. Additional DIY garden-design advice.

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.

PLAN NOW TO PREVENT STRETCHED, leggy seedlings later by reading this. (Again: My “when to start what” seed calculator will tell you the proper dates.)

HOW I START SEED INDOORS is outlined here, and why I carry my babies outdoors on fair days. Do you have fresh seed-starting medium (not potting soil–that’s too coarse for seeds) and flats, trays, pots, labels?

STUDY UP on how to grow growing specific vegetables from seed, before you get started:

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.

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 and I sow first batches of cool-season crops such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kohlrabi and Brussels sprouts, to set outside six weeks later. I wouldn’t be without love ‘Piracicaba’ and also spigariello, a leaf broccoli, for example.

I SOW PEAS (these are some varieties I love) and spinach around mid-March outdoors, too, if the soil allows. Some gardeners say to do it when the peepers first peep. 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.


WARM-SEASON CROPS such as tomatoes don’t get sown here indoors in Zone 5B 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, and his insights on getting the best-flavored fruit.

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 as long for a home.

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 HOPING TO FINISH UP fruit-tree pruning (here’s how), and 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’LL WAIT a bit longer to cut back twig willows like this and also twig dogwoods because I’m enjoying the show. Maybe March with those (with pussy willows, right after bloom is good). With the willows especially, which are so vigorous, I’ll coppice them (cutting to 1-2 inches from the ground to rejuvenate).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. Early blooming shrubs and trees like pussy willow, forsythia, apple and cherry are all good candidates, and branches can be cut once their buds begin to swell. Also try shrubby clove currant, the so-called Cornelian cherry, Cornus mas, and pear, beeches, birches, and redbuds. No big surprise: The closer to actual bloom date, the higher forcing success. Gather branches–taking only judicious prunings, not disfiguring plants–then prepare by either splitting the bottom inch or two with a knife or pruner, or hammering ends gently to split them for better water uptake. Prepped branches go in a bucket of water in my cool mudroom out of the light, draped with a plastic bag, until the buds push off their coverings. Then I can move them to a warmer, brighter room.

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.

flower garden

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!

chores for other regions

REMEMBER: 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, or use one of these calendars from elsewhere, on this page.

  1. Barclay Dunn says:

    Is it too late to put iris bulbs in the ground? I planted the tulip bulbs last fall, but I didn’t get to the irises before it got too cold. The iris bulbs have been in the garage all winter, where it doesn’t seem to freeze but is around 34ºF most of the time. Would they fail if I tried to put them in the ground this weekend?

  2. Sandy Mcknight says:

    I saw that you had offered a weekend garden study at your home this past spring. Are you planning a fall session? Also, is your garden on the conservancy tour this year?
    Have so enjoyed your books and blog……

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