march garden chores

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.


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.


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.

  • On using this list in your garden: The monthly A Way to Garden chores and based on my Zone 5B Berkshire MA/Hudson Valley NY location; adjust accordingly. NEW: If you are in a colder zone, refer to last month’s. Ahead of me? Have a sneak peek at the next edition.
Categorieschores by month
  1. Corey says:

    Hello all, I just found this site while researching for a freind. After reading for a few minutes I decided to subscribe. Thank you for reminding me that I am gardener. I have no yard of my own still, and am the horticulturist for a 36 hole golf course. (Gasp) I know, theres no need to say it. After working in the Bellevue Botanical Garden here in Washington state and the Woodland Park Zoo I actually felt I was doing good work. Now I am at a prestigious course and feel like a villian because of what it takes to maintain it. Thank you for reminding me that I am not alone in my opinions, and wish my bones luck on trying to keep up while trying to do what I can to limit the short cuts that are thrust upon me. They are now interested in becoming an Audobon Certified Sanctuary, but they don’t yet know what all that means. Heh-heh. It’s tuff to look like a killer and still care for mom, but I do what I can.

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Corey. So nice to meet you and hear about your adventures out there in Garden Mecca. My friends, Glenn and Charles, have taken me to Bellevue and so many other wonderful spots there (and to all those amazing retail nurseries, wow). Golf-course management is indeed a challenge, but we are rooting for you. Love the sanctuary plan. : )

  2. I have bookmarked this page for further reading. Surprisingly (at least to me) I have been ensconced in the country going on 9 years and I have never really understood spring preparation of the garden. Hence, overwhelm by June 15th and then a kind of throw up my hands in despair attitude. Fortunately, we have a good view. ;) BUT, now that this blog is on my reading list, perhaps I will have better luck this year. Thank you, Margaret, for your trenchant advice.

  3. Greg W says:

    Hi Maggie, timeless and timely tips. I especially like the idea of putting alyssum around the roses. I’ll bet they’ll work around clematis as well to help keep their roots cool.

    I always enjoy reading your blog posts.

  4. Karen Z says:

    Hi Margaret, I have enjoyed your site for a few months now, and have suscribed to your newsletter. I live in the southern hemisphere (Australia) and I would like to access you garden chores for the opposite season to the northern hemisphere. I am in your zone 7 and a lot of what you write about applys here. I have tried clicking on the archives but that doesn’t bring up the chore lists. Love the new layout, Karen

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Karen. Uh-oh, I was feeling virtuous for having three months available at a time instead of just one…haven’t gotten to all 12 yet. I will gradually get there but there is only one of me with these two hands. :) Hope to see you again soon anyhow.

  5. Linda,the garden lady-Indy says:

    Beautiful pictures, intelligent responses, perfectly done. Look forward to spending quality time visiting your web sight. Thank you for sharing experienced details.

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks, Linda, and welcome. I’m happy to be able to share whatever things I have learned along the way, and learn from my visitors as we go through another season together. See you soon again.

  6. Frank says:

    Hey Margaret, I haven’t connected with you since our MSLTV days, but I was always jealous when you were in the garden while I was weaving twigs (or carving pumpkins or some other such good thing…). Now I’m ensconced up in Garrison NY and have put in my very first, official vegetable garden. It measures a modest 24′ x 12′ but that seems a manageable start and I’m terribly excited. Here’s my question… I live on the 18th hole of a golf course and besides the occasional stray golf ball I’m concerned about pesticides and nitrogen. Can I be truly organic if questionable stuff is happening on the other side of the fence?

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Frank, and nice to “see” you again. Your instinct is correct; adjacent land use is one of the factors taken into consideration when a farm, for example, applies for organic certification. I know you are not trying to become an organic farm, of course; just using this as an example to underscore the issue you already suspected is at work.

      As I understand it, the greens are the the most chemically intensive areas of courses; fairways get minimal chemical application by comparison, so where you live on the course and so on is also a factor in the exposure. Have you inquired about the management tactics being used: what is applied when and by what method? I would be inclined to have soil tests (full analysis, not just pH); ask the local cooperative extension for guidance, explaining your concerns.

      Such a tricky question, not unlike the experience of those who live in the rolling hills of orchard country…beautiful but worrisome with the drift from sprays, etc. I am sorry I don’t have the expertise to give you a full answer, but do recommend that you contact the local extension and organize the testing.

  7. Pat Vincent says:

    Hi Margaret,
    I lived here in the Hudson Valley, Pine Plains that is.
    When you say cut down ornamental grasses, how far down do you cut them?
    I also have a problem with Bee Balm. Every year I have to dig so much out in the Spring, it just takes over. Never had this problem before. Is this typical for Bee Balm? Love it but…..

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Pat. How far down depends on the grass, but pretty darn far. You don’t want to go so far (especially in spring, if you waited that long) so that you damage the tips that are about to emerge. With my big Miscanthus, I bet we get them down below a foot high; with smaller species, even like 8 inches.

      I call bee balm a “confidence booster” plant — it’s something I grew when I was getting started and made me think I had a green thumb. But I dug it all out (and haven’t had any in many years). It’s a mint family member, hence its wandering underground ways. Keep at it if you want to have it — plan to hack out tons each year.

  8. Heather says:

    I just found you as a result of reading your wonder article in “Parade”. I am way down here in Zone 9. Any suggestions on how I can translate what you do to Zone 9 activities?

    Thanks so much.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Heather. Some things will be very different, of course, but one thing you could start by doing is see if the later months of chores (referring back to last year’s for say May-ish) are more in keeping with where your season is at. You can find links to all past months here. If you email me at awaytogarden at gmail and tell me where in Zone 9 you are I might have another suggestion of good reference for your particular area.

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