my garden chores: march 2011

MARCH IS IF-AND-WHEN MONTH: I’ll do things on this list if and when the snow melts, the ground defrosts, and the muck it leaves behind starts to drain off and dry. If and when. Which means I’m starting the month indoors this year, as I did in 2010, with a last pass through the seed catalogs; finishing up my bare-root and tuber orders (any berry bushes, strawberries, asparagus, roses, potatoes and sweet potatoes), and getting out the seed-starting gear to be ready in a couple of weeks. This month’s to-do list—if and when you can get to it—follows:

Note: You can hear the highlights in the latest of the weekly podcasts I do with Robin Hood Radio, the nation’s newest, and smallest, NPR affiliate.

IT’S DEFINITELY TRANSITION TIME right now here in Zone 5B. Chipmunks are out; red-winged blackbirds have begun to return just as February slipped away. But it can be garden-cleanup season, or still deep winter, or some of both in March. Sticks and stones picked up or raked away—if you can even get outside at all—often are replaced at once with another supply from on high, as if you really needed a do-over. Oh, well.

HOARD CARDBOARD AND NEWSPAPER while you wait, to smother areas for new beds, or thwart weeds under fresh mulch in existing ones.

WHILE INDOOR CHORES such as seed-sowing commence on schedule regardless of weather, outdoor chores sometimes 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, or heading that way. When things arrive, bare-root woody plants will take priority in planting, so think ahead. The Resources page has lots of tempting places to browse and buy.

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 (IF AND WHEN): 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 BIRDS BOXES of old nests.

MUCK OUT WATER GARDENS of fallen leaves and other debris at the earliest opportunity, using a net. Keep an eye out tadpoles and salamanders in every heap; return them to their watery hideouts.

CUT DOWN ORNAMENTAL GRASSES before they sprout anew. Cut back old foliage of earliest bloomers like epimediums, or things that emerge fast and would then prevent easy cutback, like tall sedums. Cut back evergreen groundcovers whose leaves will fade when new crop pushes, including epimedium, hellebores, and European ginger (Asarum europaeum). More on these earliest of all garden chores.


STIFLE THE URGE to start seeds 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! If you are already at tomato-starting time, read on.)

GETTING READY for seed-starting provides a distraction, and one could always order a few more packets to soothe the soul. Did you do your germination testing yet to see what leftovers are viable? My 20 seed-starting FAQs are here to help.

HELP 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 (sometimes as late as the first week of April here), 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, 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.


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. My pruning FAQ is here.

WINTER DAMAGE is severe here this year from heavy, wet snow. As soon as it melts, assessing and correcting, if possible, will be my first order of duty.

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.

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 AND VOLE 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.

ANNUAL POPPIES 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) and Berkshires (MA) are where I live, which is Zone 5B. You may need to adjust your timing to suit your zone.

  1. Judy says:

    I have been fighting bagworms on my evergreens for years–they have killed a lot of my trees. I don’t want to use pesticides, but the conservation in my area seems to think thats the only way. No one around in this area seems to mind. Some people just keep replanting, yr. after yr.–others spray but they keep coming back !! The tall trees are to big to pick them off. I see every yr. more and more beautiful trees dying–you would think someone would care that they just keep spreading at an alarming rate!!

  2. Terryk says:

    Wow, the season begins! So much to read and get started, so much to be patient with and hold back.

    With all your book events it is really appreciated that you put this together.

  3. Stacy M says:

    I love your red shoes. You’re just like Dorothy- “There’s no place like home!” From reading your book I can see that there isn’t :)

  4. Christina says:

    Hi Margaret,
    I am enjoying your letter and all.
    My latest seeds received are sweet peas. Now that I have mine I will tell you where you can get them. Fragrant Garden Nursery in Roseburg,OR,
    I have ordered from her (Pat Sherman) for several years.We have a fairly mild climate here and I often have some sweet peas that reseed.We had cold temps of 15 to 30 for the last couple weeks, now up to the 40s. We also had snow at that time. It was pretty to see the purple crocus surrounded by snow. This is all rare for us at sea level, but some of the self seeded sweet peas are still green. It continues to snow a foot or more a day in our mountains only an hours drive away.

  5. Donna says:

    Thank you for all the work you do to put this blog together! I saw you on Martha today, and was introduced to this site…and what a site!! As I sit here with sleet hitting the window (yesterday it was 65) I am doing the next best thing to being in the garden by ordering seeds and reading your blog. Can you let us know if any of the current landscape on your property was there..or have you done it all? I live on 15 acres and it has taken me almost 18 years to get it to where I think… in another 18… I might have it where I want it :-)

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Christina, and thank you for the sweet-pea resources. Much appreciated.

      Welcome, Xan. Poor impulse control is allowed come March, right, after sitting through most of a winter? :) Go for it.

      Welcome, Donna. There was little here: the old apple trees (total messes then); a couple of big old lilacs; two big evergreens; a giant rhododendron. But no beds and no other shrubs, just a few trees here and there and then lots of brambles and other weedy stuff.

  6. Maude Ciardi says:

    I am new to your web site and am enjoying your passion for gardening.I just sent away for your book and will be anxious to read it. I have been a gardener all my life since I was a little girl. I am now almost 70.Wow I can hardly believe that. I can not do as much as I used to so I have to have some help. I always add to my small garden every year.I am in a housing development so I am always trying to close my yard in with shrubs for more privacy. Do you have any suggestions ? I do have some arbavitae and a few pines.
    Keep up the great information on your web site. I will look at your garden in more detail as I read today. Once again thank you for all your hard work.
    Maude Ciardi / Columbiana, Ohio

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Maude. Maybe browse through some of my favorite conifers…they are at this green link. I like to mix it up color-wise, not all plain gree. I like the gold Chamaecyparis called ‘Crippsii’ a lot. See you soon again I hope.

  7. Terryk says:

    Margaret, I know the answer is here but I can’t find the exact info I thought I read on what to do in spring with the garlic. Mine seems to be ready to grow, the shoots are poking out of the straw. Temps were very mild (I hope this is not the start of another spring/summer like last year!), now they moderated and went back down below freezing last night.

    What is the next step? Remove some of the straw, add some compost or sit tight?

    1. Margaret says:

      @Terry: Topdress with an organic fertilizer meant for bulbs as the shoots start to poke through. Keep weeded. You can use compost as you suggest with or without fertilizer.

  8. MaryLou says:

    Good Morning, Margaret,
    Greetings from the Erie Canal in Spencerport, NY.
    My biggest eyesore are my overgrown apple trees that are over 30 feet tall. Everyone who comes to assess them only wants to chop them all down instead of trimming them back. They are over 100 years old and still bear wonderful apples. I am curious as to how you salvaged yours.
    Thank you for your wonderful website and all your hard work iin adding to the joy and betterment of gardening. MaryLou

  9. Cheryl says:

    I have just ordered my sweet peas from Christiana recommendation. The site is great and I am happy to find it. Thank your for the connection.

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