the march garden chores: 2013

shoes-trowel-3VOICES. VISITS. VARIABILITY. That’s how I can tell it’s March. A few feathered musicians are practicing in the pit the last week here, warming up while they wait for everyone else to show up and get in tune. As if on cue, the Eastern chipmunks—light hibernators—are suddenly fully awake and at their antics, trying to remember where the heck they stashed that last cache of goodies. Hungry! Yes, it’s March: Time to “be up, be doing,” as my mother used to say. Time to get at the garden cleanup—or at least anytime the highly variable (chaotic?) weather permits, that is.

prefer the podcast?

THE MARCH CHORES (and also my ethics for seed shopping) are the subject of the latest edition of my weekly public-radio program. Listen anywhere, anytime: Locally, in my Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) region, “A Way to Garden” airs on Robin Hood Radio’s three stations on Monday about 8:30 AM Eastern, with a rerun Saturdays. It is available free on iTunes, the Stitcher app, or streaming from RobinHoodRadio.com or via its RSS feed. The March 2, 2013 show can be streamed here now. Robin Hood is the smallest NPR station in the nation; our garden show marks the start of its fourth year in March, and is available for syndication by other public-radio stations via PRX.

In last month’s chores we stifled urges to do things too soon, and March up North where I garden can ask self-control of us, too. It’s an if-and-when kind of month, as in: 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. Not before!

Biggest 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.

first cleanup and prep tasks

KEEP THE PHRASE “as soon as the ground can be worked” in mind, and when it can, focus your 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 I’ll prep whenever I can: one for peas or spinach or other things I direct sow soon. Make a priority list. You can double back and make ready for your 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 several inches of compost and perhaps an all-natural, organic fertilizer (I do the latter every few years, relying mostly on compost).

WITH CUTBACKS, it’s also first things first. I cut down my before they sprout anew, and quickly tackle 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.

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.

ORDER MULCH, preferably a bulk delivery—skipping all those plastic bags, and ideally choosing a material that was produced locally. What makes good mulch, and how to use it.

PULL AND DIG PERENNIAL WEEDS now, 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 some sunny, dry days.

EMPTY BIRDS 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. Keep an eye out tadpoles and salamanders and egg masses in every heap; return them to their watery hideouts. When the weather settles, remove floating de-icers (remember my fall regimen for water-garden care?), and get the pumps and filters going again.

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? These calculator and calendar tools will help you time your sowings properly, no matter where you live. Don’t rush. Stout, sturdy seedlings are better than older, leggy ones for transplanting. Only leeks and onions will have been started indoors before mid-month in my Zone 5B area, but after that, the pace quickens: Sow cool-season crops such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kohlrabi and Brussels sprouts mid-March, to set outside six weeks later. I sow peas and spinach around mid-March outdoors, too, if the soil allows.

BACKING UP A BIT: I’m taking a last pass through some new catalogs (or their online counterparts), and 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  here to help. All my seed-related posts are here, lest you need them now.

DID YOU INVENTORY leftover seeds, whether by checking my Seed Viability Chart and/or doing germination tests, to see what’s still viable? Lately I’ve been reading up on how 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. Store seed in a cool, dry place.

WHAT SEED-STARTING GEAR and lights will you use? In 1989, I had this proper rig built (lights and all) but last year I got a miniature version with new-fangled grow bulbs that I love. Do you have seed-starting medium (not potting soil–that’s too coarse for seeds) and flats, trays, pots? What about 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.

NEED HELP WITH SPECIFIC CROPS? My seed-expert Q&A interviews are good reference:


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. Remember: use the calculators mentioned above to figure out dates for your area for each crop.

I RECENTLY SKETCHED where I’ll plant which vegetables in my various raised beds, for spring and beyond, taking into account that I prefer not to plant tomatoes or potatoes, in particular, in the same place without skipping a few years. I’m thinking I may grow some tomatoes in whiskey barrels again this year, actually, to give myself another rotation spot to avoid tomato troubles. I’m following tips from tomato breeder Tom Stearns for better “tomato hygiene” this year, too.

ONE YEAR I TRIED grafted tomatoes, for better resistance to some soil-borne issues and perhaps improved yield with heirlooms in particular. A fascinating topic. Now they’re available by mail, even.


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 other early projects, including twig willows and dogwoods, 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 waited to cut back those twig willows and dogwoods, but colorful stems pruned from shrub dogwoods and willows would make good indoor arrangements now, and many want stooling (cutting to maybe 8 inches from the ground to rejuvenate) every other or third year, anyhow.

FORCE BRANCHES of spring-blooming shrubs and trees like pussy willow, forsythia, apple and cherry once buds swell. Hammer the ends of stems 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 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.

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.

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.

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.

CONIFER RESEARCH: Take note in your local travels (or in books), of conifers that look good to you, and think about adding a few to the garden come spring. Some of my favorite colorful conifers.

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.

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 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. I start my cannas this way, too, and dahlias.

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)-Berkshires (MA) area where I live, which is Zone 5B. Adjust your timing to suit your zone.

  1. Diana Pappas says:

    Sometimes I get so stressed about my gardening to-do list that it gets so overwhelming and I don’t know where to start. Your chore lists, thankfully, bring me some peace and help simplify things. Time to force some forsythia I think! And perhaps I’ll sprinkle some annual poppy seeds along the way.

  2. Jason says:

    For the first time in a long while we are having a cold spring, so a lot of tasks are being delayed. The biggest thing is cutting back last year’s growth, since I leave most plants standing over the winter.

  3. Melanie Christopherson says:

    I planted raspberry canes and strawberries yesterday, after anxiously waiting for the ground to dry out enough yet catch it before another rain or snow fall. What surprised me were the neighborly comments as folks walked by, graciously informing me that I was at it far too early. My reply was to the effect that if I can get the shovel in the ground, I’m planting my berries. Thank you for the validation as well as advice, I’m grateful for this list of chores.

  4. Michelle says:

    We still have over a foot of snow with more in the forecast. Spring will be late this year for us as well. I did see a couple of timid pussywillows. Hired a tree company to prune my apple tree and dead wood from some 80 year old sugar maples and an old box elder tree so I feel like I accomplished something! I am trying blueberry bushes this year and appreciate your tips. Loved your book and love your blog. So refreshing and so much great information! ( I also have a black and white cat who thinks I need her help with hole digging ;)

  5. M Konnerth says:

    I am thoroughly enjoying your blog! Do you have any suggestions for those of us whose gardens and properties were hit by Hurricane Sandy? My Rhododendron bushes were burnt by the sea water in the winds – my White pines are all brown…what can I do for them?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, M Konnerth. The Cooperative Extension offices in coastal areas affected by Sandy had suggestions. Rutgers, for instance, and maybe even more to your question, on dealing with saltwater overwash onto plants (from Suffolk County, LI). I’d start with Extension advice — call your local office to see what services and testing, etc., you can avail yourself of.

  6. Dahlink says:

    We are having a rare snow day here in Baltimore (so rare that I actually went to work this morning, only to be turned away by the guard!) A perfect day to organize my garden catalogs and read this blog! But, Margaret–what on earth is “snow mold”?

  7. sarah says:

    “as soon as the ground can be worked” question?
    Could you add some clarification to this often used gardening phrase? Some seeds need started in early spring & some as soon as the ground can be worked– wouldn’t that be about the same time. I also think that this phrase could mean different things to different gardeners.

  8. JulieL says:

    ? I have ‘Gardening’ by M.Stewart and she gives a list of chores for each month too. For March she says to feed evergreens and to sprinkle superphosphate (0-20-0) and triple phosphate (0/46-0) over flower beds. The book is from 1991, so I wasn’t sure if the recommendations were still relevant.

  9. Sandie Anne says:

    I guess I jumped the gun this year and I already have 2 inch tomato plants! I couldn’t wait to taste those delicious sungold tomatoes. I think it will be ok though. They are now transplanted to quart size containers and I am looking for things to make mini greenhouses like upside down gallon milk jugs for the first week or 2 that they are planted! I live in the Washington DC metro area so it is not as cold as NY :)

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