the march garden chores
I’M LIKE THE KID in the backseat on the way to the amusement park, with my one incessant question: “Are we there yet?” Intensifying light and the sounds of early March—yes, those are the first serious bird songs of the new season—will do that to a person. Already woodpeckers have started drumming emphatically, and songbirds clearing their throats forecast that it is nearly spring again.There is much to do in the garden in the month of March, but not so fast:
Except in frost-free zones, there are really two March chores lists: one labeled, “If frozen…” and the other, “If thawed…” Many tasks are only to be started if and when the snow melts, the ground defrosts, and mud starts to drain off and dry–and if and when the millions of overwintering beneficial creatures in the leaf litter and faded perennials and even in the soil have had a chance to wake up (more on that environmentally sensitive timing below). If and when. Don’t walk or work in soggy soil, or trod on sodden or frozen lawns unnecessarily. Love your soil, and protect it.
Plus: Delaying cleanup a little bit is better for precious beneficial insects and spiders who are overwintering. More on that below.
garden elsewhere? regional links
THE ORGANIC-GARDENING approach and the how-to tips I offer here 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 links to calendars and checklists from around the nation (and the U.K.). Again, I encourage reading on first, because I’m betting there’s something here for you, wherever you may dig, weed, or prune.
THERE WAS a bit of everything here the winter of 2018-19, with multiple weeks featuring temperatures in the minus range then up near 60 in a day or two. In 2019-20, so far it has been mild-ish a lot, with sudden dips every now and again, too. Swings are the new normal: 2017-18 featured-two weeks of sustained bitter cold, but also several notable up-and-down dramas, including 73F that February (and down to the teens just days later). I had a bit of winter in 2016-17, an improvement after 2015-16’s “winter” that had been nothing wintry at all. Chaos is the new pattern. Not good; such unfamiliar times.
For a read on “is it spring yet?” that’s based on data, not anecdotes, the USA National Phenology Network’s maps are worth a visit. They call the process of tracking the progress of spring “Springcasting,” and here it how it works.
No matter the weather or other plant and animal hints outside, certain seeds need starting indoors (more on that below).
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, 2020 in Daylight Savings Time (in effect until Sunday, November 1).
My best advice this month is to 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.
short course: the 8 earliest early spring chores
I START MY CLEANUP near the house, generally, working out from there, so I don’t get overwhelmed and can see encouraging progress up-close, where I spend most of my time. But some tasks cannot wait, wherever they are located:
- Rake heavy debris carefully off beds that hold earliest bloomers first if needed, like where tiny bulbs are trying to push up through sodden leaves and such, or where trilliums and other ephemerals are growing. (See the next subheading, “be environmentally conscious,” to learn why I don’t wholesale clean up everything before some real spring weather has occurred. Don’t rush! Nature will appreciate the slower approach.)
- Also target earliest bloomers like Euphorbia for immediate cutbacks. Nudge them to push anew from the base with a severe end-of-winter haircut. Even later bloomers that grow from dense, cushion-like crowns (as Sedum spectabile ‘Autumn Joy’ does) will be easier to clean up now than once they start to push.
- Cut back evergreen or otherwise-persistent perennial foliage. Leaves of European ginger (Asarum europaeum), Helleborus, and Epimedium, for instance, will soon be replaced with a fresh flush. Yes, the plant will do just fine even if you leave it on, but many with early blooms are better viewed minus all the nasty old foliage.
- Cut down ornamental grasses. Mice and other garden undesirables are thinking it’s the Maternity Ward in there, I fear, so off with their heads (the grasses’, that is), right by the base, ASAP.
- Empty bird boxes. Bluebirds won’t accept a dirty box, and I always hope for at least one family a year. Wear a glove when you do this task; more than one nesting mouse has run up my arm in the process. Ugh. Be a great bluebird landlord, like this.
- Muck fallen leaves from water gardens. This annual ritual, accomplished gently and mindfully with endless slow swoops of a fish net, may dig up more than debris (like salamanders, wood frog eggs, tadpoles). I ladle everything into a wheelbarrow first (again: gentle!), then sort through and return residents to the pool, before composting the leaves. I’ll get the filters and pumps running, too, once sub-freezing nights cease. My regimen of spring water-garden tips.
- Order bulk mulch from a local source for delivery—skipping all those plastic bags, and all that fuel used trucking bark chips across the nation. What makes good mulch, and how to use it.
- This is an indoor chore, but mission-critical: Prevent stretched, leggy seedlings by reading this. (My “when to start what” seed calculator will tell you the proper dates, and there is more seed-specific information below. All my seed gear is here.)
be environmentally conscious
DELAY RAKING A FEW DAYS, to support beneficial insects. “Wait until after several 50-degree-Fahrenheit spring days to clean up again,” advises The Habitat Network (from Cornell and the Nature Conservancy). Doug Tallamy of the University of Delaware agrees; our interview on that and other ecological practices is here. Some overwintering insects, notably bees and certain butterflies and moths, are triggered by a steady stream of 50-degree days to get moving. Once they do, often after resting in leaf litter or under tree bark or even inside goldenrod galls, for example, they’re no longer as vulnerable to our spring cleaning actions that might kill them, or move them away from their host plant.
FIRST, FOCUS. Before charging around, put some words to what will be the year’s approach for the garden, and its desired outcomes. Ken Druse and I talked about our plans for our 2020 gardens, including reclaiming grass paths that have grown too narrow; tactics for avoiding overwhelm; and even a commitment to sharing plants (and the important of ruthlessly tossing some out, too). “Growing a Greener World” PBS host Joe Lamp’l and I had talked about our resolutions together another year not long ago.
A RECENT YEAR’S MANTRA was “Don’t stop now,” because I was in Year 2 of a multiyear project of rehabbing the oldest beds in the garden, and there’s much more to do. Lately I’ve also focused on mantras like: “Be thoughtful, keep weeding,” with the “thoughtful” part standing for “thoughtful organic gardening,” as in thinking carefully before any action. (A year before that, I’d suggested, “More mulch, no spray,” another way to say: Be kind!) Any of them sound like the intention you wish to set this year?
START A NATURALIST’S NOTEBOOK: With Dr. Nathaniel Wheelwright, I also got advice on keeping a journal of nature observations, and on generally becoming a keener observer–a better naturalist. Like this.
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. My goal is to turn mine more often so it heats up more, in hopes of reducing live weed seeds in the finished compost.
more wildlife-gardening chores
WANT MORE WILDLIFE, including birds? Here’s how to create a bird-friendly 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. Also: deer-thwarting advice from Ohio State’s wildlife expert.
SICK OF MOWING? Less lawn means space for more diverse plantings, and therefore support of more wildlife diversity from insects on up. Do you want to mow differently (as I did in recent years to good result)?
SPUR IDEAS for landscape enhancements by re-reading past interviews with garden designers (or listening to archived podcasts of those Q&As). They’re all here: DIY garden-design advice.
DEVELOP A SIGNATURE STYLE with help from landscape designer Susan Morrison, who offers these tips for getting started: how each of us can look at our own spaces with a designer’s eye; about breaking up too-boxy rectangular spaces to bring life into them; about use of color and other elements, and also when to call a friend in for a fresh set of eyes.
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)? Lately I forced myself to divide plants and repeat sweeps elsewhere–rather than buy so many new one-off’s. That work continues.
IS THERE NOTHING going on in the “offseason” visually among your perennials? Perhaps rethink your choices to emphasize November-onward, with help from Ben Futa, who reminds us that brown is a color, too (and texture is a pretty great thing).
starting those seeds
I ASSUME by now you’ve shopped for seeds, but confession: I still have orders to submit.
MY ONGOING SEED SERIES—in stories and podcasts—might introduce some varieties and sellers you haven’t “met” before. Plus, there’s a relatively new brand name in some catalogs: OSSI or Open Source Seed Initiative; go investigate.
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.
HOW I START SEED INDOORS is outlined here, plus 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? My go-to seed-starting gear is rounded up at this link.
STUDY UP on how to grow growing specific vegetables from seed, before you get started:
- How to grow beets
- How to grow spinach
- 8 delicious spinach substitutes to grow
- How to grow carrots
- How to grow kale
- Success with Brassicas
- How to grow melons
- How to grow tomatoes
- How to grow onions
- How to grow peppers
- How to grow squash, cucumbers
- Oddball vegetables you might not have tried
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, or hot, soapy water. My friend Ken Druse fights damping off this clever way. and he and I reviewed our seed-starting how-to’s, from what mix we use to oddball things we grow from seed, in this podcast.
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 ‘Piracicaba’ and also spigariello, a leaf broccoli, for example.
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.
CRAIG LEHOULLIER is called the NC Tomato Man, and is author of the hit book “Epic Tomatoes.” Here are his favorite tomatoes–including some from the Dwarf Tomato Project–smaller in stature but no less delicious.
other vegetable garden prep
DON’T CULTIVATE till soil is beginning to be crumbly, not sodden, which might even be April in my area. 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.
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. How to grow spinach–and peas, too, whose big, fat seeds here in Zone 5B go in sometime between the third week of March and the second week of April. I have lately been trying many new varieties of peas, giving them more space than ever in the garden.
STRAW BALES, ANYONE? Will this be the year you try growing some crops in straw bales, to take advantage of sunny spots where there might be no soil (like along a driveway) or provide a sterile growing medium for soil-disease-sensitive things like certain heirloom tomatoes? Craig LeHoullier teaches us how.
PULL AND DIG PERENNIAL and biennial 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. Going a step further: learn about solarization and tarping for weed control.
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.
ADOPT SOME EASY ORCHIDS if you need a burst of color before the garden really awakens. Longwood Gardens’ orchid grower Greg Griffis demystifies orchid-growing, and suggests the best adoptees.
FERNS, ANYONE? New York Botanical Garden’s Mobee Weinstein published a book in 2020 on ferns–including her favorites for indoors use. In our interview she shared her favorites.
trees & shrubs
I’M HOPING TO FINISH UP fruit-tree pruning (here’s how), and this month 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; wait until just after bloom.
AS FOR THOSE CLEMATIS, here’s how to prune them.
I’M STARTING gradually to cut back twig willows like this and also twig dogwoods, but I’m still enjoying their show. With pussy willows, for instance, right after bloom is good cutback timing. The willows 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.
WHILE OUT THERE PRUNING, I’ll make a list of beds that will get simplified with the use of some favorite groundcovers, for instance.
FORCE BRANCHES. Early blooming 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 judicious prunings, not disfiguring plants–then prepare by 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 move to a warmer, brighter room.
SOMETIME BETWEEN December and March, the intermediate witch-hazels will try to bloom (mine began last December and mostly finished by February this winter). 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.
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. Never use mothballs in the garden, anywhere.
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, too, though a bit later, and dahlias–especially oldtime varieties.
ANNUAL POPPIES like these can also be sown now, right in the garden (or indoors). Don’t disturb them during cleanup if you direct sow, or have a patch that self-sows.
WANT CUTTING FLOWERS over a very long season? Plan to start successions–not just one spring sowing–for flowers well into fall. Just as that spring lettuce crop won’t taste good in August or September, neither will early sown zinnias or marigolds or other annual flowers be at their peak for months and months. An organic flower farmer’s secrets.
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.