Tidewater Gardening - March 2014

March is the Cruelest Month


K. Marc Teffeau

In T.S. Eliot’s poem The Wasteland he suggests that April is the cruelest month. After this winter I would suggest that:

“March” is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

Spring cannot arrive too soon this year. This winter has been vicious compared to the fairly mild ones we have experienced in the past few years. The problem is, we are all anxious to get outside and get working in the garden. Unfortunately, March, and sometimes April, can be very fickle. As a child on the western shore, I remember the biggest snows coming in March.
The good news is that even with some nasty weather and snowfalls in March, the cold dark days of winter are behind us. The warmer days and increased sunshine of March starts the sap rising in both the trees and the gardeners who have languished over the winter. Get ready now so it will be much easier to start working in the garden when spring fever hits.
One thing you may need to do to prep for spring and get out of your winter lethargy is to start exercising. You often hear about the “weekend athlete” with his or her various injuries, but this can also happen to gardeners with a lot of heavy spring activities. Besides, we have probably all put on a few pounds over the winter that should come off. Check out the Northwest Edible Life gardening website for some exercise suggestions: www.nwedible.com/2012/03/the-7-best-strength-exercises-for-gardeners.html.
Most years, March tends to be quite rainy. This slows up the planting of early spring cool season crops. If we run into a dry spell, however, be ready to spread the lime, fertilizer, and organic matter over the vegetable garden and till it under, if you didn’t get to it last fall.
Late winter and early spring is the best time to transplant bare-root plants. It is important that the roots of these plants become well established before their buds break into active growth. In order to develop and grow properly, leaves and young developing stems require a constant supply of water and nutrients. These needs can only be met by transplanting the plants early, before growing conditions become favorable for new leaves to appear.
Although you may not realize it, roots of most woody trees and shrubs begin to grow when the soil temperatures reaches 38°. This is also an excellent time to plant balled and burlaped and container-grown plants into the home landscape. This will give them time to become established before the hot weather appears.
A tradition for many Tidewater gardeners is to plant white potatoes and peas on St. Patrick’s Day. Don’t rush the planting if the soil is cold and wet, unless warm drier weather is forecast. The seeds and tubers will lay there in the cold ground and will be exposed to possible rotting conditions. When the time is right, don’t forget the edible pea pods like Sugar Snap and Sugar Ann.
Other cool season crops that can be direct seeded into the garden in March include beets, carrots, turnips, kale, Swiss chard, onion sets, radishes and spinach. Wait until the middle to end of the month to set out the transplants of broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and leaf and head lettuce. Make provisions to cover or protect them if severe weather is forecast. Plastic milk cartons with the bottoms cut out and placed over the transplants are good protectors.
As I have mentioned in the past, the trend in landscaping is toward raised bed and container gardening to get the maximum production out of small spaces. A favorite commercial gardening site of mine is Gardener’s Supply out of Vermont ~ www.gardeners.com. They carry a nice selection of products for container and raised bed gardening.
I am always on the lookout for vegetables that do well, or are bred for, small space growing. An All America Selections for 2014 in the cucumber category is Cucumber Saladmore Bush F1. This cucumber boasts a bush-type growth habit, making this AAS winner perfect for growing in container gardens.
According tho the AAS folks, “anyone looking for a good slicing cucumber with dark green skin and long straight fruits will enjoy this beauty, along with its superior taste and texture; a perfect reflection of summer’s bounty. An added bonus is the disease resistance that proved to be especially valuable in warmer climates where comparison varieties easily succumbed to late season diseases.”
In the tomato line, AAS recommends Tomato Fantastico F1. AAS mentions that Fantastico “is a must for any market grower or home gardener looking for an early-maturing high-yielding grape tomato with built-in Late Blight Tolerance. Bred for small gardens, Fantastico will work great in hanging baskets, container gardens and small gardens.
“Long clusters of sweet tasty fruits are held toward the outside of the plant, making them very easy to harvest, but if you let them go a few days past peak, these little beauties resist cracking better than the comparisons used in the AAS trials. It is a unique determinate bush tomato with well flavored half-ounce grape-shaped fruit. High yielding plants produce up to 12 pounds of ripe fruit. They are best grown in a cage to provide some plant support, but can also be grown in a large patio container or an 18-inch hanging basket.”
And who doesn’t like green beans fresh out of the garden? The AAS 2014 bush bean selection is Bean Mascotte. AAS judges noted that “this compact variety is perfect for today’s small-space gardens. Mascotte is a bush type bean that produces long, slender pods that stay above the foliage for easy harvest. It also has showy white flowers for ornamental value during bloom time. The judges appreciated the crunchiness and taste of the bean, as well as the plentiful harvest all season long.
The Mascotte root system is ideal for patio containers and window boxes, and this versatile variety performs well in garden beds, too. That means you can raise delicious beans in any outside space.
For all the 2014 All America Selections, both vegetable and flower, check out their website at www.all-americaselections.org//index.cfm. The All America Selections website is one of my favorite “go-to” sites for what is new in the flower and vegetable world.
If you are a traditional vegetable gardener and like to work in the soil, remember to not work heavy clay soils when they are wet as it will destroy the soil structure. I make it a point every spring to remind gardeners of this.
March is the time to turn under any green manure or cover crop that you planted last fall. If it has had a growth spurt and is too tall, mow it down to 1” before turning it under. You can also kill it out with Round-up herbicide.
Nice March days are a good time to check out your ornamental plants to see how they fared over the winter. If you did not do it last fall, take time to clean them up. Prune out any diseased areas or branches that were obviously broken by the ice and snow.
Remove any bagworm “Christmas ornaments” on your cedars and other narrow-leafed evergreens. This will reduce the pest population for this year. Each one of the bags contains 500 to 1,000 eggs that will hatch out later in the spring.
For spring flowering shrubs like azaleas, forsythia and lilacs, wait until after they flower to prune. If you prune these plants now, you will be pruning out the flowers.
With all the snow and ice this winter, a lot of deicing products were put on sidewalks, driveways and roads. Alternatives to the deicing materials include sand, ashes, and kitty litter to improve traction on icy sidewalks and driveways. Some of the ornamentals exposed to the salt will start to show damage later on this spring. Evergreens are especially susceptible.
Damage occurs to the plants when the salt is taken up through the roots, or deposited on the needles. On warm March days it might be a good idea to lightly spray the foliage to rinse off the excess salt deposits.
If the soil is contaminated, soaking the affected area with one-inch applications of water, three to four times, can often prevent plant damage. Gypsum may be added to the soil to reduce high sodium levels. If the soil has had a heavy exposure to the deicing materials, and the plants are showing severe damage, you might need to replace the soil and make a mental note to reduce the deicing applications next winter.
Salt damage shows up as brown and brittle needle tips. A browning or scorching of the foliage will be present. On deciduous ornamentals, once they leaf out, the leaf margins may become brown around the edges. A standard plant diagnostic is that if the entire plant, and not just one or two branches, show the symptom, then the problem is systemic and probably related to the root system in some way.
Happy Gardening!

Marc Teffeau retired as the Director of Research and Regulatory Affairs at the American Nursery and Landscape Association in Washington, D.C. He now lives in Georgia with his wife, Linda.