Tidewater Gardening - March 2011


Rushing the Season
K. Marc Teffeau


When I walk into one of the mass merchandise retailers in February, it strikes me that these mega merchants have abandoned the Gregorian calendar. All the gardening stuff ready to go in February with snow, ice and freezing temperatures still in the forecast? What ever did we do before Halloween in August, Thanksgiving in September, and Christmas in October? Parkas for sale in August? Don’t get me started! Anyway, with the retail tease of spring gardening we still need to remember that we can still get some nasty weather and even heavy snow falls in March. The good news, the days are getting longer again and it will get warmer!
However, the warmer days and the increasing sunshine of March start the sap stirring in both the trees and we gardeners who have languished over the winter. Annual flowers and other plant materials appear overnight on the retail shelf. But how can you select the best plants for your money? For gardening success in 2011, take a few minutes to closely examine the plant material for sale before buying.
Remember that flowering plants should be purchased before, or just as they start to bloom. Bedding plants that are not in flower will establish more quickly in the landscape. All plants should be well labeled with the cultivar identified. If you need to replace a plant, or match a plant in your landscape, it is helpful to be able to identify the plant correctly.
Check out the leaf color. Is it appropriate for the plant in question? Yellow leaves may be characteristic of the cultivar, or it could indicate that the plant has used up all the nitrogen in the potting media and is hungry.
Make sure that there are no insects or diseases present on the leaves and stems. Be sure to check the undersides of the leaves for spider mites. Once established in the landscape these critters are hard to control.
Is the plant proportional to the root ball or container? A small plant in a larger container may mean that the plant has recently been potted up and hasn’t had a chance to become established. The alternative also holds true. An overgrown plant in a container, especially woody shrubs, indicates a pot bound plant with circling roots.
In container-grown plants, the root systems should be well developed and the root and soil mass should retain its shape when removed from the container. For annual flower and vegetable transplants especially, make sure that the roots are white and fibrous. Limited root mass on woody plants may indicate that plant has suffered winter root damage or has a disease issue.
Avoid container–grown plants where you can see roots circling on the surface of the soil or coming out of the drain holes. If a plant is root bound, some of the circling roots may need to be cut or removed. If not, they will continue to grown and may girdle the plant stems.
Mums in the spring? The other day someone showed me a small white flowering mum in a container painted like a football. This plant had been sold at a local supermarket as a tabletop decoration for a Super Bowl party. Garden chrysanthemums have strayed from their role as a traditional fall flower. You can find flowering mums in the spring at the garden center. And since Easter is late this year they will be available in April.
Blooms can be enjoyed inside or outside during the spring, then transplanted into the ground and cut back to bloom again in the fall. When transplanted in the spring, garden mums develop sturdy root systems, thereby ensuring better over-wintering success.
March tends to be a rainy month. 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.
Do not work heavy clay soils when they are wet as it will destroy the soil structure. You can also turn under any green manure or cover crop that you planted last fall. If your cover crop 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 and plant in only the areas you need right now.
A tradition for many Tidewater gardeners is to plant white potatoes and peas on St. Patrick’s Day. Don’t forget the edible pod peas like the Sugar Snap and Sugar Ann. Other cool season crops that can be direct seeded into the garden in March include beets, carrots, turnips, kale, lettuce, Swiss chard, onions 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.
Home fruit growers need to start paying attention to their fruit plantings. The apples, peaches, grapes and brambles need to be pruned. Apple trees and grapes can be done early in the month. Apples are more cold tolerant that peaches so we can prune them earlier.
Wait until later or the end of the month to prune the peaches. By then the fruit buds on the peaches have begun to swell and show a little bit of color. This gives you an indication as to how much winter damage the trees have suffered. If there seems to be a lot of healthy fruit buds, you can go heavy on the pruning. A lesser amount of buds tells me to go light on the pruning so that I will have an adequate number of peaches this year.
Disease and insect control on tree fruit begins now with the application of a dormant oil spray on apples and pears and a lime-sulfur spray on the peaches. If you have a scale insect problem on the peaches use the dormant oil instead of the other materials.
Don’t mix oil and sulfur as that combination will burn the buds. Dormant oil is a safe, effective control for aphids, mites, scales and other over-wintering insect pests. Lime-sulfur gives good control of mites and helps to prevent peach leaf curl.
Sanitation is especially important in reducing fruit insect and disease problems. Remove and dispose of all mummified (dried) and fallen fruits. Left where they are, they’re a possible source of diseased and insect problems on this year’s crop. Also check for the tell-tale gummy deposits of the peach tree borer at the bases of you peach, apricot and cherry trees. If you find any, carefully remove the borers with a penknife or a piece of stiff wire.
I noticed the other day that in protected area of the home foundation, especially with an eastern exposure, tulips, narcissus, and hyacinths have been stimulated into active growth. Many home gardeners worry about these new soft succulent leaves and try to protect them from freezing temperatures. Experience has shown that these newly emerging leaves are winter hardy and there is little to worry about when you see them emerging in late winter and early spring. Since the flower buds are still within the bulb in the ground, chances are that the bulbs will flower normally but probably slightly ahead of schedule.
Late winter or early spring is the best time to transplant all bare-root plants. It is important that the roots of bare-root 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 temperature reaches 38 degrees F. This is also an excellent time to plant balled and burlapped and container-grown plants into the home landscape. This will give them time to become established before the hot weather comes.
While you are working on your ornamental trees and shrubs, take time to clean them up. Remove any bagworm “Christmas ornaments” on your cedars and other narrow-leafed evergreens. This will reduce their population. Each one of the bags contains 500 to 1000 eggs that will hatch out later on this spring.
Prune out any dead or diseased branches and stems and remove diseased leaves and insect eggs. If the shrubs have been damaged by snow, wait until they leaf out to see how extensive the damage is before doing repair pruning. Wait until after spring flowering shrubs like azaleas, forsythia and lilacs flower to do any pruning. If you prune these plants now, you will be cutting out the flower buds.
Happy gardening!