Tidewater Gardening - March 2007

Spring is Around the Corner


K. Marc Teffeau

     The fairly mild early winter disappeared with a vengeance in February with the very cold temperatures. The weather change reminded us that we can still get some nasty weather and even heavy snow falls. However, as you have noticed, we are starting to leave the cold, dark days of winter behind us. The increasing intensity of the sunshine and the longer days of March starts the sap stirring in both the trees and we gardeners who have languished over the winter.
      With the fairly mild winter we have experienced in January and early February 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 and 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 40ºF. This is also an excellent time to plant those balled and burlaped and container-grown plants into the home landscape. This will give them time to become established before hot weather.
      March is also a good time to do some clean-up pruning on trees and shrubs. Hedges can receive their first pruning this month. As you prune, be sure to leave the base of the plant wider than the top. This allows sunlight to get to the bottom of the plant, creating a full, dense hedge.
      Boxwood should be pruned by thinning the outer foliage of the plant and cutting back the branches to retain desired height. There are some exceptions to pruning in March, however. Trees that bleed, such as birch and maple, should not be pruned until after their leaves are fully developed. Wait to prune spring flowering shrubs like azaleas and lilacs until after they flower.
      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 the population of this pest for this year. Each one of the bags contains 500 to 1,000 eggs that will hatch out later on this spring.
      The milder days of March is an excellent time to do some cleanup in the perennial beds. First check the plants for frost heaving. This is likely to occur in gardens that weren’t mulched last fall, but it may even happen in mulched sites. Because of freezing weather, ice can form in the soil under the plants in winter and can literally push them out of the ground. This exposes the crown of the plants and roots to the harsh temperatures and drying winds.
      If you have any frost heaved plants, gently “tamp” them back in the ground. To do this, carefully place your foot along side each plant and firmly step down, pushing it back into the ground and packing soil around its roots.
      Second, look under mulched perennials to see if their crowns are showing new green growth. If they are, it’s time to loosen the mulch. But don’t remove it yet. Delay the removal of the mulch until the chance of extended below freezing weather has passed. When you do remove the mulch, be sure to cut back the old flower stems and remove dead leaves. Dispose of them rather than leaving them lying in the garden.
      Early spring is an excellent time to fertilize perennials. A standard fertilizer blend like 5-10-5 can be used, or you can apply one of the “slow release” formulations now available on the market for perennials and annuals.
      March is also a good time to divide and transplant summer- and fall-blooming perennials (astilbe, aster, bleeding heart, coral bells, daylilies, Liriope, phlox and shasta daisies). Remember that perennials perform best in well-drained soil with plenty of humus.
      Most homeowners don’t have fruit in the landscape but if you have fruit trees or other fruiting plants, March is the time to start paying attention to them. Apples, peaches, grapes and brambles can be pruned, starting with apple trees and grapes early in the month.
      The end of the month is a good time to prune peaches because 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 fruit trees 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. The 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 disease 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 your peach, apricot and cherry trees. If you find any, carefully remove the borers with a penknife or a piece of stiff wire. Contact your local Extension office to order a revised copy of the Maryland Extension Bulletin EB125 – Home Fruit Production Guide. It costs $8.
      March is strawberry planting time. Set out the strawberry plants that you ordered as soon as the ground is easily worked. Be sure to select a sunny location where the soil is well drained and rich in organic matter. Working compost or well rotted manure into the soil before planting is an excellent way to prepare the soil for planting.
      There are different planting schemes that can be used in the garden for the strawberry bed. Some people like to plant the plants 18 to 24 inches apart in rows four feet apart. Others plant the plants equally distant apart in a bed and form a matted row planting. Whichever way you chose, be sure that the crowns of the plants are planted at the soil level. Some gardeners make the mistake of planting the plant too high or too low. Remove all blossoms which appear during the first growing season. This promotes faster growth and increases next year’s yield.
      Soon after planting, mulch the plants with clean straw, hay or pine needles to help keep weeds down and hold moisture. Among the recommended cultivars for our area are Earliglow and Allstar. If you are looking for an everbearer try Tristar and Tribute.
      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.
      Happy gardening!!!