March Gardening Tips

Sometimes the latter part of February gives us our last taste of winter. Many flowering shrubs and trees have already begun blooming, but the temperature may drop into the mid-to-upper twenties, possibly cutting back on the fruit production. The majority of plants, however, just shrug this off and go on with their lives.

March weather is also very unpredictable. One weekend may be clear and warm and everyone will want to go to the beach or on a picnic; the next cool and frosty. Daytime temperatures average in the mid 60’s. High winds, 30 to 40 miles per hour for 2 or 3 days at a time, are a problem, but are often followed by shirt-sleeve weather.

Shopping

Shopping at the nurseries is a delight this month (actually every month!), for they are loaded with plants in bloom, including azaleas, camellias, hardenbergias, daffodils, pansies, primroses and flowering trees.

Daffodils and primroses are at their peak. The lovely magnolia greets the month with blossoms resting like porcelain cups on the bare branches. Petals of early flowering trees fall like snowflakes while a multitude of later ones rush into bloom. Small bells of grape hyacinth and Siberian squill make a carpet of clear, light blue, while Japanese andromeda presents a double show with bright new growth and ivory-white bells in drooping clusters. Opening in the moist woodlands are western trilliums and dainty violets.

Planter

Maintenance

The top-priority job this month is providing plenty of MOISTURE for newly set plants so winds will not cause severe leaf burn. Don’t depend on the rains to do this for you. This is a critical time for broad-leaved evergreens that are starting into new growth, so get out the hose and water.

Do not prune plants that suffered FROST DAMAGE last month. When new growth starts, they can be cut back to just above that new growth.

FUCHSIAS can be pruned back hard now. Cut back most of last summer’s growth. Those in pots should be repotted immediately after being pruned, using rich, porous compost. Those in the ground should be fertilized after pruning. The fuchsia gall mite has recently become a serious pest, causing distortion of leaves and shoots. Cut off and destroy distorted tissue. Check with your favorite nursery for a treatment to deal with this pest. Some varieties are more resistant to the mite.

Watch GERANIUMS for tiny new growth along branches and cut plants back to strong growth near their base. If the cut-off pieces have not been injured by frost, 4 inch tip cuttings from them can be rooted. Cuttings started last fall can be set out now.

Aphids and spider mites can be a problem on the SPRUCE trees. These mites cause the needles to turn brown and fall off, leaving dead and unsightly bare branches. If the tree is small, you might jet it thoroughly with water to wash them off; insecticidal soaps added to a water spray will increase the spray’s effectiveness. Dust that settles on needles encourages mites, so continual hosing will help keep down the mite populations. There are chemical controls but these are non-selective and will kill beneficial insects also.

In our coastal area March is the time to FERTILIZE every plant in the garden. Always have the soil moist before applying any fertilizer. Mulch trees and shrubs and apply acid fertilizer to established plantings of camellias, azaleas and rhododendrons. These plants will like you even better if you apply half the regular dose of fertilizer this month and the other half in April. Directions will be on the package. Also spread a mulch of peat moss or ground bark on the ground between small groundcover plants and heathers. This conserves moisture and discourages weeds. This is a good time to start a monthly fertilizer program for your lawn if you desire a deep green, lush expanse of grass, although most lawns are happy with fertilizer once in the spring and once in the fall.

To rejuvenate perennial HERBS such as mint and sage, cut back old or dead growth on established plants, then fertilize and water them to stimulate new growth. Plant new herbs such as mint, parsley, rosemary, sage, and thyme in loose, well-drained soil. Don't forget the catnip.

Fertilize the VEGETABLE garden also, especially the garlic and the lettuce. An excellent slow-release organic fertilizer is blood meal; apply it in bands next to the plants and scratch it into the soil. You’ll see the plants begin to glow within a few days. This fertilizer will last for about a month. Fish emulsion does this too, but it will have to be re-applied every few days.

Do you talk to your plants? I do. They don’t hear me, but I pay attention to them just in case they might reply, and that's when I notice all kinds of things. They may need watering or feeding, or may have uninvited guests munching on the foliage--things I wouldn’t see if I just ignored them.

KEEP SNAILING and watch out for the poison oak, it’s very potent this time of year!

Planting

Prepare PLANTING BEDS, placing composted manure and organic matter into the soil at least to the depth of your spade, deeper if you can. Pretend you’re a backhoe. Remember, you are feeding the soil, not the plants. Hoe, my achin’ back. The best purchased soil amendment is peat moss. It’s more expensive than the sawdust soil conditioners, but it will last much longer and be more beneficial to your crew, the soil’s micro-organisms. Inert amendments such as perlite or vermiculite will improve the drainage and water holding capacity of both sandy or heavy soils. You can always add fertilizer later, but you cannot add amendments after the plants are in.

ANNUALS for summer that can be started from seeds in the open ground include sweet alyssum, forget-me-not, nasturtium, nemesia, salpiglossis, summer-flowering sweet peas, godetia, larkspur, ageratum and salvia. Pegging a piece of row cover or cheesecloth over freshly planted seeds prevents the wind from drying out the soil and interfering with good germination. Water through it.

BEDDING PLANTS can be bought at nurseries. Among the best buys are cineraria, petunia, stock, snapdragon, and annual phlox. Tender plants and heat-loving plants like zinnia will do better if set out next month.

March is one of the best months for setting out PERENNIALS. These are available as transplants and in gallon cans. The little transplants need another year of growing before they flower while those in the cans will bloom like old-timers this season.

Plant summer-flowering BULBS, CORMS and TUBERS, such as gladiolus (successive plantings 3 weeks apart), calla, clivia, tigridia, and montbretia. Don’t plant the dahlias until next month.

If your spring-flowering bulbs are not planted near spring-flowering shrubs, this is the time to make notes on where to move them this fall. Here are some good COLOR COMBINATIONS: Daffodils and forsythia; blue Siberian squill ‘Spring Beauty’ and pink royal azalea; blue grape hyacinth and white evergreen candytuft; mollis or Knap Hill azaleas and blue Spanish bluebells.

Good spring combinations that feature perennials used with shrubs are these: Rhododendrons ‘Blue Tit’ or ‘Snow Lady’ with an edging of forget-me-nots, pansies or primroses; white Vanhoutte spirea underplanted with white or pale yellow polyantha primroses.

The soil is still too cold to plant VEGETABLE seeds such as squash, corn, beans and other heat-loving plants, but continue to sow seeds and set out plants of lettuce, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, chard, carrots, beets, peas and radishes. If you haven’t started the tomatoes indoors yet you had better plan to buy them as plants. Put the early potatoes in.

This is a good time to put in or renovate a LAWN.

Color Harmony

When most people begin gardening, they have but one goal in mind -- to make plants grow. Although horticulture newcomers may be sensitive to color combinations indoors, their gardens are often another matter.

"I wish I hadn't planted my purple lilac bushes so close to that hedge of orange wallflowers," they regret. "Maybe they won't bloom together next year." They will, of course.

Interior decorators tell gardening friends that they should have used color wheels. "What made you think you'd like purple next to orange in the garden any more than you would in the den?" decorators ask, smirking. Sheepish gardeners confess that they never truly expected the lilacs to live, much less flourish.

When gardeners in search of color harmony comb horticultural references, the name of Gertrude Jekyll keeps popping up. Jekyll possessed an unerring sense of color. History also documents that her visual acuity worsened severely as she aged, to the point that in her later years she couldn't discern form -- only color (which may actually have assisted her flair).

Jekyll's forte was the herbaceous border. According to her, edges of garden borders should house plants with gray foliage, Then, starting at one end, blues should be planted, followed by pale yellows and pinks (both in masses and intergroupings).

Color should next pass through stronger yellows, orange, and finally red, at which point the middle of the border should be reached. Then, color strength should recede in an inverse sequence to the opposite end.

Consistent with the budgets of her landed gentry clients, Jekyll gardened on a grand scale. Still, much of what she dictated regarding color can be tastefully applied to gardens of any size, particularly that colors next to each other on a color wheel belong in the garden, too.

Jekyll also taught us that opposing colors can work together, if used in the right amounts. A single scarlet poppy, for instance, can bring to life an entire sea of pale blue campanulas, whereas an equal number of poppies would make the campanulas look dull.

You'll bless the day you decide to keep color groups together -- reds with pinks, yellows with orange, blues with mauve, and whites and grays for transition. When choosing color schemes, consider also when you plan to enjoy your garden most and how much light it gets. If you have lots of sun and are home to enjoy it, vivid colors work. Purple and blue flowers, on the other hand, look best in dappled shade.

If you want your garden to feel cool, plant lavenders and blues. If you're after warmth, consider yellows and reds. Remember, however, that red is not simply hot, it's riveting--the first color that eyes fix on in a spectrum. Red should be used sparingly, especially when combined with yellow (an abrupt contrast) and especially in small gardens, where drama is out of place. Similarly, most blues are at odds with yellow, and orange fights with mauve.

An interior designer once taught me a trick for assuring that strongly contrasting colors work in the garden. "Make certain that some, however small, portion of a vividly colored flower relates to a color element of its neighbor," she said.

"For instance, if you want brilliant blue underneath that stark-white `Iceberg' rose of yours, then plant a lobelia as blue as you like, as long as it has a white center. You can't imagine what a difference those white eyes will make."

She was correct, of course, and even though I understood why it happened, I stood amazed that those clumps of azure-blue lobelia so nicely complemented the icy-white roses.

Also, the longer I tend plants, the more I appreciate what foliage does for the garden at large. In the words of Louise Beebe Wilder, America's answer to Gertrude Jekyll, "In crowding our color groups one against the other we do not give ourselves opportunity to appreciate the full beauty of any."

Leave room for green, nature's weaver of color.