Spring or Winter? March is of two minds.
I understand completely.
Although this month marks a significant change in the weather going forward, that change brings with it many tasks for the gardener. Sometimes we feel up to hitting them hard and sometimes we could use a few more weeks of winter to prepare for them.
Winter has given us more snowfalls in the Mid-Atlantic than we have seen in previous years, but it has also been gentle with the temperature. I am painfully aware however that March can change all that, with quick warm ups and hard freezes that can kill plants that made it through a long winter.
The bees can be similarly affected and this is the month to check them and feed them if there is not much forage about.
The tasks I am choosing to do right now will save me work in the long run. For instance: epimedium foliage can be cut back with a weed whacker , but as soon as the new foliage begins to unfurl in a few short weeks, it will require a pair of snips and a kneeler. Pulling out some last minute multi-flora from the woodland garden takes pruners and a good pair of gloves – but in another month and a half, I will hardly be able touch it as the naked canes become impenetrable, nasty barriers of thorns masked by foliage.
March is an exciting month, and I want to savor that excitement. Eranthis, Iris reticulata, and crocuses are in full flower. The early snowdrops have finished and the late ones are blooming. Already the bluebells are beginning to push deep purple shoots out of the soil and the daffodils planted along the drive in November are up and ready to bloom. It’s a month of transition and daily miracles. Spring is on its way.
“I should have planted that!” for March’s garden
Carefully observing neighboring gardens month-to-month and putting in some of the wonderful things you see during the next planting season allows you to successfully increase your garden’s display season without having to experiment too much with timing.
Edgeworthia chrysantha – (Paperbush) This is an unusual shrub that could easily be showcased most months of the year – particularly the winter months; but edgeworthia adds something very special to the March landscape. This month, the velvety white buds it’s been holding since early autumn open to bright golden yellow and scent the air with a daphne-like fragrance.
Edgeworthia is reportedly hardy to USDA Zone 6, (key word ‘reportedly’ – I’d guess no more than 6b). However, buds and tips will be burnt by cold winds and the bloom will be compromised. Best to find a sheltered spot for this daphne relative in partial shade with well-draining soil, and give it plenty of room.
The natural shape of the shrub is umbellate, with large, tawny-red branches coming from the base. Ramrod straight suckers shoot up from the center, and with patience and a trowel, you can slowly separate some from the outer base, and pot them up in summer. By late spring, edgeworthia is decked in large (5+”) glaucous leaves that take up a fair amount of real estate. Again, give it plenty of room. Two of the most propagated cultivars are ‘Snow Cream’ and ‘Winter Gold.’ Rarer is ‘Akebono’ – with a red-orange blossom that I have yet to grow in my garden.
Where can I get it?
This isn’t a Big Box shrub – you’ll find it at specialty nurseries and you may need to ask to be contacted when it is available. Definitely worth the wait, and it may be shorter than you think. Here are some places to start…
Garden Tasks for March
As always — the tasks I list for both the indoor and the outdoor garden are just SUGGESTIONS. You cannot do them all. I cannot do them all. Work on what makes the most sense to get the most out of your garden.
March’s Garden: Outside Tasks
A serious bed clear up is in order. If you have left leaves and debris to mulch perennial beds over the winter, now is the time to remove them and replace with a top dressing of high-quality compost. Be very careful not to compact your soil – using boards to distribute your weight.
If you have left perennial flower stalks to feed the birds, cut them down to the ground and mark with a small piece of staking so you know where they are over the next month.
Unless absolutely necessary, do not cut back spring flowering shrubs until they have bloomed. By all means, force a few branches indoors, but stay your hand and let your neighbors enjoy a bit of bloom before you whack.
Keep on top of your weeding. Weeds like bittercress go from tiny rosette to seed-spitter in less than two weeks at this time of year.
Re-mulch, re-gravel, and re-enrich.
March is a construction month. It may be cold, but the soil thaws and footers can be set for walls, sheds and raised beds if needed.
Fertilize vegetable and ornamental beds before planting. I use a high-quality organic fertilizer that is a nice mixture of bone/blood meals, alfalfa meal, lime and a few other micro-nutrients thrown in for good measure. Compost, manure and humus increase the ability of your soil to hold moisture and sustain plant life, but actually contribute very little to the fertility of the soil – which means vegetables with less nutritive content. Look into fertilizing and feeding your soil, not just amending it.
Cool weather seedlings put into cold frames at the beginning/end of this month should be ready for the garden by the end.
Check fences and gates for broken pickets, hinges and groundhog holes and repair them.
Excellent month for putting down an automatic watering system if that’s in the cards this year.
Repair, repaint and re-seal outside furniture.
If you are a newbie gardener, do not trust the big box retailers who will be putting out tender plants at the end of the month as if spring has arrived. These plants go INSIDE every night and will do so until mid April (not that they’ll tell you that). Hold off unless you have plenty of greenhouse space in which to house them.
March’s Garden: Inside Tasks
At the beginning of the month, you can bring in forsythia branches to force. By the middle of the month, bring in fruit branches like apple, cherry and plum
Hopefully you have sorted your seeds by now and organized them so that every week you can check what needs to be sown and sow it.
You may be sick of many of your winter refugees such as coleus, citrus, schefflera, agave etc… Do not jump the gun and throw them outside as soon as temperatures are feeling a bit warmer -the shock could easily kill them. Keep an eye on overnight temperatures – most pampered plants are not going to handle new digs outside until mid to late April.
Water-forced bulbs should be discarded after flowering. Soil-forced bulbs need some rest and a spa in Switzerland – but a back part of your garden might do just fine as well. Don’t expect much from them for a while.
Whatever you do, inside or out, take some time to look around at public and private gardens around you and see what is blooming right now in your zone. Take notes. Then in the fall when plants are cheap but ideas are exhausted, you can go back and incorporate some of these beauties (hellebore, cyclamen, hamamelis, galanthus, eranthis, mertensia, etc…) into your garden – expanding the season for next year.
“The stormy March has come at last,
With wind, and cloud, and changing skies;
I hear the rushing of the blast,
That through the snowy valley flies.”
– William Cullen Bryant
– from “March”