Don Boekelheide on Gardening: March is for planting cool-weather crops

03/01/2013 12:00 AM

02/27/2013 10:17 AM

This month in the gardens can be lovely, but it drives gardeners nuts. Temperatures in March hop up and down like a insane rabbit. And if that’s not enough, there’s all that basketball madness going on at the same time to distract you from a long list of garden tasks.

March can feel like Eden in the Carolinas, so working outdoors is pretty delightful. Unfortunately, just like in Eve in the garden with Adam, the biggest downside is temptation.

In this case, it’s the impulse to do something that’s, well, crazy. After it has been springlike and balmy for days, who can resist setting out tomatoes, peppers and other tender plants in the garden?

Don’t do it. Wait until mid-April, when risk of frost is past.

Redirect your eagerness to planting your spring, cool-season garden. Transplant such hardy vegetables as broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower about mid-month. You can also direct-seed lettuce, kale, beets, chard, spinach, greens, sugar snap peas and turnips. Onions from sets and potatoes are great fun if you have the space.

Carrots may be best of all. Growing carrots is like magic, especially for kids. A big crunchy carrot pulled straight from the garden is a completely different experience from those ubiquitous orange phalanges in the plastic bags. And just imagine a carrot that tastes great without dip.

Lettuce seed can germinate in colder soil than almost any other vegetable. Be careful to not bury lettuce seed too deeply, since it needs light to germinate. You can also transplant lettuce. Renfrow Hardware in Matthews has the best selection.

For a successful garden throughout the year, you need excellent soil. March is a good time to work your soil gently, digging in compost and organic fertilizers. Forming beds is an ideal chore for whenever we have a few warm days without rain. Mound the soil up a few inches in beds (no wooden frame is necessary) to improve drainage. Never work our clay soils when they’re wet; wait until the soil is dry enough to crumble in your hand.

You can start tomatoes, peppers and eggplant indoors from seed indoors, so they’ll be ready in April and May. A bright, sunny south window works well; so does a fluorescent shop light rigged up over the flats. I also like to start flowers, especially zinnias, cleome and sunflowers, which are hard to find in local nurseries.

March is the time to add to your plant selection without spending a dime, by dividing perennial flowers. Daylilies are easy; so are Shasta daisies and coneflowers.

Tall fescue lawns start growing rapidly again this month, so it is time to start mowing again. Set your mower high, 3 inches plus, so the fescue can grow high enough to shade out weeds; that’s the way tall fescue naturally wants to grow.

On a once-a-week schedule, there are sometimes many grass clippings. Rake them up and mix them into the compost pile, or use them as mulch.

This is a good time to aggressively prune overgrown shrubs (except for conifers such as pines). Also, prune flowering shrubs after they bloom, and finish rose pruning before the buds break.

You can also plant trees, shrubs and roses this month, including blueberries, blackberries and figs, if you are willing to water carefully through the summer.

While you are sawing and whacking back those overgrown hollies and raking up those mountains of grass clippings, ask yourself whether your garden and yard really need heavy fertilization. Excess fertilizer can lead to steriodal shrubs and huge piles of lawn trimmings. March recommendations from some agencies (that ought to know better) make it sound as though you need to spend the entire month spraying pesticide and spreading chemical fertilizer.

Just say "no." This kind of pushing chemical dependency in your landscape and garden sounds like more March madness to me.

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