Warned about the Ides of March, Julius Caesar didn’t listen, and that was the end of him. The lesson for gardeners, I suppose, is to never be too sure of ourselves.
March is deceptive here, balmy and lovely for weeks before a freeze comes out of nowhere to assassinate any tomatoes and peppers we’ve confidently set out. Hold off on planting warm-season vegetables outdoors until after Tax Day, April 15.
In the meantime, March is ideal for planting such spring vegetable favorites as broccoli, lettuce, root crops and peas.
The trick is to get them growing fast and happily before the weather heats up in May and June, when they get roasted right in the garden.
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Speaking of heat, 2014 may be a hot one indeed. New Scientist ( www.newscientist.com) reports that some climatologists now predict a 75 percent chance 2014 will be an El Niño year, accompanied by baking summer heat in the Southeast.
The best way to get a jump on the heat with broccoli, collards and cabbage is to use transplants, available in any good nursery. Many spring vegetables, however, get a good enough start from direct seeding. Just buy a packet of seed, scatter the seed lightly in a well-prepared bed, and keep it lightly moist until germination.
Lettuce is able to sprout when soils are still pretty cool. Beets like soil to be a bit warmer. Root crops, such as carrots, radishes, beets and turnips, are usually direct-seeded, as are sugar snap peas.
The best sugar snap variety for me has been plain old Sugar Snap, which requires a trellis or strings to scramble up. An English trick of improvising a “pea bush” from cut limbs or brush works well if you don’t mind a rustic look, and you can’t beat the recycling value.
If you are short of space, try planting rows of fast-maturing spring crops, such as radishes and leaf lettuce, on the outsides of your beds. Leaving the middle for tomatoes and other warm-season crops, which will need a place in six to eight weeks.
Indoors, now is the time to get tomatoes, basil, peppers and eggplants going, if you haven’t already. Another excellent project is starting seedlings for old-fashioned summer flowers, such as cosmos, cleome and zinnias.
They are all maddeningly hard to find in local nurseries, however, even good ones – a refreshing alternative to the clone army of garden center marigolds. (These are “French marigolds,” by the way, with negligible impact on pests. Sorry. More about this urban legend in a future column. For now, grow marigolds only if you like them, not to “repel bugs.”)
It has been relentlessly wet so far this year. At the farm I’m dealing with flooded fields that usually are fine in early March. All the moisture complicates the traditional spring ritual of preparing soil for planting. More often than not, we have to cultivate patience instead of the ground.
Wait until clay soil has dried to an even, non-muddy degree of moisture before working it. Otherwise, the result is brick-like clods for the rest of the growing year and beyond.
Meanwhile, though, the clock keeps ticking. Cool-season crops that don’t get started in a timely manner burn up in the heat.
What should gardeners do? As frustrating as it is, we simply have to wait until the soil is dry enough to work. Gardeners who don’t have a place with good drainage may consider building a couple of planter boxes, and all of us may want to experiment with containers.
Fortunately, the beauty of spring balances the aggravations. Daffodils are already popping, and the star magnolia in our yard is just opening its delightful floppy white flowers. Hopefully we will get to enjoy them for at least a couple of days, before a freeze turns them brown and limp.
Daffies are more reliable; they laugh at the cold. When daffodils are past their prime, just pop the bloom off, but don’t dig them up. Instead, leave the foliage to dry on its own, so the plant can recharge to bring you another flower show next spring.