University City

March in the garden: Just right for some plants

This month, gardening in University City is as unpredictable as Alice's March Hare.

On one delightful March morning, you awaken to a yard full of flowers, with azaleas, daffodils, forsythia and fruit trees all blooming. Twenty-four hours later, a frigid cold snap has left the garden in tatters, with tulip magnolia blossoms - white as angels the day before - hanging like black fruit bats from shivering limbs.

The take-away? In March, practice patience.

It's too early by several weeks to set out such tender crops as tomatoes, peppers and squash. Wait until after Tax Day, April 15, to plant your summer garden crops.

That doesn't mean all food crops are off limits. March is a good time to plant your spring garden of lettuce, broccoli, beets, carrots, onions, greens and other favorites that prefer cool weather.

If you have the space, plant some sugar snap peas and potatoes this March, too. Peas can work in the narrow strip alongside driveways and parking areas. A fun way to trellis them is the traditional technique of "pea brush," where you simply use branches from your spring pruning chores or the woods, pushed into the ground along the row, to give your peas a place to climb, helped out with a little twine.

The space-challenged can grow potatoes in a circle of wire filled with straw. Feel free to improvise and improve on this idea.

For instance, potatoes grow fine in a pile of tires, a la Southern garden guru Felder Rushing, who paints his tires bright colors so his neighborhood association can't ignore them. I highly recommend Rushing's entertaining books; he's equally skilled at raising beautiful gardens and raising Cain.

Though you can't plant tender crops outdoors, the beginning of March is a good time to start seedlings for tomatoes, peppers and eggplants indoors, along with flowers such as zinnias and cosmos.

Use creative recycling by turning yogurt cups into your seedling pots. Be sure to poke a hole in the bottom for drainage. A good commercial potting mix is best for filling the pots (Scotts has an organic version).

Your seedlings need plenty of light, so put them in your brightest window, or rig up a simple light stand with a standard fluorescent shop light (expensive "grow lights" are unnecessary).

What if you don't want to start your own? Don't worry; there will soon be lots of very good choices at mid-April garden sales at UNC Charlotte's greenhouse, Piedmont Farmers' Market in Concord, CPCC's Cato Campus and Renfrow Hardware in Matthews.

That said, be sure to take a minute to explore mail-order seed sources. Websites such as Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Johnny's Seed (in Maine, but with a excellent selection for the Carolinas), Seed Saver Exchange and Gary Ibsen's Tomatofest all give you a much wider variety to choose from, if you don't mind starting your own seedlings.

Before planting your food garden, add compost and prepare your garden beds deeply and well for vegetables. But never work our heavy clay soils when they are wet. Wait until the soil is dry enough to crumble in your hand.

March is also the best month to prune spring-flowering shrubs such as azaleas, forsythias and Japanese camellias, just after they bloom.

Deadhead daffodils when blooms droop, but leave the leaves alone. Daffies need their leaves to recharge the bulbs for next year. Cut them back in a few weeks, after they turn brown.

Deadhead pansies, too. They will bloom longer and look better if you do. Pansies also appreciate a feeding with fish emulsion or another nitrogen-rich organic fertilizer this month.

March is a good time to learn more about food gardening. In University City, CPCC CCE offers a six-week hands-on class on basic vegetable gardening with an organic approach. It's called GDN 8051, Food Gardening, and will meet 6-8 p.m. Thursdays at Reedy Creek Park Community Garden, beginning March 22. For information call CPCC CCE at 704-330-4223 or visit www.cpcc.edu. A bit farther away but highly recommended are Saturday morning vegetable gardening classes at Renfrow Hardware in Matthews; call 704-847-4088.

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