GTTY – March
Gardening has many challenges and and waiting through the month of March is one of them. Every March is different -- almost all come in like a lion. When the lamb begins to shyly emerge in the middle of the month, it takes great restraint to remember our frost date is May 15, a full two months away. How does one deal with statements on seed packets like “Plant in early spring, as soon as the ground can be worked”. Experienced gardeners are anxious to get outside and the newbie needs advice on when to start the garden. My advice is to hedge your bets.
The vegetables that you usually plant in early to mid April include peas, carrots, chard, broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, radishes, kale, beets, parsley, spinach, cilantro, collards, parsnips, rutabaga and perhaps a few more. What would happen if you tried to plant them really early? If the temperatures go up into the 60’s and 70’s for the a week to ten days, the seeds would germinate well. The ground is damp enough and there is no sign of a very wet spell, so the seeds won’t rot. Once the seeds are up, there is very likely to be a cold spell and the new seedlings will probably need some protection. If it gets very cold, they can die even with protection. My advice is to plant a few seeds, perhaps one-third of what you planned. Plant them near each other so you can protect them easily. If the weather never turns cold, then you will have the earlier vegetables.
There is one more consideration, the length of the day. Plants grow faster when the day is longer, so if you expect your peas in 60 days, it may take longer starting them early. Spinach, however, loves the short days and will bolt in the long days of June. You can plant that now with abandon (or as soon as the snow melts).
March is the month to prune cane fruit, raspberries and blackberries. The dead canes from last season with their lateral branches and grey bark are easy to spot. Also remove all the spindly ones. Remove dead, diseased or damaged branches from your blueberries and currants. Thin out the branches of gooseberries for better air flow and ease of picking. You can top dress all your berries with compost and acidify your blueberries now. It is also a good time to “open” new ground for a new garden or expanding your existing garden. 4-6 layers of newspapers and a 2 inch layer of compost is all you need to have a new garden. It is fast and easy, but more importantly, it preserves the soil structure and does not disturb the balance of life in the soil community of microbes, worms and insects.
There is gardening to do inside as well. This is the time to plant seeds in sterile medium to grow your own seedlings. Peppers should be started now, but the seedlings won’t be put out until mid to late May. Tomatoes and eggplant can wait a couple more weeks. All the Brassica or cabbage family plants can be started inside to give you an earlier harvest. Many herbs would benefit from an early indoor start, giving you fresh herbs over more of the season. Start parsley, cutting celery, cilantro and even basil now. If you decide to start your own seedlings, be sure to give them plenty of light. Here is a brief description of how to do it:
1. Look over seeds and decide which ones you want to plant
2. Fill a container with dampened seed starting medium, almost to the top
3. Write labels on little strips of paper and tape to container
4. Put one or two seeds on top of the medium. If seed is large push it in a little.
5. When all compartments have seeds, put more medium on top and push down very gently
6. Cover with plastic wrap or slip into a clear plastic bag
7. Place in a warm spot (not in direct sun) until seeds are up (5-14 days)
8. Remove the plastic and place in a sunny windowsill (preferably south-facing) or under a grow light, on a tray or saucer
9. When the medium appears dry, put water in the saucer. If the plants are in the window, turn plant 180 degrees daily. If using lights, turn them off at night.
10. Fertilize after the plants have their second leaves with liquid fertilizer in water.
Enjoy the warm days to do the spring clean-up. Be sure to save your leaves for mulching and composting later.