Gardening in March – 2. Garden Work
Gardening in March – Garden Work in Early Spring
As we enter March and the start of our busy time of year, the amount of garden work begins to grow as daylight increases.
A month like March may be incredibly contrasted as well, with sunshine and warmth right next to wind and frost that will challenge the first signs of spring growth. Let’s stick together and finish the winter chores to make way for the tasks we’ll be performing during the growing season.
It is important to remember that there is a lot of garden work to be done in March. It is an extremely busy month in the garden, so if we do some things now we’ll be able to get a major head start on the upcoming garden work. It is somewhat difficult to predict what will happen during gardening in March, however, read on to learn about what you can accomplish this month and how you can get your garden ready for spring.
It is impossible not to be aware suddenly that there are all kinds of garden work that need to be done in the garden. Fortunately, the better weather makes most of the garden work a pleasure:
- Mulch beds and borders while the soil is moist to reduce watering and weeding later in the year.
- Sow seeds of summer bedding plants, annual climbers, herbs, sweet peas, tomatoes, and many vegetables in March. Some seeds can be sown directly into the open ground but most benefit from being started off in pots or trays with protection from bad weather and pests.
- Prick out seedlings before they become overcrowded, otherwise, they will make poor plants.
- Thin hardy annuals and vegetables are sown in the open ground before they become crowded and compete with each other for light and nutrients.
- Pot up or space out in seed trays in the greenhouse young bedding plants and tender perennials ordered by post as soon as possible after they arrive.
- Divide congested clumps of border perennials before they make a lot of new growth.
- Take hardwood cuttings of any shrubs you wish to propagate. Soon new growth will make this kind of cutting inappropriate.
- Take root cuttings; they are more likely to root if taken from dormant plants.
- Prune roses as soon as possible, ideally before this year’s new growth is well developed.
- Complete planting of bare-root fruit trees and bushes and bare-root roses and other shrubs in March to give them time to establish before dry summer weather.
- Start spraying fruit such as apples and pears if you have had problems with pests and diseases in previous years. The timing for some sprays is critical and depends on the state of the buds or flowers to avoid harming bees and other beneficial insects.
- Be strict about pest control in the greenhouse. Warm March days under glass can encourage a population explosion of many greenhouse pests and early control is important.
- Remove the pool heater if you used one over the winter and replace it with the pump.
Checking plant ties
Go round the garden and check all plant ties are secure but not constricting the stem growth. Loosen any ties that require them in preparation for the growing season ahead.
Covering the surface of beds and borders now with a 5 cm (2 in) layer of organic matter or a sheet of black plastic helps to reduce watering and weeding later in the season. An organic mulch also adds nutrients to the soil. In an ornamental bed or border a mulch of chipped bark, leafmould, or cocoa shells looks attractive, but on the vegetable plot, where appearance is less important, use black plastic sheeting as a mulch, cutting slits in it for planting.
Greenhouses & frames
As the weather in March becomes warmer, more use can be made of the greenhouse; seeds can be sown, bulbs planted and cuttings taken. Unless the spring is cold, you can now remove the winter insulation from the glass.
Controlling pests and diseases
Higher temperatures bring an increase in insect activity, so watch out for aphids, red spider mites, and whitefly.
Pests such as greenfly will now be multiplying rapidly so keep a watch for early signs of infestation. If you take action now to control and eradicate pests you may not need to take more drastic measures later.
Pests and diseases can become rampant in the warm and humid environment of a greenhouse. Plan a strategy for keeping the greenhouse free from such problems. Consider using biological controls such as bacteria, insects, or nematodes that either eat or parasitize and kill specific pests. Biological controls are advertised in seed catalogs and gardening magazines and sent to you by post.
Watering and feeding
Increase watering; do not let pots or seed trays dry out. Apply liquid feed to plants in pots on a regular basis as they start into growth.
Gardening in March includes sowing seeds of a wide variety of plants. Sow everything listed in February. Also, sow dahlias, lilies, annual carnations, herbs, hardy annuals, and any flowering plants that you plan to grow in pots. Prick out seedlings as soon as they are large enough to handle.
Annuals such as schizanthus and nemesias that have been overwintered in 8 cm (3 in) pots grow rapidly at this time of year. Pot them on into 15 cm (6 in) pots containing John Innes No.2 potting compost. Insert supporting stakes for the taller plants and tie them in as it becomes necessary. Move these plants into the house or conservatory when they start flowering.
At the end of the month, pot on gloxinias and begonias into 9 cm (3½ in) pots containing John Innes potting compost No.2 with peat added at the rate of one part peat to nine parts compost.
Pot on fuschias and chrysanthemums as required.
Take cuttings of dahlias , fuschias, pelargoniums, chrysanthemums, some shrubs, and indoor plants, such as abutilons, inserting them in a free-draining compost, preferably in a heated propagator.
Peppers and aubergines
Sow two peppers seeds to a pot at a temperature of 18-20°C (65-70°F) and remove the weaker of the two seedlings when they germinate. Sow aubergines at the same temperature, 5 mm (¼ in) deep in pots.
Indoor tomato plants sown in February will now need extra space to prevent them from becoming drawn and spindly. Where practicable, stand the pots on the greenhouse border where they will be planted. Otherwise, space them out on the staging.
If you wish to plant tomatoes in an unheated greenhouse in May, or outdoors, and have a heated propagator or a warm windowsill, sow the seeds this month at a temperature of 15-20°C (60-70°F), covering them with a thin layer of sifted compost. Pot the seedlings individually into 8 cm (3 in) pots of John Innes No. 2 potting compost as soon as the seed leaves are fully developed.
If you have a cool greenhouse, prepare the border for planting tomatoes next month. Dig in plenty of well-rotted manure or compost and apply a balanced fertilizer. Alternatively, you can buy growing bags or use the ring culture method. To prepare the border for ring culture dig out a trench at least 20 cm (8 in) deep and line it with plastic sheeting. Fill the trench with a layer of pea gravel 15 cm (6 in) deep. Tomato plants are then grown in purpose-designed bottomless pots which can be sunk into the gravel. The plants are watered via the gravel but fed via the pot.
Once growth begins ensure the vines get as much light and heat as possible.
Planning a new lawn
If you are planning a new lawn then work can start as soon as conditions are suitable.
Reseeding worn areas
Towards the end of March, reseed worn areas and any bare patches, but wait until April to do this if the weather is cold and the ground very wet.
Level any depressions in the soil and rake to remove debris and create a seedbed. Sow grass seed at 35g per m (1 oz per sq. yd), rake in, and water with a watering can fitted with a fine rose. Cover with plastic sheeting or horticultural fleece until the first seedlings emerge, then remove the protection. If the whole lawn looks thin, with lots of bare earth, try oversowing it with grass seed of a similar type. To do this, first, scarify (rake) the lawn to remove any debris. Sow seed at a rate of 25 g per meter (¾ oz per sq. yd) and rake in well. Cut no closer than 2.5 cm (1 in) until the new grass is established.
Fertilizers and weedkillers
If the spring has been mild and the lawn is already growing actively, start applying spring fertilizers and weedkillers, but in most years it is better to wait until April. Save time by using a combined weed and feed which also contains a moss killer.
The appearance of moss is a sign that the growing conditions for the grass are not right. In the short term, apply a moss killer and feed the lawn but the real cure is to tackle the underlying cause of moss, which may be poor drainage, too much shade, infertile soil, or a combination of factors.
Thatch (layers of dead grass and moss building up the soil surface) must be removed to maintain healthy grass. There are two methods of removing thatch. One is to remove it little and often using a spring-timed rake. Do this garden work monthly from March through to August, except during periods of drought. The other method is to do a single, vigorous scarifying, ideally in autumn, using a power lawn rake.
Scarifying by hand is hard work. Press down on the rake so the tines pull up the dead grass. There is little chance of damaging the grass by over-scarifying with a hand rake. However, if you are using a machine, take care not to damage the living grass; the base of the roots must be kept intact. Apply moss killer to the lawn a week or two before scarifying so dead moss can be removed at the same time.
The first spring cut
Cut the grass for the first time when it is 8 cm (3 in) high. Check the mower blades are sharp and set them high; reduce the cutting height in stages as the season progresses. Delay the first cut if the weather is very wet or frosty. Do not leave any grass clippings on the lawn at this time of year.
Repairing lawn edges
Repair any lawn edges that have crumbled if this was not done last month.
If you are troubled by wormcasts, flick them off the lawn with a stiff broom or besom before starting to mow. Don’t use chemicals to kill earthworms as they are beneficial in the garden and help to keep the soil healthy. If the problem persists, apply acidic fertilizers such as sulfate of iron or sulfate of ammonia. If you remove clippings and leaves from the lawn this helps to discourage earthworms.
Fusarium patches on lawns are a common problem in damp periods, particularly spring and autumn. Look out for small orange or brown spots which get larger and then join up. Similar-looking patches can have other causes, such as a dog or cat urine, but white fungal growth in damp weather is a tell-tale indicator. Some moss killers will control it but to prevent fusarium you need to improve the drainage and reduce shade. Regular mowing and removing all lawn clippings also help.
Damping-off on newly sown lawns is a fungal disease and can be recognized by the appearance of red and yellow patches of collapsed grass. It is difficult to control, but you can help to prevent it by preparing a free-draining seedbed, sowing the grass seed thinly and evenly, and taking care not to sow too early in the year.
Creating a New Lawn
If you want to create a new lawn, you should do this while gardening in March. Whether you intend to use turf or seed, the ground needs to be well prepared, preferably a month or so in advance. This will allow the soil to settle and weeds to be cleared. A firm-level surface is essential for a good lawn.
Preparing the soil
It is best to prepare the ground late the previous autumn if you are planning to plant a new lawn in the spring. Choose a fine day and begin clearing the site of existing grass, plants, and perennial weeds. Fork over or rotovate the area and leave the soil to settle over winter.
In spring, check that the soil surface is fairly dry before preparing a bed for lawn seed or turf. First, trample the earth and break up clods with a rake, removing weeds or large stones as you go. Aim to achieve as level a site as possible. Firm the ground by taking small overlapping steps, with your weight on your heels. Rake the soil several times in different directions to produce a crumbly but even surface.
Grass seed mixtures are available to suit different situations and uses. There are mixtures for shady or dry sites, hard-wearing mixtures for family lawns, or fine-grass mixtures to give a ‘bowling green’ effect. The disadvantage of a lawn grown from seed is that you may have to wait up to six months before it is usable, and birds and cats can disturb the seedbed.
Sowing a new lawn
- Clear the site and leave over winter if possible. Break up any clods and rake the soil to a crumbly and even surface, removing any weeds and large stones.
- To ensure an even distribution of seed across the lawn, and therefore an even growth of new grass, peg out strings 1 m (3 ft) apart over the site.
- Place two bamboo canes across the strings to form an area of 1 m sq (9 sq ft) and sprinkle the recommended amount of seed evenly across the square.
- Hang bird scarers over the new lawn. Water during dry spells; do so carefully as not to wash away the seed which should germinate in three weeks or less.
Turf provides an instant lawn, although the lawn should not be used extensively for the first month after laying. Against this convenience, turves are expensive, and laying them is heavy work.
It is important to plan the delivery and laying of turves with care. For a domestic lawn, there is a choice of ornamental or wear-tolerant turf. Ornamental turf consists of narrow-leaved grasses that grow densely and low, and respond well to frequent, close cutting. The drawbacks, apart from lack of wear-tolerance, are the cost and the regular care needed to keep the lawn looking its best. Wear-tolerant turf has a mixture of narrow-leaved and coarse grasses, making it easier to look after.
Cheaper meadowland turf may grow quickly but can contain agricultural ryegrasses and weeds which form a patchy, coarse lawn. This patchiness makes the turves more likely to fall apart when handled. To combat this they are often cut more thickly than cultivated turves, making them harder to move around and lay. As cultivated turf is sown with selected grass seed, it is easier to handle and contains fewer weeds than meadowland turf.
Inspect a sample of turf before buying. Avoid turves that tear apart or fall apart when handled or where the grass is starting to turn yellow or has a white mold on it. The grass should form a thick, even cover, be cleanly cut and no more than 4 cm (1 1/2 in) high. Look at the turf soil; a sandy or loamy base is better than a heavy clay which can lead to moss and poor drainage. Check the sample for weeds, avoiding coarse grass weeds such as Yorkshire fog and cocksfoot, dandelion, and types of a thistle.
Turf is normally supplied in rolls measuring 30 x 90 cm (1 x 3 ft). Most suppliers will deliver, but they may charge for this service. Turf should be laid within 24 hours of delivery. If this is not possible, unroll it in a shaded area and water it lightly.
Laying a new lawn using turf
- Create a level bed of soil with a fine tilth, then lay the first turves against a straight edge such as a plank.
- Lay alternate courses of turves in staggered rows. Work from a board to protect the soil.
- When the turfs are in place, closely butted up to one another, brush fine topsoil into the cracks. Repeat if more cracks open later. Water the turfs in if the soil is dry.
- If you want to shape the edge of your lawn, it is best to wait until the turves have taken. Then clearly mark out the shape and use an edger to cut the lawn.
Fish become more active in early spring, and soon many of them will be breeding. This increased activity means that the water quality in your pond may begin to deteriorate, especially when you start feeding the fish after the winter. If the pump and filter have been turned off, get them working again as soon as possible; the filter will take several weeks to become recolonized by beneficial bacteria and work efficiently again.
Start feeding your fish in moderation when the water temperature stabilizes at 7°C (45°F) for about a week. Don’t start feeding regularly until the water temperature stabilizes at 10°C (50°F) or more. This is likely to be in April but in some years, especially in mild areas, it might be by the end of the month.
Water plants & pools
Cleaning and repairs
Once established a pond should not need regular cleaning; never clean out a pond for the sake of it. However, if there is a large accumulation of organic debris (leaves) in the water, or if the water is bluish in color and smells unpleasant, then early spring is a good time to clean thoroughly. Even if the pond does not need cleaning, tidy by removing any faded overwintered foliage from the marginal plants.
Net out the fish and keep them in a large bucket or container filled with pool water, not fresh tap water. Their temporary home need not be very large, but it is vital they are kept somewhere cool and out of the sun, such as a garage or outhouse. Check on them every day.
You can empty the pond with a bucket or, if you have somewhere lower than the pond to which the water can be drained, by siphoning or with a pump. Keep back some pond water to return to the pond when you refill it. This introduces beneficial organisms into the pond and helps the fish to acclimatize. Once the debris and sludge have been cleared, refill the pond. Leave for several days to allow the effects of chlorine to wear off before reintroducing the fish, or better still use a proprietary dechlorinator.
The pond will also need to be drained and cleared if there are repairs required to the liner. If the damage is not too great, liners can be patched by using special repair kits. Hairline cracks in a concrete pool can be sealed with a quick-drying sealant and then painted with waterproof paint.
Replacing heater with pump
Remove the pool heater if you used one during the winter and, if you removed the pump, replace that. Start the UV water clarifier if you have one.
You may well have to protect your fish against herons. One way is to push short stakes about 15 cm (6 in) into the ground about 30 cm (12 in) from the edge of the pond and 1 m (3 ft) apart. Attach a strong fishing line to these stakes to create a low barrier that surrounds the pond. Otherwise, you will have to cover the pond with netting.
How to make a bog garden
Bog plants won’t thrive if you plant them in ordinary soil next to a lined pond. The ground there will be as dry as the rest of the garden, and bog plants require the constant moisture that occurs at the edge of natural pools. To grow bog plants well you must try to re-create these conditions. This is most easily done by using offcuts or spare pieces of pond liner to contain your bog garden. Evacuate the area to a depth of 30-45cm (12-18 in) and line the hole with rubber or plastic sheeting. Make slits or drainage holes about 90cm (3 ft) apart so that surplus water can drain away slowly. Alternatively, build the soil upon the finished bog so that the crowns are above any standing water.
Your plants will grow better if you fill the bog area with a mix of equal parts soil and sphagnum peat, peat-substitute, or leafmould, rather than ordinary garden soil. Rake in a balanced slow-release fertilizer or a seaweed fertilizer at the manufacturer’s recommended rate. Early spring is the ideal time to make and plant a bog garden.
Keep the bog garden moist. The ideal way is to use a seep hose or other irrigation system. Otherwise, flood it with a hose periodically whenever the weather is dry.
Pick of the bog plants
Some bog plants demand a lot of space, others can be rampant. Those listed here are suitable for bog gardens large or small.
Astilbes – There are several good hybrids, their feathery plumes resembling large red, pink or white feather dusters from a distance. Most grow no more than about 60cm (2ft) tall and start to flower in early summer.
Hemerocallis – Individual blooms are short-lived, but a succession of them will span the summer. There are many hybrids with trumpet-like flowers in shades of yellow, orange, and red. Tall ones grow to 1.2m (4 ft), but there are dwarfs half this height.
Hostas – Popular foliage plants, ranging from dwarfs to large varieties of 90cm (3 ft).
Houttuynia cordata – A versatile plant that will grow in water, on a border, or in a bog garden. ‘Chameleon’ is best used as a foliage plant as the small white flowers are no match for the red, green, and yellow variegation. Grows about 30cm (12 in).
Iris ensata – The Japanese iris may also be sold under its old name of Iris kaempferi. The large, flattened flowers, looking almost like clematis, bloom in mid-summer.
Lobelia cardinalis – This and the similar L. fulgens are grown for their dark-red foliage and spikes of red flowers about 90cm (3 ft) tall in mid and late summer.
Lysichiton – Popularly known as the skunk cabbage, the arum-like spring flowers of L. americanum are yellow, those of L. camtschatcensis are white.
Lythrum salicaria – The purple loosestrife, grown for its tall spikes of pinkish-purple flowers that reach 1.2-1.5m (4-5 ft) flowers from mid-summer to early autumn.
Matteuccia struthiopteris – The ostrich feather fern is one of the most attractive ferns for the pondside, looking almost like a large shuttlecock.
Primula, candelabra – There are many types, but P. japonica is a popular one with whorls of flowers up the 60cm (2 ft) stems in late spring and early summer.
Rodgersia aesculifolia – Large, green to bronze leaves that resemble horse chestnut foliage in shape. White flowers top the 90cm (3 ft) plants in summer.
Schizostylis – The Kaffir lily flowers in mid and late autumn, the pink or red flower spikes bringing very welcome color at that time.
Trollius – The yellow or orange flowers, like large, globular buttercups, are at their best in late spring and early summer. The plants grow to about 60cm (2 ft).
Weeding & mulching
It is a good idea to attack weeds while they are young. Hoe any weed seedlings before they become established and set seeds themselves. Even perennial weeds are easier to control when the young leaves emerge from the old rootstock. If weeding is neglected now, it will become a more difficult chore later.
Once the ground has been cleared – whether by hoe, hand, or spray – it is much easier to keep it clear. One of the best ways to control weeds over a large area is with ground-cover plants. These take time to establish but are attractive in their own right as well as being useful in keeping weeds at bay.
Mulching beds and borders is an immediate and effective way to control weeds. March is a good time to apply a mulch or to renew or replenish old ones. Although some mulches, such as chipped bark, rot down very slowly, all mulches require a top-up after a year or two.
If you can mulch your border plants (and shrubs if you have enough mulch to go round) with well-rotted manure or garden compost, they will also derive nutritional benefit.
Wait until the ground is moist or water well before mulching. An application of mulch to dry ground will make it difficult for moisture to penetrate when it does rain.
Modern path weedkillers will keep paths free from weeds for most of the year and the garden will look tidier as a result. Apply an appropriate weedkiller taking care to ensure there is no runoff on to borders and beds.