March Gardening Tips 2019 from The English Lady

by The English Lady

March 7, 2019

‘Those March winds shall blow and we shall have snow and what will the Robin do then poor thing? He’ll hide in the barn and keep himself warm and hide his head under his wing.’

March can be rather unpredictable, as was obvious in the heavy snow of March 3rd. Hopefully that is the last white gasp of winter. March is a month of ‘wait and see’ as we are anticipating being in the garden. This morning I walked outside, into a southwesterly breeze and a shining sun. I took a deep breath and as I did, I caught the rich fragrance of the soil beginning to awaken.

All of us are itching to get into the garden and I believe that foray will be earlier than last year owing to our mild winter and the consequence that frost did not penetrate deep into the ground. That being said, the sodden soil will dry out and warm up to forty degrees, which will be workable by mid April. 

However, I urge you to go gently as you tend our precious commodity of Mother Nature – the soil. I am asking that you do not till as tilling damages soil structure and can break friable root systems. 
Patience is what is needed now but by all means go full steam ahead with planning, planning means organizing which can prevent mistakes later on.  

Trees - check the trees in your garden to evaluate any work that needs to be accomplished. It is less expensive for arborists to do tree work before the foliage appears when the branches and the overall shape of the trees can be seen more clearly. 
Are there broken or dead limbs? 
What branches require cabling?
If a tree is 50% dead then it should be removed. 
A medium shade area can be changed to a dappled change area, allowing more sunlight by thinning out the upper tree branches or tree canopy.

Perhaps you want a tree removed to transform a shade area to a sunny spot with a larger choice of plants available to you.  
I always hesitate to remove a healthy tree but sometimes a tree may have been planted too close to the house and consequently the roots have undermined your home’s foundation and the shading over the roof has resulted in mold and mildew. 

If you need any of the above work to be done, please contact a licensed arborist.  March is a good time to make the call, as the labor cost is less with no leaves on the trees, as the arborist can quickly ascertain where to cut and the work moves faster.  Time saved means money saved. 

There is an art to tree work knowing how, when and why to cut. Tree work therefore should to be carried out by a professional so that at the completion of the work is both practical and aesthetically pleasing. The arborist will also take into consideration the health of the trees. Having the work done by an arborist also avoids injury to yourself from falling from ladders or perhaps tree branches or trees falling on you.

PRUNING – tasks that you can accomplish. 
Late winter is the time to prune evergreens before the new growth appears. 
Hedges can be sheared for shape, so that any stubby ends will be concealed by new spring growth.  Please keep to the natural shape of the shrub – no round balls. 
Prune Spirea down to six inches from the ground.
In April, prune Lavender to three inches.
In late March, prune Sweet Pepper Bush (Clethra), cutting out the oldest branches.
Lilac – Prune back all old branches to various lengths before leaf growth begins, from two to five feet, retaining a natural shape. Sprinkle lime around the base of the Lilac and add manure in May.  
Prune Butterfly bush to two feet from the ground and apply composted manure around the base also in May.
Prune Forsythia after it has bloomed, pruning out sparse flowering old wood.
Prune roses when the forsythia blooms.  If the roses have only been in the ground for one year, do not prune, wait until October.

Do not remove the protective mulch from around the base of the roses, wait until mid May, and then apply a dressing of manure and fine bark mulch.  

Why wait until May to apply manure: It is important to wait until the soil warms to 55 degrees otherwise the nutrient benefits of the manure working with plant roots and soil organisms are not activated. I suggest you invest in an inexpensive soil thermometer to check the soil temperature. At soil temperature of 55 degrees apply a three to four inch layer of composted manure. 

Let’s retrace our steps a little; in mid April, carefully begin to clear away winter debris, treading carefully on the soil to avoid damaging soil structure and friable root systems. When you have carefully cleared away the debris, a clean edge to the borders with a sharp spade makes a great difference. 

This was one of the first lessons I was taught at our family nursery in England; my great grandfather was a strict taskmaster standing over me for quite a few days until I got edging just right. 

If you are contemplating the location of a new planting bed or expanding an existing one, here are some tips:
Think in terms of where you spend your leisure time indoors and outdoors in close proximity to the new bed for your enjoyment of bloom, fragrance and structure. 
From indoors are you able to view and enjoy the new border?
Is it an area where there won’t be drainage problems, erosion concerns or water pooling?
Is it convenient to tend and enjoy where you can place a bench or chair?
Will you be able to water it with relative ease?

For an informal garden I prefer a curved bed – a curved line gives grace and fluidity. I lay out a garden hose in the desired shape and size of bed, adjust the hose until you are satisfied with the gentle curves. 
The best tool to use to cut out a new bed is a sharpened lawn edger, the blade is a half circle 9 inches wide and 4.5 inches deep with a flat top – this tool creates a deep edge. Face the bed, and thrust the edger down to its full depth and push the cut soil into the bed. Continue along and then remove the hose and surplus clumps of soil and grass.

On the subject of manure  - many of you who are my radio listeners and lecture audiences know how I feel about that wonderful natural product. Manure is not a fertilizer – it builds soil structure, aids in drainage and its bacteria encourages the millions of soil animals below the surface to come alive, work with the manure bacteria to produce nutrients for the roots of the plants.

Types of manure: Poultry manure - I know the odor can be rather objectionable, however, this manure contains about 2% nitrogen, one of the highest levels in any manure. If you have access to poultry manure, allow it to age for two months and then add it to the garden.

Horse manure is about .5% nitrogen. If you obtain horse manure from a stable, which has sawdust on its floors – it should be pretty weed free. What I have done in the past is obtain horse and cow manure from stables and farms in April.  At home spread manure out in a flat area (not in a planting bed) then cover it with a tarp for a month.  This method will suffocate the weed seeds and encourage the manures to continue to decompose. A week before using horse and cow manure remove the tarp to allow the sun to further decompose it. 

Cow manure, is .25 % nitrogen and is the most available manure.  If you get horse and cow manure from the farm ask the farmer to give you manure from the bottom of the pile so that it is already partially decomposed. 

Compost pile - If you do not have a compost pile, maybe it could go on your list for this season. All of the vegetable waste from the kitchen plus grass clippings, and wood pruning can be added to the pile. The high temperature in the compost kills the weed seed and cooks all those other necessary ingredients.  The ratio of compost and manure for your garden is 1 part compost to 3 parts manure – but if you do not have compost – plenty of manure will do the trick. 

**DO NOT apply fresh manure to the garden, as it will burn the plants.  If you do not have a source of manures from a farm, purchase composted manure in bags from the garden center.

To produce the best-planting environment, resulting in a soil that is ‘black gold’ apply 3 inches of composted manure to all planted areas in May, July and October.    

MULCH  - later in May natural fine bark mulch can be added. Do not use buckwheat mulch as it flies everywhere. Do not I repeat do no use cocoa mulch, which is poisonous to dogs and cats and please do not use the chemically colored red mulch.  

Mulch keeps moisture in the soil and helps retard weeds as does Bradfield organics, a corn gluten based weed pre emergent.  

THE HUMUS COMPONENT – I know I have written about the importance of the Humus component but I cannot stress enough.

In 1937 Franklin D Roosevelt said that  ‘the nation that destroys its soil destroys itself’
America has not heeded that warning. Precious soils in this country and around the world are being destroyed by dangerous practices in industrialized agriculture and poisonous chemicals, which completely disrupts our eco system and poisoning all living things.

In your own garden you can build and retain a rich growing environment by building the Humus component -We are all carbon-based creatures as is all life on earth. Not only humans but also our soil microbes need carbon to flourish. And to attract carbon from the atmosphere into your soil you need to build the humus component. 

HOW TO BUILD THE HUMUS COMPONENT - Do not till soil - tilling breaks up soil structure.  
First step - Add composted manure three times – in spring when the soil has reached a temperature of 45 degrees.  If the soil has not reached that temperature the soil organisms are not able to work with the bacteria in the manure to produce nutrients for the roots of the plants. 
This year, as we have not experienced deep frost the soil temperature may reach 45 degrees by the end of April to early May.  Add the manure again in July to continue to nourish your growing plants and again in October to protect and nourish your plants through the winter.    Manure is not a fertilizer; it builds soil structure and works with all the soil animals to keep a healthy disease free growing environment. 
Second step - Add wood chips in the form of brown fine bark mulch or wood chips that you produce from your garden – aged wood chips with a combo of leaves, twigs and branches. 

These two major steps build the humus component. If you do this in your own garden – not only will you helping to heal the planet but also produce the healthiest of gardens. 

A question I am often asked is ‘can I put manure over mulch for example in my July garden’? The answer is ‘yes’ – the manure together with nature’s moisture and your own irrigation enables the manure to find its way easily into the soil and the roots of your plants.     

WHAT EXACTLY DOES HUMUS DO? Humus acts like a sponge and can hold 90% of its weight in water.
Because of its negative charge – plant nutrients stick to humus for nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus and others, which prevents these from washing away, acts as nature’s slow release fertilizer throughout the year.
Humus improves soil structure making it loose and friable, which helps plant root in this soil environment better access to nutrients, water and oxygen.

Humus also helps’ filter’ toxic chemicals from the soil, mulch like carbon-based water filtration systems filter toxins from your water. 

We are not able to control industrialized agricultural practices – but in your own garden you can make a difference.   Feed the soil and it will feed the plants. 

Once again I’m getting a little ahead of myself. So back to a cloudy day coming up soon at the end of March when you can gradually remove protective covering from shrubs and small trees. In exposed garden areas, where wind is a problem, leave the covering on until mid April. Cold wind is more damaging and drying to plants than extreme cold and frost.   

FROST HEAVE: If some perennials, trees and shrubs have heaved out of the ground, cover the roots with fresh topsoil or mulch until mid May when they can be settled back in place.   

I just walked around the corner of my house to check on my trellis on the chimney where I have Roses and Clematis planted together. Roses and Clematis are delightful combinations planted in a companion planting. The rose and the clematis planted together have the same growing needs, ‘feet in the shade and heads in the sun’. Each month beginning in May, add manure around the base of both. Discontinue feeding roses and clematis in mid August; this enables both plants to go into a necessary slow dormancy. 

BACKSCRATCH: When the lawn has dried out, rake lightly and remove excess debris such as leaves and dead twigs.  Raking gently raises the mat of the lawn, which enables the emerging grass to breathe again. Aerating machines are useful to develop a healthy lawn.  Puncture holes with the aerator and pull out plugs of soil every four to six inches; following this treatment, root development takes off and thatch is reduced.  Do not use the large thatching machines, as these machines damage the grass.  

GRASS Fertilizer: Apply an organic fertilizer and organic grub control before the grass begins to grow.   
In April reseed bare or sparse spots after gently loosening the soil, liming and fertilizing, then cover the seed with salt hay to keep the seed warm and to prevent wind from blowing the seed away.  Water the seed for the first three weeks. Do not blast the area with water, which will scatter the seeds. 

MOLES:  to keep the mole population at a minimum in your garden; apply organic grub control once a month from March for two months; less grubs, less food for the moles. Apply organic Pre-emergent crabgrass killers in March and April.  

VOLES - spread castor oil around the base of plants and keep mulch away from the base of the plants so that voles, which are canny little creatures are not able to hide there and gnaw on plants and roots. 

DEADHEAD: do not cut off the leaves of the crocus as the bloom; the leaves make food for the bulbs for next season’s bloom.

DAFFODILS: When the green shoots emerge; spread composted manure around the plants.    

CUT DAFFODILS FOR INDOORS: the stems release a sap like “goop” that harms other flowers.  Before adding Daffodils to an arrangement, cut the stems at an angle, and leave them in a vase half filled with lukewarm water for a couple of hours.  Discard that water and add the Daffodils to the other flowers.  If you recut the stems you will need to repeat the process. Change the water in the vase often.  

PERENNIALS  – when perennials are about four inches above soil level, in May when soil is 55 degrees, apply composted manure around them to further encourage healthy growth.    

DIVIDING PLANTS - At the end of April or beginning of May, you can divide late blooming perennials that have been in the ground for four years or more; these divisions encourage stronger bloom.

Discard the older, inner parts of the clumps and plant the new outside portions.  Do not plant the new divisions any deeper than they were originally in the ground. 

When dividing Irises  - when replanting, barely cover the root system so they do not fall over - if Irises are planted too deep they will not bloom.

Pansies: pick the flowers regularly to encourage more bloom.   

March is the time to plant the following seeds indoors: gaillardia, salvia, marigold, zinnia, petunia, snapdragon, stock and verbena. Before planting these seeds, soak seeds in warm water and plant them in sphagnum moss or coir; coir is the outer shell or fiber of the Coconut, either of these two mediums prevents a disease called “damping off”, which can cause seeds to rot before germination.
Cover pots and seed trays with plastic wrap, which creates a mini-greenhouse, which provides moisture which seeds, need to germinate.  
NOTE: Remove the plastic once the seeds have germinated, as the soil needs to drain and needs air circulation around the emerging stems.  

If you are going away on business, or on vacation reapply the plastic wrap. Over the pots and trays and prop some sticks or skewers in the corners. While you are away the seedlings will stay moist, make sure the seedlings do not come in contact with the plastic. 

START tuberous begonias, and caladiums indoors.

DORMANT SPRING SPRAYING of fruit trees, flowering cherry, crabapple, hawthorn, mountain ash and lilac can be done before the leaf buds open. Call in a professional company and request that they use only organic products.  
Houseplants – repot them if they need repotting in April.    

GERANIUMS: The plants that you brought indoors at the end of last season check them and when the new side shoots appear, cut them back to four inches and repot them in clean pots about and inch and a half larger with fresh potting soil.   

Well I think that’s given you plenty to think about to keep you busy for a while. Enjoy photo of lovely gardens that my son Ian and I have designed and installed over the years on Face book – The English Lady Landscape and Home. Also check photos of Ian’s work on Waterview Landscaping in Old Saybrook where Ian is project manager and designer. If you need a consultation or design get in touch with him. In the meantime I’ll see you in your garden in April.