March Stepping Stones to Gardening Success
Gardening begins in earnest in March. It’s a windy and cold month, susceptible to weather fluctuations, however the soil warming and top growth kicks into gear. Pansies, hyacinths, crocus and daffodils are some that usher in the first garden flowers. It’s time to dive in. Pace yourself, don’t let gardening activity become pressures, instead of pleasures. If you've done some of the tasks mentioned in February's Stepping Stones, you'll be right on your game. If you're joining Stepping Stones this month, catch up by reading the introduction to Stepping Stones to Gardening Success, the week to week, month to month tasks to perform in the garden.
Stepping Stones is arranged in most cases on a week to week basis within the months with gardening tasks described by order of the Seven Principles of Gardening, as needed, namely:
1. Plan and Design
2. Analyze and Improve the Soil
3. Create Practical Turf Areas
4, Choose Appropriate Plants
5. Efficient Use of Water
6. Use Organic or Inorganic Mulch
7. Practice Appropriate Maintenance
Following the weeks' tasks, I've included suggestions under the headings "Keep it Up", "Extras", "Be a Plant Explorer" and "Oops! and/or Don't" -- extra tips I practice and have found to be important or interesting. If you've been gardening for several years, there will be fewer tasks each week for each principle. Included in the sidebar at the right are QuickSteps -- a summary or outline of tasks to do each month. Feel free to copy and print out to refer to during the month.
Don't worry if you can't get to the task in the first week suggested. These times are when I've noticed the earliest most likely success achievable. Naturally, each and every year will be different. Some years will be warmer, some cooler. Adjust and stay tuned to the weather.
A Note on Climate
During the past several years, it seemed to me that the temperatures in March have been warming earlier than in previous years. I looked back at the weather stats from the NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information for the period 1988-2017, a thirty year period. I compared several factors for the month of March only: days 32°and below, lowest temperature average minimum temperature, highest temperature, and number of heat days, that is, days 86° or more. The data bears out the fact that March has been trending warmer. Please see the data at the end of this March Stepping Stones.
I also looked back at the weather data from 1892 through 2017 on the number of days 32°and below. We've had warmer decades and cooler decades. In particular, the decade during the Dust Bowl years of 1931-1940 were even a little warmer than this current decade. I prefer to call this a warming trend. We do have some cooler years within a warm decade, and vice versa. The future will confirm a warming climate, but the signs are here.
What this means, is with warmer temperatures, both during the day and at night, the soil will warm sooner and plants will begin to pop out earlier. Gardeners can take advantage of this warming trend by planting earlier, but still protecting against the continued rise and fall of temperatures. We will still continue to experience days below freezing during March, just less of them, if the trend continues. Watching the weather and making adjustments is what working with the weather is all about.
Want more weather stats for Amarillo? check out this GardenNotes from 2014, Wind on the Plains.
Weeks One and Two
Plan and Design
Create a safe-haven or temporary shelter for new plantings. Set up wind shields for any new plants this spring in open, wind-exposed locations (See GardenNotes, Wind on the Plains, about our windy climate). This could be as innocuous as an accent rock or boulder or a temporary cloth-type fence. Just a slat of wood inserted into the ground on the southwest side may be all that’s needed. Wind seems to be fiercest in the spring and will quickly kill new seedlings and transplants.
Amend the Soil
Continue to work with the soil in new flower and/or vegetable beds. When I dig new beds in my tight clay soil, the first dig and turn is to break up the sod clods and add inorganic and organic amendments. At this point, rotor tillers aren’t able to work effectively until microorganisms get cooking in improving the soil tilth. Turn the soil again with a garden fork. Add more amendments if necessary. Read all about our soil conditions under the major article heading Soil, and its subsections.
If your new beds were started in late fall, this could be the final turn with a fork or rotor tiller. After this, form mounds and add any accent rocks. Let the beds settle for at least another two weeks before planting.
Plant pansies, violas, snapdragons, annual and biennial dianthus (pinks) and other cold-hardy annuals now. Hold off on the zinnias, petunias and pelargoniums (geraniums) until much later. Have you spring flowering shrubs? Two Western natives that I enjoy are Ribes aureum, golden current and Mahonia repens, creeping Oregon grape holly. Research
If you're interested in annual plants that attract pollinators, read my GardenNotes on Attracting Pollinators with Annuals.
Spring Vegetable Planting
Plant spring vegetables now: lettuce, radishes, spinach, kale, chard, broccoli raab, bok choy, mache, English peas, kohlrabies, cabbage, broccoli, and onions, etc. if you haven’t already. These are conservative estimates. We've been in a warming trend lately and as it continues, we can plant these vegetables earlier than noted below. Average date of the last frost is around April 20th. But a frost, or a snow, won't harm cool season plants. They needed to be planted soon, so they can start producing before the weather turns too hot for them, in May. It's a short window. That's why I like to plant them primarily in the fall. If you haven't read about Fall and Winter Vegetable Gardening, now is a good time.
- Onion bulbs and sets may be planted from 4 – 10 weeks before the average date of the last frost (ADLF).
- Lettuce and radishes can be planted 6 weeks before ADLF to 2 weeks after ADLF.
- Irish potatoes should be planted 4 – 6 weeks before ADLF.
- English peas planted 2 – 8 weeks before ADLF.
- Plant spinach, kale, bok choy, chard, mache, etc. 1– 8 weeks before ADLF.
- Four to six weeks before ADLF is the time to plant asparagus, beets, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, and carrots.
- Two to six weeks before the ADLF is a good time to plant Swiss chard, collard, kohlrabi, parsley, turnip greens and roots.
Cover them with a sprinkling of mulch. Water them in and keep the ground moist. Don’t worry if they get snowed on; snow acts as insulation to keep the soil warm if a late blue norther blows through. Cover with a row cover (frost blanket). Unless a cold blizzard moves in, we should be done with the poly tunnel this growing season. Row covers provide many benefits: decreases evaporation, keeps the ground warmer, keeps birds from eating the seeds and decreases wind damage. For new tender seedlings and plants, row covers are used to prevent sunscald, as well.
Continue to clean out the flower beds and cut back ornamental grasses. If you still have cool season vegetables, ornamental kale and cabbage plants that managed to overwinter, keep these to collect their seeds in June. They will flower in April, attracting bees, and set seeds. Collect the seeds when the seed pods are dry.
There is still time to move or divide ornamental bunch grasses (read about Grasses for the Panhandle, including a list of grasses). Add any plant debris that is not infected with insect eggs or disease to the now cleaned out compost pile. If you haven’t raked out last autumn’s leaves, do so real quick and shred them with the mower. Either add to the compost pile or spread back on the beds. Spring blooming bulbs are already emerging and you want to avoid damaging their leaves as much as possible – after all, that’s what our extreme weather is for. (Photo at right is Blue Avena Grass, Helictotrichon sempervirens.)
Maintenance -- Oops!
If this is a nice warm early spring, begin to think about turf maintenance. If the lawnmower wasn't serviced in the fall, take it now to the shop and get in line. Have the blades sharpened and any engine maintenance performed.
Weeks Three and Four
Spring break usually arrives mid-March. People in the Panhandle generally either leave town for the beach, the last ski trip to the mountains, or they stay home and do the spring landscape clean up and preparation they didn’t have time for previously.
Plan and Design
Over the winter, you’ve had time to think about last summer’s flower beds. Begin to edit plant compositions. And look over plant selections for proper placement according to water, sun/shade, wind and soil requirements.
Practice 3D gardening: Dig up, divide and deliver to friends, relatives, associates and passers-by any extra plants. To lessen transplant shock, water the plants in good 24 – 48 hours prior to transplanting. Take out what hasn’t worked in that location and transplant them where they will work. Gardens are entities that change. Sometimes major changes occur; a once sunny spot becomes mostly shaded when trees mature, or the shade tree succumbed to last year’s extreme and died, creating a new sunny spot. Once in awhile, we just make placement mistakes due to lack of knowledge about either the plant or the location. Correct these errors now and breathe new life into the plant.
With the soil heaving due to temperature shifts, straighten any flagstone areas and re-set stepping stones for a neater look.
Lawns and Turfgrass
For much more information on lawns and turfgrass, click on the major section, click on the Lawns section and its six subsections.
Pick up the mower from the shop after having the blade sharpened and engine tuned-up. Cool season turf gardeners, start your engines. Mow with a mulching mower. De-thatch turf if you have this problem. Aerate the lawn yearly (in clay soil). This can be done during the first two weeks too.
Top dress with a ½ inch layer of composted plant material or manure, or a blend (insure your compost has not been exposed to persistent herbicides, see Maintenance, Composting, Killer compost). Water in and spray with a microbial soil activator, or liquid humate. Topdressing lawns does work. After 5 years of top dressing spring and fall, my lawn soil sample showed good organic matter penetration down to 5 ½ inches. If finding and spreading enough compost on your turf is too expensive and/or taxing, buy alfalfa meal, alfalfa pellets, cottonseed meal, corn gluten meal, humate, horticultural molasses or other organic amendment. A mineral blend could also be applied (I’m not referring to the N-P-K bagged fertilizers) with a balance of trace minerals. Greensand is beneficial, but very slow release mineral product that does provide some water-retention qualities. Applying an inorganic amendment such as expanded blue shale, brand name Tru-Grow or calcined clay, brand name, Turface® for clay soils, a porous ceramic product is also a good idea after aerating. If your soil is on the sandy side, amend with Profile®, a porous ceramic that is better for sandy soil. Follow the application recommendation of any product. Organics and mineral blends provide a low, but steady diet for the soil life, rather than a jerky jolt they suffer from when receiving chemical injections. Think harmony.
This is a good time to seed or re-seed turf with cool season grass, such as turf type tall fescue (Festuca arundinacea), if that is your choice. A new bluegrass variety to try out is ‘Reville’. ‘Reville’ is a bluegrass variety developed by Texas A & M that has heat tolerance and water requirements similar to Bermuda grass. Seeding or re-seeding is high maintenance and labor intensive, but necessary. With a hoe or rake, scratch down to the ground surface, an inch or so deep to loosen the soil, and add fine compost or worm castings. Broadcast the seed. Cover with a very fine layer (1/8th to not more than ¼ inch) of compost or worm castings to retain surface moisture better. Water gently and keep evenly moist with frequent, short intervals until germination and establishment. Before and immediately after germination, do not let these remedial or new turf areas dry out. As the seedlings develop a larger root system, gradually reduce the frequency of irrigation. If a strong, hard rain comes during this initial set up, the seeds may wash out and you’ll just have to start over.
Although corn gluten meal is an excellent soil amendment, it provides a dual purpose as a pre-emergent seedling killer. Mostly used as a preventative against weeds, it will prohibit growth in any new little seedlings. Therefore, do not use this product in a seeded vegetable or flower garden or in turf that has just been seeded or re-seeded. After the seedlings are well up and established, apply corn gluten meal to prevent further seed (weed) growth and as an organic soil amendment.
Harden off cool season transplants in preparation for planting. Hardening slowly introduces pampered plants to the real world experience of sun, cold and wind after coming out of the greenhouse. They need time to adapt to this change in lifestyle. Set out on the porch for 2 – 3 days, introducing them to direct sunlight a few hours at a time each day. Gradually increase sun exposure to full sun. Plant them after 7-14 days of hardening. Water, mulch and perhaps even cover with a row cover.
Evaluate whether you have sufficient early spring blooming bulbs. Of course one doesn't! Make a note to order more as soon as the catalogs come out in June (to get the best selection). Crocus 'Pickwick' at the right.
Efficient Use of Water
Perform checks and maintenance on the irrigation system, whether drip or in-ground. Soon it will be called upon for heavier duty. Flush out the lines and clean the filters, emitters and back flow preventer. Examine pipes and lines for cuts and holes; prepare and replace if needed.
- If you have the energy and both short term and long term time, dig a pond and install a pond garden.
- Start warm season transplants indoors in March. Plan for them to be set out in 6 to 8 weeks. Timing is of the essence; insure the weather has warmed sufficiently so as not to damage them when set out.
- Start a plant exchange.
- Straighten up pots and paths. Sometimes with all the upheaval of erratic winter temperatures, ground heaving sets them off kilter.
Be a Plant Explorer
When traveling outside the community, check out the garden centers in other areas for organic and other gardening supplies you may not be able to find in our area. When headed south, this is a terrific early opportunity to see flowers in bloom and well-stocked nurseries. If you’ve neglected to order exotics or plants of questionable cold hardiness to try out in our area, this is a great opportunity to check them out in person. This is where your plant profile comes in. Your personal plant profile is a list of characteristics you are looking for in a plant, based on our climate and your soil conditions, as well as location, aesthetic and maintenance requirements. If you’ve adopted a plant profile for your garden and garden areas, it is much easier to determine the plant’s suitability.
Antique Rose Emporium in Brenham and San Antonio is a delight and already filled with many roses in bloom. While in downtown San Antonio, drop by Schultze House Gardens to view the gardens developed and tended by the Bexar County Master Gardeners, known to be one of the prettiest gardens in San Antonio. If your destination is the Houston area, visit Mercer Arboretum and Botanic Gardens in Humble, Texas for a first-class botanic display with well-thought out designs in twenty separate theme gardens and a larger area of four different tree collections along 250 acres (hiking is welcome). And it’s free. One of Mercer’s goals is to preserve the native wildflowers of the area that are being pushed to extinction. (Note: Mercer was shut down do to damage from Hurricane Harvey in 2017 -- check to see if it's reopened before planning a trip.)
For a smaller, more intimate garden tour, (and a $10 fee) travel to Hempstead, Texas to view the Peckerwood Gardens, only open on select Open Days during the year, (www.peckerwoodgarden.com). Adjacent to the gardens was Yucca Do Nursery. Yucca Do was primarily a mail order nursery specializing in rare, drought tolerant plants for mostly Zone 8 and warmer, however, they did carry select Zone 6 and 7 plants. John G. Fairey, the owner, originator, went on many plant hunting trips to Mexico with prominent plant explorers, including Lynn Lowrey, hunting for plants not known to the U.S. industry for use in his garden. Eventually, he opened Yucca Do Nursery to sell many of the plants used at Peckerwood, a plant explorers garden. In 1998, Peckerwood Garden entered a partnership with the Garden Conservancy.Yucca Do Nursery closed in 2017. I enjoyed placing an order from them annually.
I contend we should approach nurseries and botanic gardens such as these with the enthusiasm of plant explorers. With many plants, I ask myself “Could this grow here?” I am more inclined to experiment with plants native to us further south, than plants native to us further east, north and northwest. The reason for this is the cold hardiness of many of the drought tolerant plants native to South and West Texas, Mexico, Central and South America has not been tested in our area. Many times cold hardiness zones are determined by the major gardening areas of the eastern United States, where conditions are quite different (even though average minimum low temperatures are similar). Sometimes just providing proper drainage from damp moist soils will provide the advantage these plants require. In addition, if the natural range of the yuccas, agaves, bromeliads and succulents, etc., is at a higher elevation, though from Mexico, conditions may very well be similar to ours. Plants can be widely adaptable and there is much for ordinary gardeners to yet discover. My hopes are for other nurseries to step up and fill the void. (Photo of Fritillaria uva-vulpis, fox's grape fritillary at left.)
Keep it up
- Amend any beds you didn’t get to in February with compost or other organic amendments (free from contamination by persistent synthetic chemicals).
- Replant lettuce, radishes, etc. in two-week intervals to extend the harvest.
- It’s not too late or too early to plant your trees and shrubs.
- Continue to water, if needed.
- Replenish the mulch.
- Continue to feed and water the birds if you’ve been their restaurant.
- Continue any pruning that is needed and hadn’t been completed.
- Weed everywhere.
- Add plant debris by layering brown/green matter with garden soil or already made compost (as a microbe stimulator) to the compost pile and turn it every two weeks.
- Moisten the compost pile if necessary.
- Continue to record entries to your garden journal.
- Do not plant warm season turf grasses yet.
- Do not plant any non-cold hardy summer bulbs or tubers (colocasias, alocasias, caladiums, etc.), tender hardy, or experimental hardiness perennials until after April 20th, preferably waiting until May.
- Do not prune spring flowering shrubs until after they have bloomed this spring.
- Wait to prune roses until around April 15th.
- Do not cut back the leaves of bulbs after flowering. You may snip off the flower stems.
30 Year History of March Temperatures 1988-2017
|Year||Days 32° F or Below||Lowest Temperature||Avg Min Temperature||Highest Temperature||Avg March Temperature||Days 86° and Above|
|15 Yr Totals||224||233||484.9||1263||709.3||8|
|15 Yr Avg||Days 32°F or Below 14.93||Average Lowest Temp 15.53°||Average Minimum Temp 32.32°||Average Highest Temp 84.2°||15 Yr Avg March Temperature 47.28||Average Heat Days 0.53|
|15 Yr Totals||166||281||534.8||1280||756.7||18|
|15 Year Average||Days 32°F or Below 11.06||Average Lowest Temp 18.73°||Avg Minimum Temp 35.65°||Average Highest Temp 85.33°||15 Yr Avg March Temperature 50.44||Average Heat Days 1.2|
|30 Year Totals||390||514||1019.7||2543||1466||26|
|30 Year Averages||13||17.13°||33.99°||84.76°||48.87||0.86|
|Average Temperatures in March by Decades|
|Period||Days 32°F or Below||Average Low Temperature °F||Notes|
|1892-1900||n/a||31.77||Beginning of Amarillo’s Temperature Records|
|1901-1910||n/a||34.6||Lowest Avg 26.2° Mar 1906. Highest low avg. 40.6° Mar 1910. Highest avg maximum 73.3° Mar 1907|
|1921-1930||11.7||33.4||Available data 1923-1929 only for Days data|
|1931-1940||9.9||35.2||Dust Bowl years|
|1951-1960||17.5||31.3||Lowest Mar Mean Maximum 45.4° Mar 1958|
|1961-1970||15.7||32.7||Most days 32° or below, 25, in Mar 1964. Coldest min. Mar 1965 25.2°.|
|1971-1980||13.7||31.2||Highest March temp, Mar 1971, 94°. Fewest days 32° or less, 3, March 1973|
|1981-1990||14.1||32||Normal for 1951-1980 Period of Record|
|1991-2000||14.9||32||Mean 1961-1990 POR|
|2001-2010||12.8||32.5||Mean 1971-2000 POR|
|2011-2016||10*||32.8||Mean 1981-2010 POR. *Days data for 2011-2017.|
|Angie Hanna, Jan. 8, 2018|
Angie Hanna, Jan. 8, 2018
Revised January 9, 2018