March Stepping Stones

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. 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.

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.

Appropriate Plants

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.

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.

  • 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.
  • Sweet potatoes and 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.

Maintenance

Continue to clean out the flower beds and cut back ornamental 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.

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.

Turf

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).

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.

Appropriate Plants

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.

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.

Extras

  • 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.

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.

For a smaller, more intimate garden tour, (and a $5 donation) 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 is Yucca Do Nursery, also only open to the public during the Open Days. Yucca Do is primarily a mail order nursery specializing in rare, drought tolerant plants for mostly Zone 8 and warmer, however, they do carry select Zone 6 and 7 plants that will work for us. Consider purchasing some low water-use, heat and sun loving plants for easy care container gardening.

Visiting a nursery such as Yucca Do requires advance reading, as many of their offerings are unfamiliar to our area. 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.

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.

Don’t

  • 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.

Angie Hanna

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