Here in Georgia, winter brought arctic cold and weeks of rain, followed by unseasonably mild temperatures for the month of February. March has arrived and it appears that mother nature has thrown off her covers and decided that it is spring.
In my zone 8a garden this week mama wren is building her nest in the usual spot above my front porch, and at dusk the tree frogs attach themselves to our family room windows, where they catch insects all evening. The early-blooming magnolias on my street are ablaze with color and the fruit orchards south of our little town are dotted with peach blossoms.
As glorious as it is to see spring unfolding, it is happening weeks earlier than it should be, which is creating a bit of anxiety with gardeners I know in the area. We still could see frost in the month of March, or even early April. A hard frost would be heart breaking. There isn’t enough frost cloth in anyone’s stash of garden supplies to protect everything that will be in bloom in another month. The farmer’s almanac predicts the last frost date for my area as March 28th. A bit further north, it will extend into the first week of April, hence the worried faces at the coffee shop when discussing such things as peonies and fruit trees.
While little can be done to slow the advance of spring, or to prevent frost damage if the temperature should dip below freezing in the next month, there’s plenty to do out in the garden.
Here are some chores you can be working on in March, but first, I’ll share a few things I’m doing to entertain myself before the real work of spring and summer begins:
- Last week I brought in branches of flowering quince to put in a vase. I always prune the oldest branches of these shrubs to the ground each spring to thin them out a bit. I’ll do the rest of my pruning once the shrubs have stopped flowering, but I can’t resist bringing a few inside to enjoy.
- Many types of bulbs that I planted in small pots at the end of the year are up and blooming. I especially love the tiniest bulbs — striped squill, snowdrop, and scilla, because they are so delicate, and I always try to plant some in pots so that I can enjoy them close up. I never buy enough bulbs. I must work on that.
- I’ve been planting a few easy-to-grow vegetables. I soaked peas that will be planted later today so that I can harvest pea shoots when they are a few inches high as a treat to add to my lunchtime salad. I will save a few to plant in my small fenced garden so that I can enjoy sugar-snap peas later this spring. I’m not a big summer veg grower due to space constraints and deer/rabbit browsing, but I like to grow a few small things for fun before the summer heat arrives.
- It’s time to prune small evergreen shrubs. Small-leaved Japanese hollies get a trim twice a year in my garden to keep them looking rounded and shapely. I never shear these types of shrubs, because if I were to cut each and every branch it would create lots of growth, which I don’t want. Instead I reach in, grasp a small branch section, and remove maybe four or five inches of growth in a clump. This allows light into the center of the plant, which keeps it from becoming a shell of green leaves with bare branches inside. As I prune, I stand back and check my work every now and then to be sure I’m happy with my progress. For slow-growing shrubs this type of pruning works just fine. Twice a year does the trick – spring and fall.
- For other evergreens that are more rambunctious, like the fast-growing cleyera, you can be more aggressive, and less careful about how you make your cuts. I lop off several inches in late winter and again in mid-summer to keep them from getting too leggy.
- Camellias that have finished blooming this month, or that bloomed in the fall (C. sasanqua), can be pruned to slow down or manage growth.
- Deciduous shrubs that bloom on new growth or “new wood” as it is called, should be cut back this month if you haven’t done so. Panicle hydrangeas, such as ‘Limelight’ can be cut down to the four, five, or six foot mark – choose a size that works for your garden space. Remove any crossed or insignificant branches. ‘Limelights’ can put on several feet of growth each summer when mature. (Note that hydrangea macrophylla blooms on old growth, so if you need to reduce their size, wait to do so until after they’ve bloomed so you don’t remove this year’s flowers.)
- Turn your compost pile. It’s been such a soggy winter and I know that my compost isn’t drying out properly, which slows down the process, so I will try to get some oxygen into the center of the pile by turning it more often now that I’m outside every day.
- Plant new shrubs. There’s still plenty of time to get shrubs in the ground before summer heat. Digging is easy this month as long as it’s not too wet.
- Divide perennials before they start growing. Lift and divide large clumps of perennials so that you can place them in other areas in your garden or share with a friend.
- I’ll be fertilizing my planting areas and a few new trees with organic fertilizer this month. I like to use Espoma Plant-tone for shrub and perennial beds. As the weather warms up in another month or so, I’ll add worm castings to my containers to give them a boost.
- I try to sit for ten or fifteen minutes once I’m finished with my garden tasks for the day just to listen to the birds and observe everything around me (trying not to focus on weeds and pin oak leaves that need to be picked up). I’m thankful for this garden and hope that you find some time to be grateful for yours, no matter whether it’s a few containers or a few acres.