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Early March Gardening

If you are like me, you have probably been looking out the window, wondering when you can get back into your garden.  The gray winter weather and what seems to be continually soggy soil take their toll.  At my house we’ve undertaken some winter projects— a new fence, tree removal, and changing the grade of the soil by the house so the water runs away from the house instead of leaking into the basement. In a colder winter, the ground would be frozen and all of this would have been a lot less messy. We seem to have timed everything to occur between cold spells, so it’s a real mess. I know I’ll have some lawn renovation to do, and I’ll have to replant some areas.  The deer got away from me and I can now see through the azaleas because they’ve been defoliated.  So I’ve got a lot of work to do, and limited time when spring actually arrives.

Meanwhile, here at Behnke’s we are anticipating the arrival of spring so we can be ready when it gets busy—usually the first weekend day when the temperatures hit 70 and it’s also sunny. Even though we have some cold nights ahead, we are bringing thousands of shrubs in this week, and the first small shipment of new perennials is arriving on Friday.  Pansies and seeds are here.

What I recommend to you is that you prepare for your garden work by planning and shopping ahead.  Get your mulch, fertilizer, lawn supplies, seeds and so on now, so that when the weather is nicer you can actually, you know, be in the garden instead of stuck in traffic.  Maybe get the trees or shrubs you need for your first garden projects of the season.  Here are some suggestions for what you can do in cold weather (besides shop).  When I am talking about cold weather, I am thinking mainly of days where the nights dip (or dive!) below freezing, especially if a frost is likely (clear nights without much wind):

  • Don’t plant in the mud; the soil needs to dry out some or you will damage the soil structure—you basically squeeze the air out of the soil. I know it’s been wet for a year now, but sooner or later we’ll have a stretch of drier weather.
  • Don’t mulch beds yet because the ground is cold and wet and it will delay the spring warm up. On the other hand, you could mulch pathways so that you aren’t walking in the mud.
  • Planting trees and shrubs: if you get past the mud issue, trees and shrubs can be planted but keep an eye on the night temperatures. Some plants are overwintered in unheated greenhouses and will be a bit tender (broad leaf evergreens like cherry laurel or camellias; hydrangeas if they have leafed out early) and should be covered at night if the temps dip below the high 20’s or if frost is forecast. Our staff will tell you if there might be an issue. Once they have gone through a couple of cold nights, they should have acclimated and temperatures a couple of degrees below freezing should not be a problem.
  • Perennials: any perennials that actually look nice in later February/early March have likely come from greenhouses. Blooming hellebores in the garden are cold-hardened, but those in pots will need protection.  Either cover them on cold nights with a blanket or newspaper (or a trash can, etc) for the first couple of weeks if a frost is expected, or leave them in the pots and bring into the garage on cold nights. In a normal spring, the big shipments of perennials start arriving around March 20 –30 and the display tables fill up fast.
  • Seeds and Vegetables: plant indoors at the proper time per the package instructions and grow them under lights until safe to set out. Don’t start too early: you don’t gain much by setting them out early.  The cold air and soil, even if not cold enough to cause cold-damage, will cause them to sulk and wait for warmer weather.  Our cold-season vegetable plants should arrive in a couple of weeks and they can go outside.
  • Annuals: pansies can be planted, but if it freezes you may lose the flower buds for a couple of weeks unless you are willing to cover them with a sheet or blanket if the temperatures dip below the high 20’s or a hard frost is forecast. Pansy plants are tough and will harden off (adapt to the cold) in a couple of weeks.
  • Lawn renovation: if you didn’t sow grass seed in the fall, you can do it in mid- March to mid-April.
  • Houseplants: there’s always room for another houseplant!!

by Larry Hurley, Behnke horticulturist

Larry Hurley, perennials specialist for Behnke Nurseries (now retired), started with Behnke’s in1984. Larry enjoys travel, food and photography. He and his wife Carolyn have visited Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Brazil, South Korea and much of Europe. Their home is on a shady lot where a lot of perennials have met their Maker over the years.

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