March in the Vegetable Garden
March is here and it’s time to move our gardening activities outdoors. Testing, preparing, and amending soil, plus planting seeds and transplants of cool-weather vegetables signal the kickoff of our vegetable gardening season. So let’s get started.
Be on the Lookout for Spotted Lantern Fly
First, an update on Spotted Lantern Fly. This pest was detected in Frederick County in 2018 and is moving slowly but inexorably south. It can damage a range of fruits and other crops as well as some ornamentals. It also leaves behind a sticky honeydew that creates a breeding ground for fungi on plants, lawn furniture and about anything it lands on. If you see evidence of this pest, please contact your local Cooperative Extension office. The Albemarle/Charlottesville Extension Office can be reached at 434-872-4580.
In a concession to climate change, the Cooperative Extension has redrawn the Hardiness Zone map for Virginia. Albemarle County has been moved from the Mountain to the Piedmont region in zone 7a, effectively changing our expected final frost date from May 10-15 to April 15-25. This 2-4 week earlier final frost can significantly affect when we plant specific vegetables. Check out VCE publication 426-331, Virginia’s Home Garden Vegetable Planting Guide to see the new map and review charts that provide recommended planting dates for specific crops.
Collards, kale, mustard greens, and spinach can be planted at the beginning of March, as can onion sets, peas and radishes. Beets, chard, kohlrabi, lettuce, potatoes, and turnips can be planted by mid-March. Ditto for transplants of broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and leeks. Again, check VCE pub 426-331 for full details.
Manage Your Soil for Best Growing Results
If you haven’t had a soil test for a while, a new test makes sense. They are a valuable tool for identifying and preventing problems as well as keeping your soil at optimum fertility and pH levels. They are recommended every three years. A soil sampling kit complete with instructions is available at our local Virginia Cooperative Extension Office, located just off 5th Street Extended at 460 Stagecoach Road. Cost for a basic analysis of nutrient availability, pH, and amendment recommendations is only $10. For additional information on soil testing, check out VCE publication 452-129: Soil Sampling for the Home Garden.
Regardless of your soil condition, adding organic matter to your soil will improve it and fully-decomposed compost is the best way to add organic matter. It improves soil structure and water infiltration, while absorbing and holding moisture longer, a real benefit during our hot, dry summers. Compost can be purchased, but can also be made at home using yard and organic kitchen wastes — plus a little bit of effort to keep piles moist and aerated. Instructions for making compost at home can be found in the January 2018 issue of The Garden Shed. If you start a compost batch now, it should be ready for use for your fall planting later this year.
If you have a heavy clay soil in your garden and you aren’t sure how to best manage it, take a look at the article Gardening in Clay in the July 2018 issue of The Garden Shed. Surprise: the secret is adding decomposed organic matter!
Check Out Occultation for Weed Management
If you are a minimum-till gardener who is struggling with weeds and refuses to turn to herbicides for weed control, you might want to try occultation, or covering your beds with a black tarp or plastic for a few weeks. The black cover adds some heat to the very top layer of soil and denies light to weeds that want to germinate, killing them. Many organic farmers are using this technique with good success to kill annual weeds and maintain a low weed count through the growing season. Check out this blog post from the Cornell College of Agriculture titled Take Me Out to a Tarped Field for more details.
If you are a fruit grower, spring fertilization of fruit trees should occur about 3-4 weeks before active growth begins. Scatter fertilizer evenly under the tree, starting about 2 feet from the trunk and extending just beyond the drip line or end of the furthest branches. A soil test should be performed prior to applying fertilizer. For additional information on fruit trees, visit VCE Publication 426-841, “Tree Fruit in the Home Garden.”
The optimum time to prune fruit trees is just before they bloom. Pruning allows the tree to direct nutrients to branches that will bear high quality fruit. The object is to remove dead, diseased, or damaged wood. Also, remove shoots that are growing straight up or straight down as neither provides for good fruit development. Growth crisscrossing the center of tree should be removed as well. A more open tree allows greater light penetration and air circulation, thereby increasing fruit quality and reducing disease and insect pressure. For additional pruning information, visit VCE Publication 422-025, “Physiology of Pruning Fruit Trees.”
Bramble fruits such as raspberries and blackberries may be planted in mid- to late March. Plant in moist, well-drained soil containing large amounts of humus or organic matter. For weed control, mulch around newly-planted brambles with a hardwood or softwood mulch. For additional information on how to grow bramble fruit, visit VCE Publication 426-840,“Small Fruit in the Home Garden.”
I hope you find this information helpful. If you have any requests for particular information in this or any other area of The Garden Shed, please comment below or fill out our reader survey and send in your ideas. In any case, let’s get this party started!
“Spotted Lanternfly,” Virginia Cooperative Extension Publication http://digitalpubs.ext.vt.edu/vcedigitalpubs/9322249259597133/MobilePagedReplica.action?pm=2&folio=1#pg1
“Vegetable Planting Guide and Recommended Planting Dates,” Va. Coop. Ext. Publication 426-331, http://pubs.ext.vt.edu/426/426-331/426-331.html
“Tree Fruit in the Home Garden,” VA Coop. Ext, Publication 426-841, https://www.pubs.ext.vt.edu/content/dam/pubs_ext_vt_edu/426/426-841/426-841_pdf.pdf