The Edible Garden Tips and Tasks- March
Well, it’s March, a very welcome month after our near zero temperatures in February. Burrrrrrrrr. March is actually a month of many seasons; it can be cold and snowy, and then there will be a few warm days, but naturally, the warm days are just spring teasers. Regardless of the unpredictable weather, March is the start of the spring garden season, a time to complete those winter tasks we dare not carry over into the spring rush, when there are so many tasks and so little time.
March is also my month of math. Math? What’s math got to do with gardening? Well, for me it’s a count-backwards month for starting seedlings indoors. Here is where the math comes in: a quick review of Virginia Cooperative Extension (“VCE”) Publication No. 426-331, “Vegetable Planting Guide and Recommended Planting Dates,” 1 indicates that, based on historical data, the last frost in our area usually happens in the last week of April. Several of my experienced, risk-averse gardening friends assume that May 1st is the safe frost-free date in our area. You may wish to adopt this more cautious approach as well. The last frost date is the earliest date when many of your young vegetable plants can be safely planted outdoors. A review of the tomato, pepper, and eggplant packets suggests that the seeds should be started indoors in seed flats 6-8 weeks before transplanting them in the garden, so doing the math, I need to begin starting my seedlings indoors during the first two weeks of March.
Keep in mind that the last frost date may vary a bit, depending upon the unique conditions of your gardening site. Does your site have southern exposure, a colder exposure, or is it low-lying in a frost pocket? Remember, just like water, cold air flows downhill. Also, unusual weather is always a possibility, and a surprisingly-late killing frost is not unheard of around here! Also, the last frost date is really an estimate based on analysis of the historical data.
As a general rule, according to the Virgina Cooperative Extension guidelines (Publication No. 426-331), the following vegetables can be planted in our area during the month of March:
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Keep in mind that these are only suggested planting times, as seed germination often depends on soil temperature. Many seeds, such as spinach, lettuce, and beets, require a soil temperature in the 55-60 degree range to germinate. Also, transplants need to be “hardened off” by placing them outdoors daily in a sheltered area (out of direct sunlight) or in a cold frame for about two weeks before transplanting them into the garden. During the hardening off process, the plants will need to be brought back indoors or otherwise given ample protection from chilly night temperatures.
Often seed catalogs and seed packets indicate a planting time, sometimes using the phrase,“as soon as the soil can be worked.” One simple test to determine if the soil can be worked is to squeeze a hand-full of soil into a ball. If the soil holds together in a wet or sticky ball, it’s too wet to work.
Not sure what vegetables or specific varieties of vegetables to plant? Look at VCE Publication No. 426-480, “Vegetables Recommended For Virginia,” which provides a comprehensive listing of recommended varieties. VCE 426-480
Containers from the kitchen can be recycled for starting seeds indoors. Aluminum trays from frozen food just need a few holes poked in the bottom to provide drainage. Other possibilities include cottage cheese and yogurt containers, milk or ice cream cartons, styrofoam egg cartons, paper cups and plastic salad containers. All should have drainage holes.
If you use vermiculite to start seedings, the seedings should be transplanted to a soil mixture when the plants develop the second pair of leaves, because the vermiculite medium lacks the nutrients for sustained plant growth.
March is a good time to begin a compost pile, if you have not done so already. Most garden centers or nurseries sell composting bins. For more help in planning you compost bin, contact your local Cooperative Extension office or view Virginia Cooperative Extension Publication No. 442-005 at VCE pub 442-005.
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. A soil test should be performed prior to applying fertilizer. For information on how to perform a soil test, go to the VCE Publication 452-129, “Soil Sampling for the Home Gardener,” VCE pub 452-129
The optimum time to prune fruit trees is just before 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 the tree should be removed as well. A more open tree allows greater light penetration and air circulation, thereby increasing fruit quality and reduced disease and insect pressure. For additional information on growing and maintaining fruit trees in the home garden, see VCE Publication 426-841, “Tree Fruit in the Home Garden,” VCE pub 426-841
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 fruits, see VCE Publication No. 426-840, “Small Fruits in the Home Garden.” VCE 426-840