The Ornamental Garden in March
March is that long-awaited month marking the official end to winter and the beginning of the gardening season. What a joy to see the soft green haze of emerging foliage, the swelling buds of flowering ornamental trees and shrubs, and the first blossoms of spring-blooming bulbs as they emerge from the thawing soil. It’s time to shed our winter coats and venture out into the garden.
OUTDOOR GARDENING TASKS IN MARCH
Complete unfinished late winter pruning chores before your plants break dormancy:
- Cut back perennials and ornamental grasses that were left standing over the winter. Cut back to within a few inches of the ground so that you don’t damage the plant’s crown.
- Prune Group 3 (late summer or autumn-flowering) clematis vines to 12 inches from the ground. Cut each vine back to a strong bud. Although clematis may not need to be pruned every year, pruning does stimulate new growth and more prolific flowering, plus it takes the weight off the vines. For more detailed information on pruning clematis vines, see Clematis — Queen of the Vines in the May 2016 issue of The Garden Shed.
Prune roses early in the month to promote vigorous new growth, improve air circulation and allow light into the center of the plant. Remove any broken canes, dead tips, and older canes. TIP: Older canes normally appear drier, or shriveled, and darker than newer canes. As you prune, make 45-degree cuts one-quarter inch above healthy buds, angled away from the center of the plant. Some of the newer repeat-blooming shrub-type roses may only require a light shaping, if that much. The American Rose Society’s website has several useful articles on pruning roses, including Ten Principles of Rose Pruning and All About Pruning. The latter of these two articles contains many useful photos, clearly illustrating how to make pruning cuts.
Apply a slow-release granular fertilizer or organic product to established trees and shrubs that showed signs of nutrient deficiencies last year. While overall poor plant growth and vigor may be symptomatic of nutrient deficiencies, some specific symptoms include pale or chlorotic leaf color, smaller than normal leaf size, and premature leaf drop. If you’re not sure what’s going on with your plants, don’t fertilize until after you’ve had a soil test done to identify specific nutrient issues. See Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) Publication 452-129 for information on Soil Sampling for the Home Gardener. If fertilization is indicated, it is best done about four to six weeks before the plant starts to show new growth. Thoroughly water in the fertilizer or organic matter. For more information on fertilizing woody plants, see Virginia Cooperative Extension Publication 430-018, Fertilizing Landscape Trees and Shrubs.
Apply a dormant horticultural oil to deciduous trees or shrubs if you observe problems with scale or other overwintering insect species. Adult scales have waxy coverings that protect them from insecticides. Control measures must therefore be applied before leaves appear in spring, while the insect is in the immature or crawler stage. Outdoor temperatures need to be above 40°F with no chance of rain or freezing weather within the following 24 hours. Also, be aware that dormant oil is toxic to some plants, such as beech, red maple, and smokebush. Therefore, it is important to read and follow instructions carefully before applying any pest controls. If you’re uncertain about the best means of eradicating insect pests, contact the local VCE office for advice at (434) 872-4583 or the Help Desk at firstname.lastname@example.org.
INDOOR GARDENING PROJECTS IN MARCH
March can sometimes be cold and dreary, making it either impossible or impractical to do much garden work outside. If that’s the case, fear not! There are still lots of projects you can undertake indoors while you’re waiting for warmer weather.
- Pot up tender or summer-blooming bulbs now so that they may be transplanted outdoors in May. Caladium, elephant ear (Colocasia), Crocosmia, gladiolus, and tuberous begonias are just a few of the bulbs that may be started indoors this month. Plant the bulb or tuber in a moist, soilless potting mix and keep it warm until new plant growth appears. Then, move the potted plants to a sunny window or place under grow lights. Keep the growing medium moist but not soggy. Once all danger of frost has passed later this spring, gradually move the plants outside.
Get a head start on warm-season annuals. Many annuals may be started indoors about 6 to 8 weeks before the last spring frost date (May 15 in this area of Virginia). Check the guidance provided on the seed package to get a better idea of how long the plants need to germinate and mature sufficiently before planting outdoors. Plant the seeds in a moist soilless potting mix. Once the seedlings develop two sets of true leaves, plant them in slightly larger containers. Gradually introduce the seedlings to outdoor conditions before planting them after the last frost date in May.
- Test old flower seeds to see if they’re still viable. It’s not easy to find accurate information on the longevity of flower seeds. Several factors have to be taken into consideration: the plant species, the condition of the seeds when they were collected, and how well they were stored. The seeds of some plant species, such as candytuft, columbine, salvia, strawflower, and vinca, tend to be short lived, viable for perhaps only one or two years. Others, such as calendula, cosmos, marigold, nasturtium, nigella, and zinnia, may be viable for several years if stored properly. When in doubt, here’s how to do a seed viability test:
- Space out at least 10 or more seeds on the top half of a damp (but not soggy) paper towel.
- Fold the bottom half of the paper towel up over the seeds. Fold the paper towel again, or roll it up and insert it into a plastic baggie.
- If you’re testing more than one plant species, write the name of the seeds on the baggie.
- Place the baggie in a warm spot (about 70 to 75 degrees) but don’t put it in sunlight. The seeds need warmth, but not light, to germinate. Your kitchen is probably a good spot.
- Check the paper towel daily to make sure it is still moist. Re-dampen as necessary.
After about a week, check the seeds to see how many sprouted. Most seeds will have sprouted within 10 days. If more than 50% of the seeds germinated, then you know they are still usable. However, you might want to plant them a little thicker than normal to make up for the loss of vigor. If the germination rate is low (less than 50%), either plant plenty of seeds to make up for the low germination rate or toss the remaining seeds and buy fresh ones.
TIPS FOR INVOLVING CHILDREN IN GARDENING
Gardening is one of the few multi-generational activities that can be enjoyed on so many different levels. If you have a small child or grandchild, instill in them a love of nature by engaging them in planting and caring for an ornamental garden. Lest they view this activity as “work,” don’t lose hope. Appeal, instead, to their senses – specifically to their sense of wonder. For example, select flower species for your garden that not only offer visual appeal but also appeal to other senses as well:
Unless your child suffers from seasonal allergies, plant fragrant ornamentals such as roses, lilacs, hyacinths, lavender, sweet peas, chocolate cosmos, and peonies. These are just a tiny sampling of fragrant plants that appeal to one’s sense of smell. Be sure to warn your child to look for bees or other insects first before they attempt to smell a flower.
- Taste: Let your little one experience the taste of an edible flower such as a nasturtium, violet, rose, or calendula – under adult supervision. Make sure the plant has not been treated with pesticides or other chemicals.
Also, because some plants are poisonous or might cause an allergic reaction if eaten, train your child not to taste any plant without checking with mom or dad first. If you’re not sure which flowers are edible, check out the North Carolina State University Extension Service publication on Choosing and Using Edible Flowers. It describes many edible flowers and includes lots of photos.
Lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina) has soft, fuzzy foliage that kids love to touch. Chenille plant (Acalypha hispida) is another plant with soft, furry flowers that a child might want to stroke. Some ornamental grasses, such as pink muhly grass (Muhlenbergia) or Lagurus ovatus ‘Bunny Tails’, have soft, fluffy flowers that your child will surely want to touch.
- Sound: Teach your child to listen to the rustling sounds that quaking grass and other ornamental grass seed heads make in the breeze. Show them how to shake the ripe seed pods of plants such as false indigo (Baptisia) or love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena) so that they make rattling noises.
In addition to appealing to the senses, gardening provides ample opportunities for many memorable teachable moments. For example:
- Your child will be amazed to learn that plants have a built-in ability to tell time. Show them plants that open at sunup and close at dusk. Examples include morning glories (Ipomoea), sun drops (Oenothera fructicosa), moss rose (Portulaca) and California poppies (Eschscholzia californica). Delight them with fragrant moonflowers (Ipomoea alba), evening primrose (Oenothera biennis), and flowering tobacco (Nicotiana), which open at dusk and close at sunup. And then there are four o’clocks (Mirabilis), which open at approximately the same time each afternoon and close by sunup the next day.
- Planting a variety of colorful annuals and perennials is a great way to teach a young child the names of colors. Zinnias are perhaps the best example of a common but charming flower that is available in all the colors of the rainbow – red, yellow, white, purple, and dozens of shades in between, including chartreuse. Show an older child how to use a color wheel in the garden as a way to learn the differences between primary, secondary, and tertiary colors.
- Amaze your child with the variations in plant size. On one end of the spectrum, all children and most adults are amazed by the sheer height of a sunflower (Helianthus). This fun plant germinates fast and, depending on the selection, can stretch up to 10 feet tall. Teach your child about heliotropism as they observe the super large flowers follow the sun. Hollyhocks are another tall plant that delight children with their height and bright cheerful blossoms. Elephant ears are yet a third large plant that amaze and delight with their enormous leaves. Conversely, help your child plant a fairy garden. Fill it with miniature ferns, ivy, moss, low-growing sedum, hens and chicks, or other small plants. Let it appeal to your child’s imagination and sense of whimsy.
- Use plants as a way to open your child’s eyes to the wonders of nature and the interconnectedness between plants and animals. Plant colorful, nectar-rich annuals and perennials that attract butterflies, bees, and other insects. Plant milkweed (Asclepias), for example, and show your child how to identify the eggs, larva, and pupa stages of the butterflies that rely on the plant for sustenance.
- Show your child how to have fun in the garden. Kids love to pinch snapdragon blossoms so that the “dragon’s mouth” snaps open and shut. To encourage giggles, show them how to touch a ripe “touch-me-not” (Impatiens balsamina) seedpod and watch it shoot out seeds as if they were spring loaded. Even the name of the plant sounds like fun. And then there’s the money plant (Lunaria), also called silver dollar plant. The name may not inspire giggles, but it will be amazing to see how the pretty little lavender blossoms give way to large, silvery, translucent seed pods.
WAYS TO ATTRACT HUMMINGBIRDS TO THE GARDEN
As you plan this year’s ornamental garden, consider adding plants that will attract hummingbirds. According to the Audubon Society (audubon.org/plantsforbirds), hummingbirds must eat every 10 to 15 minutes in order to sustain their super-fast metabolisms. This means visiting anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 flowers per day. While hummingbirds are particularly attracted to red or orange trumpet-shaped blossoms, they will come to any plant that has a good supply of nectar.
To create a hummingbird-friendly habitat, consider ways to address its basic needs:
- Nectar-rich plant species: Nectar-rich plants that attract hummingbirds include: Bee balm (Monarda), cigar plant (Cuphea), salvia species, Penstemon, Agastache, native honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), gayfeather (Liatris), columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), scarlet runner bean (phaseola coccineus), passionflower (passiflora incarnata), hyacinth bean (Dolichos lablab), Kniphofia, Weigela, and Pentas.
- Nectar Feeders: Feeders are particularly critical during the spring and fall migration when nectar-rich flowers are not plentiful. Because hummingbirds are territorial, it’s wise to have feeders in place before they return to this area in early April. Once a hummingbird decides it likes your feeder, it will tend to stick around for the rest of the season. Also, if you hang more than one feeder, place them far enough apart so that the hummingbirds can’t see one another. That will keep the peace in your yard. Fill the feeders with sugar water made from a mixture of one part plain sugar to four parts water that has been boiled for 1 to 2 minutes and cooled. Change the sugar water in the feeder about twice a week.
- Protein sources: In addition to nectar, hummingbirds require protein in their diet. They eat protein-rich pollen, small insects, and spiders. Baby hummingbirds that are still in the nest are fed insects almost exclusively. So, include pesticide-free plants that are pollinated by insects in your garden. TIP: Place overripe fruit or banana peels near the hummingbird feeder to attract fruit flies and watch the hummingbirds snatch them from the air.
- Perches: Hummingbirds need safe places to rest, preferably out of the reach of cats and birds of prey. They like to be able to survey their territory and this means maintaining some shrubs or small deciduous trees in which they can rest without being seen.
- Nests: Small trees and shrubs also appeal to hummingbirds for nesting purposes. They tend to build their tiny nests on the small bare limbs of trees and shrubs or on other small horizontal surfaces. Also, don’t be so quick to tear down spider webs when you see them. Hummingbirds often use the webs for building their nests.
- Water: Hummingbirds like to bathe often, so provide a source of water (a tiny amount will do) or even a fine mist for them.
Once you’ve provided the right habitat for hummingbirds, they’ll reward you endlessly with their amazing aeronautical feats and entertaining antics.