The Vegetable Garden in March
Wow, it’s March, and the days are growing longer, so we can be blessed and teased with mild warm days, cold snowy days, rain and windy days. March is the month of many seasons. Regardless of the unpredictable weather, March is the start of the spring gardening season, a time to complete those winter tasks we dare not carry over into the spring rush season, when there are so many tasks and so little time. Finishing fall and winter garden tasks, purchasing seeds, and starting the 2017 vegetable garden are the March tasks that compete for the gardener’s attention. In addition to all those tasks, the gardener is often overcome with a severe case of spring fever brought on by warmer weather and compounded by a visit to a local gardening center or nursery were we are confronted with racks of irresistible seed packets on display! Sometimes it’s difficult to remember that it’s not yet spring. However, for that gardener with a bad case of spring fever and an urge to dig in the dirt, there are cool weather crops that may be planted in March.
The following list of cool weather crops was compiled from the VCE publication “Vegetable Planting Guide and Recommended Planting Dates” and indicates which vegetables may be planted in our area after the middle of March:
In a hurry to get those tomato and pepper seeds started indoors? The general rule of thumb is to start tomato and pepper seeds indoors about 6-8 weeks before the final frost, which in our area is around May 15th (VCE Publication 426-331), and that means we need to hold off starting those seeds until around the end of March. Peppers, however, need about an additional 2-3 weeks head start and can be started earlier.
It’s not too late for a soil test! It never fails — whenever I contact the local extension office about a problem in the garden or orchard, their first response is “when was the last time you did a soil test and what were the results?” So now before I ask, I test! A soil test is a valuable tool for not only identifying problems but preventing problems as well. A soil test is a tool that allows you to keep your soil at optimum fertility levels and pH levels. To keep your garden fine-tuned, you need to perform a soil test every 2-3 years. A soil sampling kit complete with instructions is available for free at your local Virginia Cooperative Extension Office. For additional information on soil testing check out VCE PUBLICATION 452-129.
Lettuce is very sensitive to low pH levels (acid), so lime should be applied to your lettuce bed if the pH is below 6.0. YES, you will need a soil test to determine the pH level and the need for lime!
Don’t throw away that leaky old garden hose! You can use it to protect yourself and the blades of your pruning saw during storage. Make a cover for the saw blade with a piece of old gardening hose. Cut a section of the gardening hose to the same length as the blade. Cut the hose lengthwise on one side and place it over the saw blade.
If your garden soil crusts after a rain, this may result in poor germination, because young seedings are too fragile to break though the crust. This problem may be caused by over-tilling the soil. Cover the seeds with ¼ inch of compost or fine mulch matter, which will keep the soil moist and help prevent crusting.
If you are planning a backyard orchard, start by mapping out the site, giving particular attention to air and water drainage. Remember, just like water, cold air flows down hill. Avoid frost pockets — areas where cold air gathers — or you may be disappointed year after year when flower buds freeze and drop, resulting in little or no fruit.
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. One of my favorite tools to take the guesswork out of knowing when to plant is a soil thermometer. Soil temperature is the best indicator that the time is right for planting. As a general rule, cool season crops — collards, leeks, peas, radish, and spinach — can be planted when the soil reaches a temperature of 45-50ºF, while warm season crops — cucumbers, squash, corn, beans and melons — require a soil temperature above 65º F.
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 help in planning your compost pile see our 2016 February feature article on compost in The Garden Shed, or view the VCE Publication 442-005, “Composting Your Organic Kitchen Waste with Worms.”
Not sure what vegetables or specific varieties of vegetables to plant? Check out VCE Publication No. 246-480 “Vegetables Recommended for Virginia,” which provides a comprehensive listing of recommended varieties.
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 of fruit trees visit VCE Publication 426-841, “Tree Fruit in the 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 reduced 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.”
Thanks for stopping by The Garden Shed. We hope to see you again next month.
“Vegetable Planting Guide and Recommended Planting Dates.” Va. Coop. Ext. Publication 426-331, http://pubs.ext.vt.edu/426/426-331/426-331.html
“Vegetables Recommended For Virginia,” Va.Coop. Ext. Publication 426-480, https://pubs.ext.vt.edu/426/426-480/426-480.html
“Is it time to plant vegetables? Ask your soil thermometer,”Oregon State University Extension, http://extension.oregonstate.edu/gardening/it-time-plant-vegetables-ask-your-soil-thermometer