March Gardening Advice 2017
by Jennifer Fairfield
Editor’s Note: Manchester resident Jennifer Fairfield owns and operates the Garden Mill in Chelsea, serves on the Manchester Community Garden Committee, and volunteers with the school gardens at Klager and the MECC.
I woke up Sunday morning to a sound that sent dread through me. It sounded like some sort of mechanical device in the house was failing spectacularly. Having had so many things in need of repairing or replacing last year – the roof, water softener, sump pump, garage door opener, and kitchen sink – I was not looking forward to starting this year out with one more problem.
I jumped out of bed and ran down to the basement, fearing what I might find, but as soon as I got to the basement, the noise stopped. After the same thing happened a few minutes later, I decided to just stand there and wait for it to happen again, which it did. but the noise wasn’t coming from the basement, and as I headed upstairs to the main floor, it dawned on me that I’ve heard this noise before. There is one red-bellied woodpecker in our yard (I assume it’s the same one every year) who has found that drumming on the chimney cap on our house makes The Best sound for attracting females! The noise sounds like a jackhammer reverberating throughout the house, as it travels down the fireplace chimney. I hope the female red-bellies like it, because he’s sure making a racket. It must be spring!
We’ll be ushering in spring at the Garden Mill, a little less noisily, every Saturday this month with our annual Green Thumb Series of workshops. This year, we’re talking about landscaping and lawns. Details are below, on our website, and on our Facebook page. Join us.
So no, it’s not really spring here in Michigan, even though it sure felt like it for a little while there. Don’t be in too much of a hurry to start planting things outdoors – it is still very early, and Michigan weather usually throws us a few curve balls in the time between March and May. There are still lots of other things to do this month, though:
- Does anyone want to take a guess at what the weather is going to be like this month? It’s been such a weird winter so far, that I have no idea. However, I am not betting against our getting some snow still. It’s Michigan, after all! The snow we tend to get at this time is generally wet and heavy, because the temperatures are often hovering right around the freezing mark. This kind of snow can weigh down and potentially break tree and shrub branches, so prompt removal of the snow can help to prevent damage – as long as it’s done right. Use a broom, and gentle upward motions to sweep away the snow. Banging on frozen branches to shake off snow can break them. If an ice storm leaves your tree and shrub branches coated, leave it alone. Trying to remove ice from your trees can often cause more harm than good.
- Normally, I would tell you that you still have time to do pruning while your trees are still dormant, since pruning later can make them vulnerable to insects and disease that are active in warm weather. This year is a little tricky, though. Because we’ve already had some extended warm days, we’ve seen more insect activity than normal, and trees are already starting to wake up. Unless we have a prolonged cold, I think it may be a bad year for pruning. Always prune damaged and broken branches as soon as possible, but other than that, I would be hesitant to tell you to do a lot of pruning this year. That’s just my opinion – you might want to check with an arborist to see what they think, if you feel that some of your trees need more pruning.
- Trees and shrubs that flower early (such as forsythia and lilacs) should always wait until after they have flowered to prune, since you will lose those gorgeous blossoms if you prune early.
- One way to get an early taste of spring is to force branches of flowering trees and shrubs indoors. Trees that will put on a show for you include beech, cherry, crabapple, flowering dogwood, magnolia, redbud, red maple, and weeping willow. You can also force flowering shrubs, such as beauty bush, flowering quince, forsythia, honeysuckle, lilac, pussy willow, and redtwig dogwood. See this article from Fine Gardening for information on how to get the best blossoms.
- Frost heave, the pushing up of soil and plant roots caused when wet soil freezes and expands, can easily happen at this time of year, and can cause a great deal of damage to your plants. Take a look around your garden to check to see if any of your perennials have been pushed up. If they have, gently press them back down to prevent damage to the roots and plant. Follow up with a good layer of mulch to protect from future thaw and re-freeze cycles that are bound to happen in the coming weeks.
- As tempting as it has been to want to get out and get to work in the yard and garden, stay off the lawn and out of garden beds as much as possible while the ground is wet. Wet soil is easily compacted by walking on it at this time, and compacted soil doesn’t allow for air, which is necessary for your plants’ roots.
- Before spring really gets going, and you start applying fertilizers to your lawn and flower beds, it’s a great idea to do a soil test. Soil tests help you know what your lawn and plants really need, so you aren’t wasting money on the wrong fertilizers. We carry a very good at-home test kit at the store, or you can send away for a more comprehensive test kit from the MSU extension.
- There’s a tradition that says Saint Patrick’s Day is the time to plant peas. So far, I haven’t seen the Michigan March that is warm enough for that, but this could be the year! The best way to be sure if your peas will come up when you plant them is to take your soil’s temperature. Every seed has a range of soil temperatures at which it will germinate. For peas, the range is 40° to 85°, with 75° being ideal. The Extension Service at Oregon State has a really good soil temperature chart for seed germination of lots of different vegetable plants.
- Seeds are in! Actually, they have been since the first week of February, and lots of people are already stocking up. So, get yours as soon as possible, to ensure that you get what you want. Start parsley now – it’s a bit slow to germinate, so needs a little extra time to be ready for planting outdoors. Broccoli, cabbage, kale, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and most other herbs should be started in mid-month, though basil can be started at the end of the month, or in early April. Start tomatoes and peppers around the end of the month or the first part of April so that they will be mature enough to be planted outdoors by Memorial Day, which is always my target date for getting those in the garden. If you want to get yours in your garden sooner than that, start your seeds earlier, but realize that planting these warm-weather lovers out too soon will only cause them to slow down, so you won’t likely be any further ahead than you would be by waiting a couple of weeks.
- If you are starting flowers from seed, early to mid-March is the time to start zinnia, and mid- to late-March is the time to get a number of others going, including amaranth, catmint, cleome, gaillardia, nigella, stock and thunbergia. Echinacea should be started by the end of the month.
- On the cold, rainy (or snowy) days we are bound to get this month, you can repot any of your indoor plants that have outgrown their current pots. When repotting, it is generally best to go up in pot size by no more than an inch or two in diameter and depth. One thing to consider when repotting is dividing larger plants so that you don’t end up with a huge plant in a really heavy pot. If you don’t have room for all the new small plants, you could give some away. They make great gifts that brighten up anyone’s day!
- Start fertilizing your indoor plants again this month.
- If you stored tender bulbs over the winter, check them now and discard any that are soft, damaged or diseased.
- If you potted bulbs for forcing last fall, check their progress. When your bulbs get a few inches of growth, it’s time to move them into a cool (60 degrees) sunny spot, but not in direct sunlight. Once they have flowered, move them into a warmer spot, but keep them out of direct sunlight to help the blooms last longer. For even longer lasting blooms, provide cooler nighttime temperatures.
For the birds:
- Birds are on the move this month – many that spent the winter here will be heading farther north to their breeding grounds, and those who wintered farther south will be heading back here to look for nesting places. Keeping your feeders full will help everyone get where they are going.
- The birds that are returning will begin to scout out nesting sites this month, so cleaning out existing houses or putting up new ones (or both) now will encourage them to take up residence at your home. They’ll repay you for the hospitality by feeding their young with insects from your yard this spring!
Free Green Thumb Series – Turn Your Yard into Your Oasis!
Landscaping 101 – March 4, 2017 11 am – noon
Do you want to landscape your yard, but don’t know where to begin? Want to add some visual appeal to your great outdoors? Are you looking to create a relaxing oasis for your “stay-cations?” Need to increase your house’s resale value? Or do you hope to attract more birds, bees, and butterflies to your corner of the world? Come in to get tips for making your yard the envy of the neighborhood from guest speaker, Steve Hahne – Nursery and Landscape Manager with McLennan’s Landscape in Manchester.
Lawn Care and Lawn Alternatives – March 11, 2017 11 am – noon
Join us to learn about the basics of keeping your lawn lush and green, as well as how to cut down on the time you spend mowing and caring for it. We’ll discuss soil testing – how, when and why to do it – timing and types of fertilizers, weed and pest control, and alternatives to grass that are easier to care for and still look great.
More Landscaping Tips & Tricks – March 18, 2017 11 am – noon
Ready to tackle that big project in your yard? Have a tricky hill or low-lying wet spot you’re just not sure what to do with? Now sure what to do with a trouble spot in your yard that just won’t grow anything? Join us for a continuation of our landscaping conversation, when we’ll get into more advanced topics to help you turn your yard into your dream space. Steve Hahne, Nursery and Landscape Manager with McLennan’s Landscape in Manchester will talk about tasks you can do yourself, and when you might want to bring in the experts.
Landscaping is for the Birds! – March 25, 2017 11 am – noon
Master Gardener, horticulturist and birder Dan Sparks-Jackson will discuss plant selection for gardens designed to benefit local bird populations. Using an ecological rationale, Sparks-Jackson will talk about plants with berries as one aspect of the food web and the importance of native foliage, which turns into critical bird baby food. He will also provide information on birdseed choices, bird feeder placement, cover foliage and ways to provide fresh water for birds.