Although winter’s icy fingers cling to March, their grip weakens daily. The weather may not always be clement, but there’s no turning back now; the advance of spring is unstoppable. What I love most about March is watching how nature responds to changes in temperature. A warm spell will propel spring bulbs into rapid growth but the moment the mercury drops they will stop still, as if they were playing a meteorological game of statues. This is how plants protect themselves, preserving their energies for when the weather is fine and pollinators are abroad.
For the keen gardener, March is a ‘reap what you sow’ kind of month. By that, I mean that any preparation you can do in the garden this month will pay dividends later on. Tasks such as aerating lawns, dividing perennials, feeding and mulching are far from glamorous, nor are their results immediate, but they will make a noticeable difference later on. If February has been frosty or foul, then March is also a good time to finish up any winter pruning and tidying. If you’re a fledgling gardener, then focus on two things this month – feeding and planting. When plants are not growing, they don’t require much food. However, the rain has been steadily leaching nutrients from your soil through the winter. As the weather improves and before growth begins again, it’s important to add goodness back in, using bulky fertilisers such as horse manure or garden compost, or granular feeds such as chicken manure pellets and blood, fish and bone. Attention to feeding is even more important if you garden in containers as these restrict a plant’s ability to put out roots to find its own food. Different plants respond better to different fertilisers. Acid-loving plants, such as camellias and rhododendrons, must have ‘ericaceous’ food. (In one of those quirks of branding, ericaceous plant food is always packaged in either fuchsia-pink or purple bottles and boxes – don’t ask me why!)
March is the prime time to sow or plant anything considered to be ‘hardy’ (that generally means tolerant of sub-zero temperatures here in the UK). Exact times will vary from the south to the north of the country, but sometime this month the ground should be warm and workable enough to welcome new plants. Don’t be in too much haste to concern yourself with tender plants (not tolerant of sub-zero temperatures) unless you have somewhere frost-free to keep them growing happily for another 6-8 weeks. Books, garden centres and social media accounts will have you thinking that you must sow seeds of this or that right now, but without heat and good light, you are better off waiting until the end of the month, or April. If you’re not convinced, do a little experiment and sow half a packet of seeds now and the other half in 4 weeks’ time. By June I doubt you’d notice a difference in the size of the plants. There will be warm, wonderful days ahead; enjoy them, but don’t let a few fine days fool you into believing summer has come early. Frost or snow is still a very real possibility and this has the potential to undo all your hard work.
March At a Glance
Plan – summer bedding displays and the layout of your vegetable garden for the year ahead. Make a note of your favourite flowering bulbs so that you can order more when the catalogues arrive in May.
Sow – Indoors – hardy annuals early in the month, half-hardy annuals towards the middle or end of the month. Outdoors – hardy annuals, beetroot, broad beans, radishes, spinach, peas, onions, carrots and parsnips.
Plant – Bare-rooted trees and shrubs, container-grown perennials, spring bedding, snowdrops in the green, dahlia tubers in pots or crates. Early-cropping potatoes, onions, and bare-rooted asparagus crowns.
Prune – dogwoods, willows, roses, clematis and anything that needs a gentle re-shaping.
Feed – acid-loving plants (camellias, rhododendrons, azaleas and heather), fruit trees, blackcurrants, brassicas and house plants.
Harvest – daffodils, anemones, hellebores, flowering branches of daphne and cherry, cauliflower, kale, leeks, parsnips, celeriac, swede, spinach, spring cabbage.
Buy – bare-rooted plants, peat-free seed compost, seeds, dahlia tubers, gladioli corms, lily bulbs, spring bedding plants, alpines, new garden furniture, plant supports.
Enjoy – bright sunny days, birdsong, the changing of the clocks leading to longer evenings, Mothers’ Day celebrations and Easter preparations.
Visit – gardens with good collections of daffodils and spring-flowering shrubs. Some hold special daffodil festivals.
If you simply crave time outside, the feeling of the sun on your face, the scent of spring flowers, or the sound of birds singing, there’s much to love about March. Nothing in the world compares with spring in the British countryside, the joyful transformation of fields, hedgerows and woods from dreary desolation to vibrant verdure. And unlike the colourful spectacle of autumn, which like the Northern Lights sometimes occurs but often doesn’t, spring is a definite. Look out for carpets of lesser celandine (Ficaria verna) and wood anemones (Anemone nemorosa), banks spangled with primroses and violets, the spiky forms of blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) wreathed in pure white blossom with lime green Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) frothing up beneath. In gardens, daffodils, crocuses, camellias, cherries, polyanthus, hyacinths and early tulips will be ramping up the colour to eye-popping levels. Rather than buying imported flowers for Mother’s Day, why not create a posy from your own garden or visit one of the country’s many small-scale flower farms to pick your own bouquet? Or perhaps plant a small container with a mixture of spring bulbs and alpines to give as a gift?
Every day in March brings new wonders. If you spend a few days away from home, you will notice big changes on your return. If you’re feeling full of the joys of spring, here are a few things to be getting on with:
- Now that light levels are higher, you can resume feeding houseplants with a dilute fertiliser once a week. When you buy a new plant, the compost should have enough nutrients to nourish it for 6-8 weeks. After that, they’ll benefit from a weekly boost. Feeding takes very little effort and you will soon notice the difference versus plants that are only watered. Special formulations are available for plants such as citrus fruits, orchids and Cape primroses (Streptocarpus). Use these if you can, otherwise a general purpose houseplant food will do just fine.
- If you’ve brought potted daffodils and hyacinths indoors to bloom, you have a choice of what to do when the flowers fade. The bulbs will have put all their energy into producing blooms, so if you want them to flower again, they need to recharge first. Plant them out in the garden, deeper than they were in the pot, so that they’re not close to the soil surface. Remove dead flowers but never the foliage: leaves act as a plant’s solar panel, allowing the bulb to regenerate. It’s unlikely that your bulbs will flower as prolifically again next year, but over a couple of seasons their flower-power will be fully restored. If you’re too impatient, or you have no space, you may find that someone with a garden will take spent bulbs off your hands. Failing that, compost them.
- When buying plants during the cooler months, take care when transporting them home. Many of the plants we cherish as house plants are from the tropics where temperatures are high and fairly constant. These plants may not take kindly to being left in a car or walked home in a chilly wind. Make sure the shop wraps your plant thoroughly, protecting it from top to bottom, and take it straight home. I would even avoid ordering plants online if you know it’s going to be cold for a few days – good companies won’t send out stock in these conditions but it’s better to be safe than sorry. Even careful couriers have cold vans. And beware house plants that are displayed in shop doorways or out on the street. They may have caught a fatal chill before you even set eyes on them.
Potting Shed & Greenhouse
- If you have space in a light, frost-free environment you can start planting dahlias in pots now. If you only have a few, plant them in moist compost in individual pots, taking care not to break off any of the fleshy tubers – these will fuel the growth of new shoots. If you have lots of tubers, these can be planted on mass in trays or crates until they are ready to be planted out in May. The tubers should sit just beneath the surface of the compost. Only water your dahlias when shoots start to appear. If you don’t have space indoors, keep your tubers somewhere cool (not cold), dry and dark and plant them directly in the garden in May. They will soon catch up, but you’ll need to be on watch for snails and slugs night and day.
- If the weather is fine, give your greenhouse its annual clean. There’s nothing like being warm and toasty under glass when it’s still a bit nippy outside. Scrub down wood and metal surfaces with a weak eco-friendly disinfectant, take down any winter insulation and wipe the glass to maximise the light reaching your plants. As well as being more comfortable, a warm day will allow you to move any resident plants outside during the day so that you can get on unhindered.
- Repot overwintered cannas in fresh compost with added slow-release fertiliser. If they have become large and congested, cannas can be divided very easily using an old saw or breadknife. Take care not to damage any new shoots. Water and place in a warm, light spot to encourage them back into growth.
- On sunny days your greenhouse will warm up very quickly. Keep windows and doors ajar to moderate the temperature and let fresh air circulate.
Terrace & Balcony
- You’ll want to be ready to take advantage of any spell of good weather this month, perhaps to have lunch outside or enjoy your first barbecue of the year. If you protect your garden furniture using covers, remove them on a mild, sunny day and give each piece a thorough going over with a stiff brush. If you find cobwebs, dirt, algae or rust stains, scrub the furniture down with warm, soapy water and let it dry naturally in the sun. Do not replace the covers until bone dry.
- If you have painted furniture, planters, fences or trellises that are flaking and need attention, seize any opportunity to sand them back and give them a fresh coat of good quality exterior paint. Once plants start growing again, this is a much tricker job. The weather needs to be fine and dry, so have all the materials you need ready and waiting for that eventuality.
- Whilst you’re in the mood for sprucing things up, jetwash decks and patios, avoiding any nasty chemicals that might wash into the ground. Dirt, algae and moss build up quickly over winter. They can make smoother surfaces like slate dangerously slippery when wet, but in other situations they might form a pleasing patina, so don’t be in too much haste to get everything spotless.
- If they’ve not been put away clean and dry in autumn, barbecues might need a little sanitising before they are used again. If you are cooking on gas, light your barbecue and allow it to get nice and hot. This will burn away any harmful bacteria. Before it’s completely cool, use a wire brush or specially designed barbecue brush to remove any residue. This is one of my least favourite jobs but much less tedious if it’s done regularly.
- After three or four years, most perennial flowering plants will benefit from lifting and dividing. The younger portions of the plant on the outside of the clump tend to be more vigorous and should be kept for replanting. After lifting the rootball using a spade or fork, you can be fairly brutal and cut the plant into chunks using a sharp spade, old saw or breadknife. Just ensure each section has its own roots and shoots. Replant at the same level and water well to encourage root development.
- One of my guiding principles is to stake early and stake well. I hate to see plant supports and the best way to hide them is to get them in the ground before a plant starts growing. New shoots will disguise any ugly engineering and be both supported and natural in shape. There’s nothing more unsightly in the border than tall plants bundled and tethered to bright-yellow bamboo canes – hazel branches, birch twigs or iron supports with a rusty finish are more unobtrustive.
- If you are a confident, experienced or adventurous gardener, you can take cuttings of chrysanthemums, delphiniums, phlox and dahlias. Remove the cuttings from the crown (where the shoots meet the ground in the centre of the plant) using a clean, sharp knife and pop them around the edge of a pot filled with a gritty, peat-free compost. Give your cuttings some warmth to encourage roots to form and resist the urge to keep checking for progress. Once they’re clearly producing new growth and roots are appearing from the bottom of the pot or tray, they are ready to be moved on into individual pots.
- Hardy annuals such as nasturtiums, love-in-a-mist (Nigella) cornflowers, poppies and calendulas can be sown outside towards the end of the month. They can be planted in shallow drills (furrows) where you want them to grow. If these pretty plants already inhabit your garden, you’ll already have self-sown plants popping up all over the place. Thinning them out so that there’s 20-30cm between each plant will produce bigger, stronger, longer-flowering plants.
- Roses and late-flowering clematis can still be pruned in early March. Leave it any later and they will have started to produce new shoots. Have a look at February’s post for more advice.
- Spring has only just begun, so keep deadheading pansies, violas, primulas and cyclamen to keep flowers coming for another month or two. Daffodils should be deadheaded immediately the flowers fade – just pulling the flower from the top of the stem is perfectly adequate. Wear gloves or wash your hands afterwards as the sap from daffodils can irritate your skin.
- Slugs and snails will dine in style on plump new shoots emerging from the ground. They are particularly partial to hostas, dahlias, lupins, delphiniums and numerous other garden treasures. I will pass no judgement on your preferred method of ridding your garden of these annoying pests, just make sure you’re prepared before any great harm is done. Deterrents include copper tape, fine grit, broken shells, sheep’s wool, beer traps, relocation – aerial or otherwise – and, if needs must, slug pellets. If using the latter, it’s a case of the fewer the better. Giving slugs and snails the blue carpet treatment is a waste of money, looks hideous and is bad news for the environment.
Trees, Shrubs & Lawns
- This is your last chance to plant bare-rooted shrubs and trees, including roses, fruit trees and hedges. Bare-rooted plants are a great option because they are generally cheaper to buy and less bulky to transport. However, they can’t be left sitting around. If you take delivery of bare-rooted plants and don’t have time to plant them in their permanent homes, make sure the roots are kept moist by storing them in a bucket of damp compost or planting them in a temporary location outside (known as ‘heeling in’).
- Even the finest lawns become compacted as a consequence of people walking on them and the natural settling of the soil surface. Aerate your lawn by plunging the tines of a fork into the surface at 20cm intervals, giving them a little wiggle each time. Lightly brush coarse sand into the resulting holes. Alternatively you can use a plug aerator that removes thin cores of soil. Lawn aeration is a fiddly and time-consuming job, yes, but that’s the cost of maintaining a healthy lawn. Even in rougher areas of grass you should rake out any moss and thatch (dead grass) that’s accumulated over winter. This will let air circulate and allow light to reach the soil surface, encouraging lush new growth. Moss and thatch can be composted if mixed with drier, more open material, such as prunings or dry leaves.
- If you didn’t prune your ornamental dogwoods (Cornus), willows (Salix) and brambles (Rubus) last month, then do it before the new buds break. The most colourful stems will be the new stems, so cut the old ones back hard back to one or two buds above ground level. You can also coppice or pollard the foxglove tree (Paulownia) and Indian bean tree (Catalpa) now. This will result in larger leaves than if they were left unchecked.
- Now is the time to feed acid-loving shrubs such as rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias and pieris, using an ericaceous fertiliser. They will soon be in flower, if not already, and producing new growth. A feed now will give them a welcome boost.
- If it’s been a hard winter and you’ve experienced serious frost damage, resist the urge to prune or remove shrubs that appear to be dead, unless they are a danger. They may surprise you. Leave them alone until at least the middle of summer, watching closely to see if shoots emerge from the base of the plant or higher up. If you can’t bear to look at the poor victim, grow an annual climber over it and re-assess the situation in autumn.
Kitchen Garden & Allotment
- Alas, it’s not just the plants we have chosen for our gardens that respond to warmer weather. Weeds will now start to take advantage of improving conditions. Many plants we classify as weeds are programmed to live fast and die young, some with lifecycles that might only be a couple of months long. Whilst it’s important to keep on top of your weeds, make sure you know what’s what before yanking things out. Among the weeds could be seedlings of desirable plants. If in doubt, leave well alone and see what you get. Choose a day when the soil surface is relatively dry to use your hoe. The uprooted weed seedlings will dry out on the soil surface rather than re-rooting. Use a dandelion weeder to remove weeds with long tap roots as severing their heads will not be enough to kill them.
- Sow carrots and parsnips outside this month. Carrots need protection from carrot root fly so they should be protected with a cloche or fleece, or be sown in an elevated container. On our allotments, our neighbours sow them in old wheelbarrows or plastic compost bins. Parsnips germinate slowly and eratically; sowing them as soon as the soil warms up ensures they get the long growing season they need.
- Onion sets can be started off in trays divided into modules. Although they don’t need heat, I find this a good way to get them going. Out in the open they sometimes get pulled out of the ground and scattered about by birds and squirrels – I never quite catch the culprits in action!
- Pigeons will have a field day if you leave cabbages, purple sprouting, cauliflowers and other brassicas unnetted. I am not a fan of plots covered in netting or cages, but sometimes needs must.
- Purple sprouting and cauliflowers tend to mature very quickly and need harvesting regularly. If you have more crops than you can eat right now, blanch and freeze them for later in the year. Alternatively, offer them to friends and family. The Beau makes an epic cauliflower cheese that’s pure heaven.
- Established crowns of rhubarb will be growing away strongly now. Unless you are forcing some stems, it’s still too early to harvest. Mulch with well-rotted famyard manure and leave the plants to develop for another 6-8 weeks.
- Asparagus is one of the most desirable vegetables you can grow. It takes up a lot of space and is unproductive for eleven months of the year. However, if space isn’t an issue and you have a hankering for tender spears dripping in melter butter or Hollandaise sauce, now is the time to plant bare-rooted crowns in a sunny, well-drained spot. You won’t be able to harvest your asparagus for another 2-3 years, but after that you’ll have a reliable supply for around 20 years.
- Feed fruit trees to promote bountiful blossom and strong new growth. A healthy, well-fed plant is generally more resistent to pests and diseases than a weak, under-nourished one.
- As the weather improves, many wildlife species begin their breeding cycles. Mammals such as foxes and badgers may be out of sight, giving birth to their young. Birds will be busy looking for nesting sites and building materials. They can be very resourceful, collecting dried grasses and leaves, twigs, tree bark, feathers, moss, wool and woodshavings. If you want to help them out, don’t be too tidy: leave little piles of debris around for them to rummage through. Watching them choose which materials to use can be great fun.
- Give hedges and dense shrubs a wide berth to avoid disturbing birds as they build and lay their first clutch of eggs. Some species, such as blackbirds, are more tolerant of humans at close quarters, but give them as much space as you can. It’s not too late to mount bird boxes – just ensure they’re situated where cats can’t reach them.
- Continue feeding birds with high energy seeds, soft fats and grated cheese but not peanuts and bread as these are too bulky for baby birds and may harm them. There are mixed views about how long one should continue feeding birds, but my feeling is that so long as you are consistent, it’s fine.
- Yellow flowers act as beacons for insects emerging from hibernation; that’s why there are so many in the spring garden. Celandines, daffodils, primroses, forsythia and later dandelions, Kerria, buttercups and marsh marigolds are a welcome sight for us all. There’s a degree of plant snobbery about yellow flowers that I don’t subscribe to. You may have noticed that I’m a bit of a fan.
- Now is the time to build a new pond or wetland area. You’ll need an open site and the ability to dig down to at least 80cm to make a pond deep enough to be healthy and sustainable. Pond building is a major project, deserving of its own post, but a hugely rewarding one. Water transforms a garden and encourages an extraordinary amount of fascinating wildlife.
- Frogspawn will be starting to appear in established ponds. Avoid disturbing it, but do take part in the age-old practice of engaging your children in the frogs’ unique lifecycle. It’s one of the things that got me really hooked on nature and gardening. Do it safely, making sure children are well supervised. TFG.
Categories: Bulbs, compost, Container gardening, daffodils, Flowers, Fruit and Veg, House Plants, How To, Perennials, Photography, Practical Advice, Seeds and Sowing, Trees and Shrubs, tulips, Weather