In the Garden:
Upper South
March, 2004
Regional Report

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Amid the spring gardening season, take time to enjoy the many flowers coming into bloom, such as these crocuses.

March Madness

In addition to March Madness, there's April Madness and May Madness for the inveterate gardener, even if not for the basketball fan. Actually, this year the madness started in February, with the weather warm and dry enough to plant the early spring vegetables under row covers. Mostly, though, it is the months of March, April, and May that make up the gardener's key quarter. For it's during this time that we are most active cleaning up the garden, preparing soil, planting, weeding, mulching, and getting garden supplies and tools organized. Do these three months right, and the rest is almost pure gravy.

Garden Clean-Up
Although some garden clean-up is done in the fall, my tendency is to leave much of it until late winter. I particularly like to leave faded flower stalks that provide winter interest, such as on the sedums and ornamental grasses. The dry tops also provide some winter protection. Large clumps of ornamental grasses are most easily cut back with a chain saw around the end of March. Liriope beds and edgings should also be cut back in March to get rid of the raggedy leaves and make room for new growth.

The biggest challenge at this time of year is deciding when it's safe to begin exposing new growth of perennials to potentially cold weather. A gradual process is usually best, that is, removing dead tops but leaving a light covering of mulch, such as coarse leaves, for a few weeks longer. The bottom line is that there is no hard-and-fast recommendation for the best time to do this. Over time, you'll get a feel for which plants can tolerate various amounts of exposure.

Preparing the Soil
I had an interesting reminder of the importance of soil preparation this year. Two years ago, I developed a new vegetable garden area composed of 4-foot-wide beds. Although I knew the soil was inherently good, I still added organic matter, fertilizer, and lime. Because of personal difficulties last year, the area basically grew an outstanding crop of weeds. In February the 8-foot-tall dead weeds were removed. Before firing up the tiller, I dug around in the soil. It was still loose and friable. All I needed to do was dig out clumps of perennial weeds and give the soil a light turning with a trowel.

Another bottom line: There is no single thing a gardener can do that is more important than taking the time to prepare soil well. That means testing the soil, digging deeply, and incorporating plenty of amendments -- all before planting, rather than as an afterthought. Add a 3-inch layer of organic, hardwood mulch to ornamental beds, and in no time that once-poor soil will be filled with that signpost of good soil: earthworms.

Planting
Bareroot dormant plants are best planted while the weather is still cool and before they break dormany. Container-grown plants can be planted anytime the soil can be worked. Wait until after the last frost date for planting tender annuals.

Weeding and Mulching
Cool-season weeds are already growing prolifically. Get them out of your garden areas now, roots and all; don't just pull the tops off. Spread a fresh layer of mulch around trees and shrubs now, but wait until the soil warms before putting it around perennials and annuals. Although many people like the appearance of cypress bark mulch, it is expensive, and the cypress population is being overcut. Composted hardwood bark mulch not only looks good, it increases soil fertility and friability.

Supplies and Tools
Use a bad-weather day to check your supplies, and order, buy, or repair. Then, when the weather is good, you'll be all set to go.

Finally ... Spring isn't all work and no play. Listen to the songbirds, peepers, and frogs; pick bouquets of daffodils; and lift up your head to let the sun warm your face.


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