Wednesday, March 2, 2011

March Preparations

Raspberry foliage emerging
As the days get longer and the buds begin to swell, we gardeners start to get a little itchy.  Time to get to work on something... anything... in the garden.  But when the weather is not cooperating, what to do?

First I will point out a few things to avoid in the wet and windy weather we are having this week, as March comes storming in.  One of the first things we are tempted to do is mow the lawn.  Especially when it starts to look a little shaggy.  While it's best to catch the growth before it gets too long and you end up mowing several inches at once, one of the worst things you can do for a lawn is plop your 200 lbs of mower on those little skinny wheels onto sodden soil.

Soil compaction is one of the enemies of growing healthy plants, and this includes grass plants.  The more you run around on that saturated ground with a heavy mower, you are compacting the soil particles-- which in more exact terms, means you are removing all-important "pore space."  Pore space is comprised of thousands of tiny voids which allow for passage of air, water and nutrients, and penetration of roots.  Aerating your lawn doesn't even cure this problem; it remains compacted between the new holes.  Let the lawn dry out before you mow, and it will respond with better absorption of nutrients, water and therefore healthy growth.

Another thing to avoid, for the same reason, is tilling wet soil.  While it's tempting to haul out the rototiller on the one dry day, the soil around here usually stays wet for a while.  Additionally if you receive heavy rainfall in the days following your handiwork, it will merely turn to mud.  And more compaction.  Get the idea?

Moving on to what we should do in preparation for what will surely be a banner year (one can dream), here's a few ideas from the list that I've been doing in my own and others' landscapes and veg garden:

Empty out the composter or dig out the bottom of the old pile to remove the beautiful finished material.  Be sure to protect it from heavy rain while you work, and store it somewhere dry like in a trash barrel with lid.  Then it will be ready to use in your garden beds and containers as needed, and the composter will be ready for the next season of trimmings.

Start seedlings for cole crops, also known as brassicas, such as broccoli, kale, cabbage, cauliflower.  They germinate well in cool temps and will thrive when you transplant them in a few weeks to their outside bed.  Also any salad greens, or Asian greens, will happily germinate in the cooler spring weather.  Start warm-weather plants like tomatoes and peppers, on bottom heat.  All of these are ideally started under lights or a sunny window, then raised to the stage of transplanting. Seed catalogs are great resources for more exact timing and procedures.

Cut back any of last year's growth on most herbaceous perennials if you haven't already done so.  If you cut back ornamental grasses, watch for any early growth that's emerging.  Ferns cut all the way back in early March will allow the new fiddleheads to emerge untouched, for beautiful fresh foliage after a couple weeks.

Plant peas outside in a spot that can support a trellis for climbers; otherwise you can try your hand at 'bush-type' peas.  I always have more luck with climbers, and higher yield.  These include sugar-pod and shelling types. Other than tomatoes, I think garden peas are one of the best reasons for growing your own veg.
It's a little late for dormant sprays on fruit trees, these should have been completed in February.  If you wish to enjoy indoor blooms, now is a good time to trim a few small branches to bring inside.

If you haven't already finished ordering seeds, do it now.  There are still many deals available for early ordering in March.  Also check your local garden center for seed potatoes and onion sets, if you didn't order them by mail.  Onion sets will give you a big head-start on growing onions rather than starting from seed, and your local nursery will order the appropriate varieties for your area.  For mail order, my favorite seed catalogs are Johnny's, Territorial and Seeds of Change.

Side-dress hungry plants with complete fertilizer or compost (I prefer well composted chicken manure); this includes plants like raspberries, asparagus, rhubarb, artichokes.  Also consider top-dressing your lawn with a thin layer of compost instead of high-nitrogen fertilizer.  It should be very fine with no woody pieces.

Clean up storm debris from winter/spring wind events.  There are inevitably plenty of needles, small branches and leaves that should be raked up and composted.  Raking also just makes things look tidy and gives the gardener a warm feeling of satisfaction.

Finish planning and/or construction of any cold frames, raised beds, cloches or other structures you are planning to use this spring. Once your starts get going you will be surprised how soon these are needed!

Locate sources for potting and garden soil, compost, fertilizer that meets your needs and sensibility.  I prefer and recommend organic materials, which can be harder to find and expensive.  Spend a little time now talking to others who use similar methods to yours, call the extension office, and find the best places to buy.  In NW Oregon, I like the deals at Concentrates Inc.

Tune, clean and sharpen garden tools, including power equipment. Frustrating beyond measure when you need a tool to work and it doesn't... trust me, when you need it to work, the small-engine shop will have a backlog. Do it now!

Control weeds (I mostly use a sharp hoe at this point) before they get too large, and set seed. You will save a lot of work later. Our favorite tool for this is a De Van Koek (Dutch) diamond hoe, which is now the DeWit diamond hoe. To this same end, refresh any mulched or bark areas toward the middle of March so you don't lose it all to heavy rain and wind. The rock yard should have new supplies by then.

Control moles as you see fit; some folks use sound-devices, some use poison or traps. My experience and that of my organic farmer friends is that traps are most effective, but require daily monitoring and a strong stomach.  I don't care to use poison for many reasons, not the least of which is non-target animals getting hold of it.  Sound devices (I have used many kinds) don't often work. You may have a different outcome. My best luck has been with the non-toxic, castor-oil based repellent products, especially those in a liquid hose-end application which soaks the soil. Be aware they don't kill, but move the critters somewhere else.

Slugs and deer are a challenge in most western Oregon gardens; now is the time to bait (I use the less-toxic iron phosphate kind) for slugs or use some form of control. I used to try beer traps, copper bands, etc. It just depends on your site and how many there are!

If you have a large defined garden to protect from deer, get some fencing up-- not the cheap kind but the 7' tall, strong-as-metal kind. This stuff lasts for years-- ours is over 10 (like new). We had deer knock down our posts one time running into it, the fencing held. If you want to keep out deer it has to be at least 7' tall, they jump. For repellents, I've had good reports of this one and I started using another last year that worked great and smelled a lot better, made from rosemary & mint oil. Might try making it myself. Repellents are helpful where you can't install a fence, or don't like the look of one, like an ornamental landscape.

Finally, if you are wanting a handy guide for western Oregon, check the website of Oregon State University extension, where they provide a handy month-by-month garden calendar. You can click on a printer-friendly PDF for each month and insert that into your garden calendar as a guide throughout the year.


  1. It is so hard to resist that urge to get out and till the garden right now...but I do take one look at that soggy soil and just have to calm myself!

  2. I am 'itching' to get out into the garden ... so much to do. But the recent downpours prevent me making a start. Soon ...

  3. I did not read very far down on your post to realize you are a professional too. You had picked my post for Green Apples, but I also have another blog, Garden Walk Garden Talk. That is the one where I show some of my work. My degrees are in architecture not horticulture like you, but I am a Master Gardener also. It was good to read a well written post.

  4. Your great advice for gardeners is true anywhere even the east coast as we slowly lose the grip of winter...males my list even longer now :)