March should yield at least a few of those classic spring days when the sun is out, the air temperature is comparatively balmy and everything seems right with the world. These are the days on which it’s really good to be gardening and taking stock of what’s going on in your own little plot. Even the smallest garden should have bulbs in abundance and, if it hasn’t, then make a note so that you can put it right come bulb planting time (in only six months time!).
Warmer temperatures and longer days conspire to encourage weed growth so this is the first month in which they are likely to need controlling. Annihilating annual and perennial weeds now, while they are still small, will save a lot of time throughout the rest of the year. Now they are in active growth you could use a glyphosate weed-killer but, as their leaf area is relatively small, careful hand weeding, hoeing or physical control should suffice. Best to keep the ‘big guns’ back until you really need them, when the weeds are getting out of control or you are running out of time.
Using chemical control in the garden will lose you a few green ‘Brownie’ points so you might want to earn some back. Starting a compost heap should gain you a few and provides an incentive to dig up annual weeds to add to the heap. If you are fortunate enough to have your own chickens, more and more people seem to these days, then nitrogen rich chicken poo is a great compost accelerator so that even card, paper and woody material will decompose in the heap.
Anyway, what else needs doing in March? Complete mulching and cutting back tasks in beds and borders. Lift and divide herbaceous perennials as you go along and generally chuck some ‘fish, blood and bone’ fertiliser about. Gently forking the soil between plants is very pleasing and finishes the bed nicely. Remember to relieve compaction, in areas where you have trodden, by deeper forking to aerate the soil and encourage healthy root growth
Shrubs grown for their winter stems should be ‘stooled’ (cut down to the base) to force them to produce new stems this growing season because it is the new growth which has the most vivid winter colour. Young plants should not be treated quite so brutally as they need to be a few years old before they have the resilience to bounce back from being cut to the ground. A generous feed, with a general purpose fertiliser, is especially useful to both establishing plants and those which have just been stooled.
It’s getting a bit late to plant bare-rooted plants but you should get away with it if you are fastidious with your watering and take extra care to plant them well, mulching generously. Most woody and shrubby plants can be planted bare-root, during winter dormancy, and it is practically de rigeur for roses which can be ordered from specialist rose growers and dispatched via the post. On the subject of roses, pruning should be completed this month, before applying fertiliser and a good dollop of well rotted manure at the base of each plant.
It’s particularly cheerful to fill every square inch of the garden with summer flowers. Hardy annuals are one of the cheapest and easiest ways of doing this and they can be sown as early as March if the weather starts to warm up. As long as your flower beds are relatively weed-free then sowing the seeds in situ couldn’t be easier. If you are worried that you’ll not recognise weed seedlings from your chosen hardy annuals then sowing in rows, just inches apart, means that they will be obvious once they start to grow. The regimented lines completely disappear once the annuals fill out and jostle for position.
If conditions take a turn for the worst, or there is a danger of birds and other wildlife disturbing the seed-bed, then covering it with horticultural fleece protects the seedlings until they are out of danger. Some favourite, ‘cottagey’, hardy annuals include; pot marigolds (not the exotic ‘African’ or ‘French’ sorts), candytuft (Iberis), Nemophila and ‘Love-in-a-Mist’ (Nigella).
If you are growing your own tender annuals, the sort that are generally available later as ‘bedding plants’, you will need somewhere heated and light. In a cold greenhouse the extra heat may be supplied with an electrically heated propagator. If you have sufficient space, and a nicely centrally heated home, then a warm windowsill may do and it’s much easier to keep an eye on germination when the seed trays are where you’ll see them everyday.
Some experimentation is required as a sunny windowsill may end up ‘cooking’ your seedlings while a north facing spot may never get warm enough for ‘exotic’ seeds which require a steady 65-75ºF to germinate. There is a danger that the seedlings will become etiolated, stretched, as they strain towards the light coming in from just one direction. Turning the pots on a regular basis helps or, if you are handy with such things, rigging up some sort of light reflecting screen, on the unlit side, should prevent the emerging plants from leaning towards the light.
All this talk of exotic bedding and high temperatures is a little premature compared to the actual weather this month. It’ll still feel like winter some days and overnight frosts can literally freeze the emerging garden in its tracks. This is no bad thing as anything that buys the gardener a little more time, before the mad roller-coaster rush of full-blown spring, is a blessing. Enjoy the flowering bulbs, early blossom and rebirth of the garden while there’s still time to stand and stare.