Sometime in March, spring arrives. Daffodils bloom, birds nest, the earth reeks of fecundity. So let’s all go out and buy flats and flats of blooming annual flowers (petunias, periwinkle, portulaca, potato vine) and plant them NOW!
After all, every big-box store in Nashville is sending them out by the jillions. They must know what they’re doing, right? Wrong.
Do you realize that when you buy annual flowers in March, the garden center employees laugh at you behind your back? Because they all know that winter isn’t through with us yet. They know those plants will freezeor drown. And you will become their favorite kind of customer: the kind who buys stuff twice.
The average last date of frost in Nashville, according to Bob Ary of the Agricultural Extension Service, is April 15. After that date, we still have a 5-percent chance of a killing frost. We have had frost as late as early May.
Old-lady gardeners such as myself frequently insist annuals should be set out at Mother’s Daywhich is May 13 this year. Soil is warming nicely by then. I don’t care how lovely the weather is in March. Patience is a virtue for the gardener. Exercise it.
Before true spring arrives, we have mud. We call the cold-temperature jolts Blackberry Winter or Dogwood Winter. But really, they just result in mud.
When I first began gardening in Nashville, not only did Opryland still exist, it was brand-new. The year the theme park was built, it rained. Opryland flooded, my yard flooded, everything flooded. It rained every single day, all day. If I remember rightand most likely I don’tthat was March. Or maybe April. Regardless, it was High Mud Season.
When I was a child, my Great Aunt Alma, a gardener of considerable renown, always talked about when it was Too Wet to Plow. She said it all the time, and thank the Lord, I remembered it. After the mud was over, I went out into the yard and made my first real garden. And it worked. After that, the addiction swallowed my life. So not only must you wait for warm, you must wait for dry.
Working wet soil turns it into a material suitable for the construction of buildings, not for the planting of living things. Working wet soil causes soil compaction: It smushes all the air out. Squashed-down dirt with no air in it probably causes the death of more plants each year than parking-lot construction.
This, folks, is the single most important reason you are not ever supposed to park in your yard. Don’t walk on wet dirt. Don’t even dig in wet dirt.
So what can you do? It feels like spring. It smells like spring. Your planting hormones are doing the full-tilt boogie.
Wait until it hasn’t rained for a day or two. Stab your shovel in the ground. If it comes out with a chunk of dirt stuck to it, the ground is too wet. Or pick up some dirt in your hand, squeeze it lightly, then open your hand and poke the dirt with your finger. If it falls apart, the dirt is ready.
You can plant shrubs now if you need them. It’s a great time to buy and plant early-spring-flowering shrubs. If you buy in bloom, you can actually see what the flower looks like. If you’ve fallen behind and didn’t plant trees last fall, do it now. Try yoshino cherry, Cherokee princess dogwood, sugar tyme crabapple, Carolina silverbell, Washington hawthorne, or serviceberry.
My own personal favorite for planting now is perennials. Try candytuft, creeping phlox, butterfly weed, blackberry lily, pinks, snakeroot, bleeding heart, stinking helleborus, cardinal flower, bee balm, and spotted dead nettle. Now is the time. Plant these plants. You’ll be so glad you did.
Here are some appropriate tasks for March:
1. Clean up your perennial bed. Cut back ornamental grasses hard, trim lavender, thyme, germander, ginger, and creeping phlox. Clean up helleborus when they finish blooming. Rake them out, then apply a good organic flower food, and mulch lightly with rotted leaves or shredded hardwood. (Incidentally, monkey grass is a perennial too. Cut the foliage back hard. If you have a large strand, jack the lawnmower as high as it will go and mow it.)
2. Prune summer flowering shrubs. Dwarf spirealimemound, goldmound, Anthony waterer, etc.should be cut to less than 1 foot. Crepe myrtle can be cleaned of winter damage and shaped. But a word of caution: Do not chop the top off so it looks like broccoli. This is not attractive.
3. Call your local Agricultural Extension Office and find out all you need to know about spray for fruit trees if you are determined to grow fruit. Then start spraying immediately.
4. Good grass is a full time hobby. Mow, fertilize, edge, and weed!
5. Plant frost-hardy vegetables in the gardensweet peas and onions, lettuce and broccoli.
And last, a public service announcement: Cheekwood and Warner Parks have conspired to educate us. They know a lot; we know little. They will teach; we should listen. On Saturday, March 17, they are hosting a workshop, titled “Landscaping With Native Plants.” This will include high-end garden tours. Call 352-6299 to register.
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