March Madness

Early Spring Tasks

By Debra Knapke

 Blustery winds, snow, wintercress setting bud, temperature changes that make you feel like you are on a rollercoaster … it’s March, and the time I look out into my garden and create a to-do list. I save the major clean-up of my garden for March. Stems and seedheads of perennials offer winter interest while providing protection to herbaceous crowns and food for wildlife. They also may be insect nurseries.

My list for this year:

1. weed-weed-weed:  bitter wintercress is beginning to bloom and must be removed. If you catch it before it buds, you can leave it in the garden, roots side up. Look for the early rosettes of garlic mustard. Separate the roots from the crown and you can leave this to compost in-place, too. Chickweed, which is an edible spring green, is bursting out, too. Dandelions are beginning to show. The plants in the garden will end up in salad. I don’t concern myself with the ones in the lawn.

1a. Remove invasive plants that you have planted or have shown up – uninvited – in your garden

garlic mustard resize

Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) — remove it in its rosette stage before it blooms.


bitter wintercress frosted 3-5-18resize

Even after being frosted several times, bitter wintercress (Barbarea vulgaris) keeps on blooming!

Ranunculus ficaria 3-5-18resize

This cute perennial is a thug in disguise. Lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) will spread by seed and root tubers in a very short time.

2. Cut down the stems from the herbaceous perennials. I only cut them down to 6-8”as native bees may use them for their bee nurseries. The blue mason bee is already flying and searching for tubes to lay her eggs in. Watch for eggs and egg cases and leave those stems standing.

fennel stems 3-5-18resize

Stems of fennel stay in the garden for now.

fennel stems pith drilled 3-5-18crop

Notice how the usually solid pith is drilled. There might be a resident inside.

3. Cut down last year’s grasses. Chop the leaves into 8-12” pieces and leave them in piles. In my garden I lay them in the “wild” area in the back for birds to use for nestbuilding. The leaves that are not used will breakdown and add to the nutrition in the soil.

4. Make sure that leaves left in the garden are not covering emerging crowns. Most plants will grow up through leaves, but snow may pack the leaves, especially oak leaves. This will trap moisture around the crown and cause crown rot.

5. If you mulched in the fall, fluff it. Mulch can flatten and cause an impermeable surface that blocks water and air movement into the soil. If you are thinking of mulching in March, chase that thought right out of your mind. That is a mid to late April task when the soil has warmed. In cool-spring years, I have delayed adding mulch until early May.

6. Edging the garden beds; especially good for the times when you should not be stepping on saturated soil and compacting it. February and the first week of March have been very rainy this year. In the low areas of my garden, edging and weeding  the perimeter of the bed is the only task I will be doing for the next week or so.

7. Check trees and shrubs for broken or dead limbs and remove them. Prune suckers and crossing branches. This is better done in the fall, but if you didn’t get to it, do it now. An exception to this is any maple species. I prune live wood on maples in the late summer to mid-fall to avoid causing sap flow from the wound.

8. Look for plants that are heaving out of the ground and press them back into the soil. A side note: the deer have been very active in my garden and while tiptoeing through several areas, they have uprooted plants and bulbs. Look for this type of animal damage and fix it.

9. Sit back, breathe, and enjoy the early bulbs and perennials that are emerging, but don’t be surprised if Mother Nature snows on your parade.


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