March in the Garden

My apologies for the late post. I went to Louisiana right at the beginning of the month (where it was warmer and drier than California), and then returned to enroll (is that the word?) my dad on hospice and then he passed away March 21. He was a good man, great gardener and teacher, a big influence on me.

And then there’s the rain. Our nursery, The Blue Oak, flooded twice and we still haven’t gotten it all cleaned up. Luckily, the plants are fine. Like everyone, I am looking forward to a warm sunny spring. The flowers have started without me. That’s more than okay.

But maybe most of the following To Do’s in March have been on hold until now…except the warm season non-native annual grasses and forbs, aka weeds, except when they are in the livestock pasture. Then they are a hedge against the high hay prices. There’s always two sides. And rainbows. Enjoy the rest of March!

Western wild strawberry Fragaria vesca

PLANTING: Spring is the second season of major planting. You can plant all varieties of trees, shrubs, perennials, ground covers and vines. In the edible garden, plant heat-lovers like cucumber, tomato, melon, beans, eggplant and squash towards the end of the month. You can also plant potato, radish, chives, greens, beets, and herbs of all types. Citrus, avocado, and other frost-sensitives should also be planted late in the month to avoid late-frost damage.

            When buying citrus, please be sure to buy from a reputable Tulare or Kings county nursery so we don’t spread the Asian citrus cyllid. That means saying “no” to the neighbor or family member who has an extra citrus tree for you, and that means not bringing citrus trees into the county from elsewhere in the State. There are regulations about movement of bulk quantities of citrus fruit to save the California citrus industry, much of which is in our counties. You can find out more from the CDFA website or read the University of California Pest Note at:

            Many plants, native and non, bloom profusely in March. If you need quick color, plant ageratum, alyssum, bachelor buttons, begonias, celosia, cleome, coleus, cosmos, duster miller, gomphrena, inpatients, lobelia, marigolds, nasturtiums, nicotiana, petunias, portulacas, salvias and verbena.  It is also the month to start planting summer blooming bulbs such as cannas, calla lily, crocosmia, dahlia, gladiolus, liatris, lilies, ranunculus, tuberose and zephranthes. Don’t forget to add beautiful long-lived shrubs and perennials like native penstemons and sages, buckwheat, bladderpod and bush verbena.

MAINTAINING:  Along with bursts of flowers and foliage, March also begins the major insect season. Hand picking large insects is easier on the garden and the ecology. Using traps like rolled up newspaper or boards is another way to catch and remove insect pests like snails, slugs, and earwigs.

            If you must use chemicals for slugs and snails, use baits containing iron phosphate, which is not toxic to children, wildlife, or pets. Baits containing metaldehyde are extremely toxic. Tolerate some plant damage, especially from caterpillars and especially on your ornamental (non-edible) plants. Think of them as the pretty butterflies and moths they will become.  Bugs are also a major food source for nesting and hatching birds and for other bugs, toads, lizards and small mammals.

            Start setting baits out now for Argentine and other non-native ants and rotate the chemical every three months. Eliminating ants will help control soft-bodied insects like aphids.

            Spittle bugs are occasionally an unsightly nuisance, but do little damage and don’t stay long. They look like little blobs of wet foam on foliage. They seem to prefer rosemary and sage. If you can’t stand it, a strong blast of water can dislodge them.

Water your new transplants well and keep them from completely drying out. Because of the abundant winter rain we received, many soils are saturated to deep levels, which is good news. Remember your new transplants need water where their roots are until they grow out. Let the top of the soil dry out a little in between waterings and then soak the rootball thoroughly. If your fall and winter-planted transplants show little top growth but otherwise look healthy, don’t fret. They are growing roots, which will help them withstand stress of the dry and hot months to come.

            March is also a good month to fertilize roses. Use a specialty fertilizer meant for roses and do two smaller feedings instead of one. You can also fertilize non-native perennials and established citrus trees that are emerging from dormancy. Your California native plants don’t need fertilizer, although you could give your acid-loving manzanita a weak dose of fertilizer labeled for camelias, azaleas and magnolias.

            Weed control is in high gear. Cool season grasses have seeds; warm season weeds are blooming. Whether you use mechanical, chemical or a mix of control methods, remember weeds are trying to protect the earth’s crust by reducing erosion. If you clear an area of weeds, what will replace these plants? Use rock, bark or living mulch (ground cover plants) to keep your soil on your property. When spraying herbicide, remember that many of your plants including roses and California native species are highly susceptible to damage from small amounts of drift, and you may not see that damage immediately. Follow label directions and protect desirable plants.

CONSERVING: While planting for spring, include at least one plant that increases the garden’s diversity and usefulness for pollinators and/or other wildlife. Matching a plant with your soil and climate (including water availability) ensures fewer pests and less maintenance. If you want to try milkweed for the Monarchs, search out the native varieties, such as “narrow leaf.”

Narrow Leaf Milkweed Asclepias fascicularis

            If you haven’t already done so, check your drip and sprinkler systems, cleaning filters, checking for leaks and make needed improvements. Get ready for summer. Make sure your system is as efficient as possible. You may consider upgrading to a “smart” controller that can better adjust to the weather and water needs of the garden. I’ve tried several of them now, and most of them are reliable, affordable, and easy to use with a smart phone app. You still should check your system periodically to make sure there are no leaks or other problems.          

            With all this work, it’s also important to remember to take time to enjoy the garden’s bounty. Don’t be afraid to leave the work for another day and just read a book in the sun or shade or watch the busy activity of your California garden in spring. For many gardens, this is their Glory season. Be sure and take time to celebrate the beauty you work hard, in partnership with plants and many creatures, to create!

Peyton Ellas

10 thoughts on “March in the Garden”

  1. I love your newsletter, Blessings and thanx.

    so sorry about your dad (((hugs))).
    I garden because of my dad (who passed in ’03).
    I feel close to him while playing in the dirt.


  2. Will Hutchison

    A few native plants that can put on a serious show and bloom for several months in our area are “fiddleneck” Amsinckia intermedia, an annual growing from about 8″ to about 20″ with intensely bright yellow/orange bloom stalks that curl at the end like the neck of a fiddle. Phacelia, ciliata and tanacetifolia,also annual both with flower stalks similar to fiddleneck but with numerous small flowers of light blue to midblue. These seem quite popular with bees when in bloom, to help attract them near your fruit trees. Of course California poppies can be spectacular with the rains coming at the right timing and amounts. These both reseed easily and generously, so you may want to consider the long term uses of sites you might plant them on. Seed iS easy to gather from dried plants in the wild, and neither are rare or or difficult to find in our area.

    Less common as a cultivated plant but growing and seeding well in medium to heavier soils, bulbs of the Brodeaia family especially laxa, with small but intensely blue flowers. There are some species of this family with yellow and white flowers, and many grow on long stems to compete with grasses. None of these are neat and tidy but they can put on quite a show in the right spring, and are grateful for a little spupplemental watering during growth and blooming.

    None of these are attractive after they dry up, but they can be raked up and removed, which will also help scatter seed.

    1. Christina Morris

      Phacelia is one of my favorites. This year, I am especially noticing the lupine on some of our local hillsides.

  3. Thank you, Peyton, for your garden wisdom. Like Shirley, I learned to garden from my dad. I wish you comfort in the days to come because of your loss.

  4. I expected you to write something about the rain and Springville. When I drive past your garden-spot it looks very muddy and full of water. However, you gave some very generous advice to everyone about gardening. Your father was a true gentleman and I know you will miss him. Hugs.

    1. Christina Morris

      It sure was muddy and ponding for awhile, but now it’s drying out and we have a lovely creek running through the nursery that hopefully will last into summer.

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