By Stella Veraduccia
You’re deep into the winter blahs, staring gloomily out the window at a dull, dormant landscape. You long for some green and flowering loveliness… in fact, you might even be tempted to push things along a bit. Our region is in USDA Hardiness Zone 7, where the date of last frost is mid- to late April. While it’s still too early to put in tender plants, there are some things you can do now to awaken both yourself and your garden.
1 – Plan: Whether you have acres to plant or just a small patch, March is an ideal time to determine what you want to do in your garden this year. Start by taking a walk around the yard and making note of what needs to be done. Review catalogs, magazines and websites to get ideas and decide what’s appropriate for your space. Look at your calendar and create a gardening timetable for when to do what. If you’re thinking about a major installation, now’s the time to consult with a landscape designer to draw up a plan and budget … and maybe get a second opinion or two.
2 – Clean up: Not fun, but necessary. If you didn’t do this last fall before putting the garden to bed, you should wash out flower pots and planters, and clean, sharpen, and oil your tools. Check hoses for leaks, and test-drive the lawn mower. Clear away fallen twigs, dead leaves, and other debris from garden beds, and run a rake through the lawn to remove thatch and enhance aeration. This is also a good time to prune certain trees and shrubs; those that flower in summer – like butterfly bush, crape myrtle, barberry, and most roses – should be pruned on a mild day in February or early March, as should fruit trees like apple, pear, peach and plum. (Pruning is a tricky business but Better Homes and Gardens has a great guide called “What to Prune When” on bhg.com.) In any case, it’s always good to remove any obviously dead or damaged branches, leaves, and buds.
3 – Start seeds indoors: Unlike cleaning up, this is not necessary but great fun. You could wait and purchase plants and seedlings, but you’ll save money and gain enormous satisfaction from starting your own seeds. There are kits available, containing seed-starting soil and biodegradable pots that can be planted in the ground when warm enough, but you can also use items you have on hand: egg cartons, milk containers, etc., all fully cleaned, make excellent seed trays. Use a sterile seed-starting mix, thoroughly moistened and packed into the containers, and follow instructions on the seed packets regarding depth and spacing of the seeds. They’ll need good drainage, moisture, and lots of light to germinate; once the leaves sprout, rotate the trays every few days so the shoots won’t lean toward one direction. As the seedlings fill out, thin and transplant them to larger pots to continue strengthening their roots. When they’re a few inches tall and sturdy, acclimate them to the outdoors gradually through a process called “hardening off” – placing them in a protected area outside, away from wind and direct sunlight, for a few hours every day and bringing them inside at night for two weeks, increasing the outdoor time a little every day. For additional guidance, see the excellent seed-starting guide on gardeners.com.
4 – Put cold-hardy plants in containers: Happily, if you absolutely can’t wait, there are hardy annuals and perennials that can be planted in containers now and left outdoors; if a deep freeze is forecast, you can cover them or pull them inside. Who doesn’t love seeing sweet pansies, violets, and primroses smiling up through the snow? These can be accompanied by Virginia bluebells, bleeding hearts, several types of daisies, and hellebores in charming plantings in all kinds of pots. And don’t forget the edible options: collards, lettuces, cabbages, radishes, kale, peas, and spinach all actually do better in cool weather.
About the Author
Stella Veraduccia is the pen name of a popular writer based in Northern Virginia. In past lives she was an English teacher, writer and editor, nonprofit executive, and the founder of a fictitious organization called The International Sisterhood of Eccentric Aunties.