January may be named after Janus, the god of two faces, looking forward and backward, but March seems the month more suited to this mantle: in March, we never quite know if we’ll be seeing the last month of winter or the first month of spring.
But gardeners don’t have the luxury of waiting to see which face will greet us. It’s time to get busy! We asked Hudson Valley experts who have worked in the area for decades to share their best tips for how to get all up in your gardens in this unpredictable—but important —month of planning, prepping and, sometimes, pushing it (spring, that is).
Liz Elkin of Bloom Fine Gardening in New Paltz recommends a spring ritual that makes the most of the barren season: “March is a really good time to walk around and just observe your yard: you can see woody plants in their bare form, view branches growing in the wrong direction, and note that you need to prune them; drainage issues are obvious at a time you’re having a lot of snow melt and you can see where water is pooling and not draining. All of this becomes really clear when you’re in the quiet of winter or early spring.”
The “muddy season” is a good time to consider all your hardscaping, says Carol Washington of Serenity Gardens in Saugerties. “I look at the pathways— are they supporting you? Can you walk around your yard without getting all muddy? Sometimes people have rocks edging the beds, and those can heave over the winter, and so straightening up those edges is important.” Inspect the framework of your garden and ensure it’s in order.
“Consider having a professional consultation, especially if you’ve recently moved into a house that has plantings that you don’t understand or you’re a gardening novice,” says Victoria Coyne of Victoria Gardens plant nursery and garden center in Rosendale. “Having somebody come and walk through the garden with you who knows what they’re looking at will save you tons of time and money and mistakes.”
Scott Zimmer, from Zimmer Gardens in Kingston, says, “It’s also a really good time to do the things that you won’t want to do once the plants start growing, like thinking about where you want to put in pavers or pea gravel or stepping stones or garden lighting, or if you want to stain your deck or put up a fence—things like that feel like you’re working in the garden, but you’re not actually planting. And if the ground is soft enough, it’s a good time to do any type of irrigation that’s going to remain in the garden. It’s all about making it part of the garden and doing it before you’ll be disturbing foliage.”
“In the early spring you have to think about your property and critters. You need to figure out what defense mechanisms you’re going to need,” says Zimmer, “whether you’re looking at deer, groundhogs, or moles and voles. The deer in particular are a real issue—many, many professionals believe there’s no longer such a thing as deer-resistant plants.”
“During late winter and early spring is when I get out there and do my fall cleanup,” says Elkin, who lets leaves lie on her property (except on walking paths, where they’d be slippery), “so that pollinators can have their overwintering habitat. I’m gentle about cleanup: a little light raking and that’s it.” This cleanup helps the soil to dry out and warm up more quickly. “I also really like that I’m getting in there ahead of a lot of my bulbs, because once they come up they’re hard to navigate around and it really takes so much more time.”
Catherine Kaczor, marketing manager at Hudson Valley Seed Company (HVSC) says if you used leaf litter as a natural overwintering mulch in your beds, now’s the time to “till the soil by hand and get all the debris out. Nothing ever fully composts over the winter, so pull out the fresh leaves and till in the decomposed ones.”
“Personally, I do a lot of tree pruning, February into March,” says Washington. “But you want to make sure you have clean, sharp tools,” so you can get good cuts and not pass on any diseases.
What to prune? “A general rule of thumb is: if it flowers in the spring, you do not touch it in the winter,” says Elkin. The list of shrubs that flower in the fall, which you prune now, includes: buddleia (butterfly bush), beautyberry, panicle and Annabelle hydrangea (not the big-leaf!), clethra (summersweet), and vitex. “And Google is a gardener’s best friend,” says Coyne. “If you’re not sure, just look it up.”
“If we’re on a job site and we know we’re not coming back for a month, and there’s some giant Siberian iris that wants to eat the world, we will dig it up then and put a smaller piece back in,” says Coyne. “I always say even when you’re doing those divisions or transplants at the so-called wrong moment, do it quick and quiet: decide where it’s going, dig that hole, prep it, then go get that plant, don’t talk when you’re moving it, put it into its hole, tell it how happy it’s going to be there, give it a big drink of water, and don’t forget you moved it. If we get a dry period— and the way weather patterns are so bizarre these days sometimes we’re dry even in April—you do you want to remember your transplants will need a little extra help to get through the season.” Scott Zimmer agrees: “Even if they’re still a little frosty, you can divide your perennials now, specifically the decorative grasses that are very popular; they like to be moved in the early spring.”
“It’s not great to be doing much to your soil right now,” says Elkin. “I’ve been studying a lot in recent years and have learned natural soil structure means everything. Going through and tilling the beds until they’re fluffy feels so good, but when the soil is wet it’s so incredibly damaging—it can take a long time for all those microorganisms to rebound [from the agitation]. What I’ve been moving toward is covering with compost and then planting into that.”
At HVSC, “we start seedlings for our early-summer seedling sale now,” says Kaczor, “and we start direct sowing usually in late February and early March: arugula, spring raab, certain kinds of broccoli, parsley, early onions, leeks, scallions, all of the alliums. Evergreen scallions are fun to have, that’s one of our favorite art packs.” Artichokes, celery, celeriac, she continues. “There’s so much.” And in mid-March “you can start thinking about peas, snap peas, and shelling peas, once the soil is workable. And be really intentional when planting vining plants so they have enough space.” Radishes and beets can also go in, and Kaczor recommends adding boron to the soil to help the beets.
Washington says now is an excellent time to think about what worked last year—and what didn’t. “Also think about what you have too much of. I have a lot of bee balm, so I start to dig some up out of my garden to give to friends and neighbors. It makes room for something new.” Or do a plant swap with your friends and neighbors, suggests Zimmer, as a fun way to get some new plants into your garden.
“If you’re anxious to get out there and you want to do something before the weather warms up, plant things in containers and keep them inside,” says Zimmer. “And then later you can put the whole container right in your garden bed. I’m a big, big container enthusiast. It’s like having plants on wheels.”
Every expert said this: if you know what plants and seeds you want, order them early. If you know you’ll need a landscaper, call now. “If you wait until May or June, you may have to wait until next year,” says Washington. She adds, “Start from the top down instead of the bottom up when planning your garden. What are the bigger, foundational things you want in your garden? It’s important to get those in first,” and order them early.
The last piece of advice is the hardest: “Be practical,” says Washington. “Don’t take on more than you can maintain. That’s a huge one. People have all these grand ideas for the garden and then they forget that that they have to take care of it.” So, push it this March, but maybe not too much.