March Tests Gardeners’ Patience
We used to call it the “fever,” as in cabin fever. Not that we were stuck indoors. (When are we ever stuck in doors?) But that grand desire — the fever — to get to the season of whatever we craved doing — ski season, high country backpacking, lake swimming, planting seed — would obsess us during this between month when winter hasn’t yet left and spring hasn’t yet arrived.
In March, we suffer garden fever. The seed catalogs have been around for a month or more and most of the seeds are in hand. In large portions of the country, the weather teases us. A few warm and dry days go by, snow melts, soil starts to dry. We think this is it, this is the year we get a huge jump on the season and once the peas are in we’ll stick in all kinds of seed: lettuce and other greens, turnips, why not take a chance with the squash? Maybe this is the year that we don’t have a killing frost once spring has sprung. Maybe we should take advantage?
Don’t kid yourself. Gardeners know the feeling, a temptation as strong as Eve’s for apples. But March is the time for patience. Unless you live in the deep south, you know there’s a good chance you’ll have a stiff frost sometime in April. Other places, often at high elevation, might have frosts into June. Why, I took advantage of a streak of good early-May weather once in Bozeman, MT to plant only to have what came up buried by a June ice -and-snow storm. Surprisingly, most of my young plants, despite the leaf-stripping set back, survived.
But those cold night temperatures aren’t good for germination even if it only gets near freezing. And working in the garden before the soil has given up a good part of its seasonal moisture means compacting it in a way your plants won’t like later on. Patience is the watch word.
And starting seeds indoors might mean some patience as well in many growing zones. Waiting until April (or a couple weeks later if you’re in zone 4) to start your tomato seed is good practice. You want your seedlings feeling a burst of energy and growth when you put them in the ground in May or June. You don’t want them lazy and leggy after being held indoors in their starting pot too long. Sure, if you have things that can be set out early — cabbage, kohlrabi, broccoli, by all means get them going. But you don’t want your starts to get comfortable in their container-ed surroundings. You want them ready for bigger things.
How do you come by this patience when there’s a string of nice days and the soil starts to look good? You can try busying yourself with the small chores that are possible: cleaning debris from flower beds, adding compost around the first bulb flowers that show, cutting back canes of berry bushes. Try sowing a cover crop that you’ll turn back into the soil within six weeks or so. If you really can’t stand it, plant a row of peas or spinach. Both tolerate cool temperatures in their quest to germinate. You might just get lucky. But you’re testing the odds. Who’s got the fever? And how are you coping with it?