Lots to get ready in the March garden as spring rolls around

It was a year of strange rain. We had big storms alternating with long dry spells. This model is consistent with the predictions of climate modellers. We need to adapt gardening practices to allow plants to weather unexpected winter droughts. Without sufficient winter rains, plants will experience more stress in the spring and summer. Be ready.

Vegetable gardens and annual flower gardens

March kicks off the sowing season for vegetables, flowers and herbs.

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What seeds can you start now?

  • All summer vegetables like tomatoes, zucchini, peppers, eggplant, cucumbers, pumpkin, summer squash and okra. These seeds are best started indoors in containers.
  • Start basil seeds in containers indoors, but plant coriander seeds directly in the garden.
  • Start seeds of annual summer flowers including sunflowers, marigolds, zinnias, Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia) and cosmos, all of which are best to start indoors in containers.
  • Seeds of beets, carrots, turnips and radishes are best planted directly in the ground.

Cut cover crops at the root. Let the roots decompose in place. Compost the tops.

Plan to remove cool season crops at the end of harvest – broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi, lettuce, spinach, etc.

Once your beds are empty, prepare them for the next round of crops. Top them off with new soil (not planting soil or potting soil), compost, worm castings and organic plant fertilizer.

Test and repair irrigation.

Get or make strong plant supports. My favorites are the DIY cylinders that I make from sheets of concrete reinforcing mesh, bent on the short sides and secured in place with zip ties. This size cage can hold two tomato plants or four cucumber plants or a dozen bean or pea plants. Don’t bother with conical tomato cages. As the plants grow, they fall.

Keep harvesting and enjoy seasonal citrus fruits.

Fruit trees and shrubs

Deciduous fruit trees like peach, apple, fig, and plum should all be in bloom and leaf now.

To help ensure pollination (and therefore fruit), dedicate a nearby bed to plants that attract native and non-native bees, as well as other pollinators: rosemary, California lilac (Ceanothe), African basil, yarrow, native buckwheat, lavender, catnip (Nepeta) and others.

Have you finished spraying stone fruit, apple and pear trees before they start to flower and form leaves? Otherwise, it’s too late now. Wait for next winter.

Feed all stone fruit, apple and pear trees with a general organic fruit tree fertilizer. Water in the fertilizer, then mulch.

Feed citrus, avocado and other subtropical fruit trees with organic citrus and avocado food. Water in the fertilizer, then mulch.

Fig, pomegranate, pineapple, guava and loquat trees do not need fertilizer, but mulch them liberally.

Plant lesser-known, easy-to-grow, water-loving fruit plants

  • Surinamese cherry (Eugenia uniflora) is not a “true” cherry but rather a medium-sized evergreen shrub that produces cherry-sized pumpkin-shaped fruits with a hard pit in the center. The fruits ripen throughout the year, starting green, then turning yellow, then orange, then ripening to dark red. The fruits are eaten fresh; their flavor is sweet and slightly astringent. The plants thrive in full sun or morning sun, and with only periodic irrigation.
  • Ripe Cape Gooseberry (Peruvian physalis) the fruits look like golden tomatillos, but their flavor is sweet with a touch of acidity and very aromatic. These tomato relatives grow as upright evergreen shrubs that look like giant tomato plants, though more attractive. Ripe fruits are hidden in a brown paper envelope – also like the tomatillo. Grow in full sun and in poor, sandy or well-drained soil. Little water along the coast, further inland. No fertilizer, protect from frost. The fruits ripen at the end of summer. Eat them fresh or cooked.

Ornamental perennials, shrubs, vines and trees

South African bulbs are on display this month – species Gladiolus, starfish flower (Ferraria), bugle lily (Watsonia), and others bloom in full sun. Lily of the woods (Veltheimia bracteata) blooms best in shade.

Spring and summer blooming perennials like daylilies, sages, etc., are dead after their flowers wilt. Often deadheading stimulates the next set of flowers.

Keep planting California natives including Lemongrass, Oak Tree, Tecate Cypress (great scout plant), Black Sage, White Sage, Cleveland Sage, and Monkey Flower.

Reduce winter cold damage now. Plants will sprout new stems and leaves.

Check the wildflowers in the deserts and foothills. Track blooms on desertusa.com, the Theodore Payne Foundation Wildflower Hotline theodorepayne.org (choose “Learn” from the top navigation bar), and the California Department of Parks and Recreation Wildflower Bloom page at www.parks.ca.gov.

Before setting out to find wildflowers, find out what flowers bloom in the area you are visiting. You might see native verbenas, lotuses, native deer grass, native onions, fiddlenecks, native snapdragons and many more.

On the way for a hike in the chaparral? Watch for native bulbs, mainly mariposa lilies such as pink flowers Calochortus splendens, bright yellow with gold flecks Calochortus weedii, and white flowering Calochortus dunnii. Enjoy these bulbs in habitat. They are very demanding garden plants.

NEVER pick wildflowers from the wild, NEVER harvest cuttings, and NEVER harvest seed pods. These flowers form the seeds that ensure a new generation of plants next year and for years to come. When you remove flowers and/or seeds, you threaten the future of those generations of wildflowers. It’s illegal too.

Young married man Agave, Aeonium, Cordyline, Furcraeabromeliads and other rosette-shaped plants that form new leaves in the center, while old leaves at the bottom wilt and dry up.

Flush the centers of the bromeliad plants into the soil. Turn potted plants upside down to shake off water, then fill with fresh water. Repot potted plants whose soil level has fallen well below the rim. A local collector recommends a mixture of half a seed mixture, a quarter of coconut chunks or thick orchid bark, and a quarter of small lava or pumice or large perlite.

Start watering the plumeria when the leaves appear towards the end of the month.

Start fertilizing roses with a slow-release fertilizer this month.


Do not increase watering yet. The temperatures are still cool, the sun is still low in the sky and the days are still short enough to occasionally water all the ornamental plants.

When irrigating, always run the irrigation for the same number of minutes – just much less often in colder months than in warmer months.

Prepare your watering for spring. Convert overhead spray systems and outdated drip irrigation to in-line drip. Remember to convert entire areas at once, as different types of irrigation operate at different pressures.

Run each irrigation zone and scan the lines for leaks, drips, disconnected lines, etc. They are easier to fix now, as the plants are just beginning their spring growth spurt.


Refresh your garden mulch. The goal is a 3 to 4 inch layer over the entire garden except a patch of bare soil, 5 or 10 square feet, for native ground-dwelling bees. They are great pollinators and very rarely sting humans.

Weeds, weeds, weeds, weeds, weeds. Pull weeds by the roots or cut the top growth with a hoe. Do it assoon as as you notice the leaves. DO NOT allow weeds to bloom. These flowers contain the seeds for next year’s weed crop.

Sterman is a water garden designer and writer and the host of “A Growing Passion” on KPBS television. For more information, visit growingpassion.com and waterwisegardener.com.