Ground rules and tools for March

March 4, 2004
by Jerome Janak

Master Gardener Intern

Transplants such as tomato, pepper and eggplants can be planted in the garden at this time.  Cucumber
and squash transplants may also be planted in order to provide earlier picking than if planted from seed.
Cucumber plants are shown planted next to a trellis in order to conserve space and allow for easier
harvesting.

Photo by Jerome Janak, Victoria County Master Gardener Intern.


By the time this article is published, the average last freeze date for our area will have passed, and it is, therefore, time to plant the spring vegetable garden.

The average last freeze date for Victoria is Feb. 15 and, according to a KAVU Channel 25 meteorologist, the latest freeze ever recorded at the Victoria weather station occurred on March 31, 1957.

It is wise practice for the ground temperature in this area to be within the 65 to 85 degree germination soil temperature range generally required by the vegetable crops recommended for planting in the spring garden. In fact, in checking my garden's dark loam soil temperature on the afternoon of Feb. 22, it already showed planting depth temperatures in the lower 70s.

Therefore, the major emphasis of this week's article will be on the vegetable garden, although I will first offer some ground rules and tools applicable to other yard and garden areas for this month.

Remember that many trees and shrubs are damaged or killed each year by the careless application of weed killers, including those found in fertilizer and weed killing mixes. Always read and follow label directions very carefully. Weeds in a lawn usually indicate a poor lawn-management program and can usually be crowded out in a healthy turf.

It is time to divide existing clumps of fall-blooming perennials, such as chrysanthemums, autumn asters, Mexican marigold mint, and physostegia (obedient plant). Separate the clumps into individual plants, and set them 8 to 10 inches apart in groupings of five or more. Be sure to prepare the bed area well by spading in 3 to 5 inches of organic material into the top 8 to 10 inches of soil. For long lasting fertility, add 3 to 5 pounds of cottonseed meal or slow-release fertilizer per 100 square feet of bed area.

Select and order caladium tubers as well as geranium and coleus plants for April and early May planting. Do not plant caladiums until soil temperature reaches 70 degrees F. For early color in the landscape, try some of the following annuals as transplants: ageratums, cockscombs, fibrous rooted begonias, coreopsis, cosmos, cleomes, marigolds, nasturtiums, petunias, phlox, portulacas, salvias, sweet alyssums, sunflowers, and zinnias. Start hanging baskets of petunias, ferns and others for another dimension in landscape color.

As camellia and azalea plants finish blooming, fertilize them with 3 pounds of azalea-camellia fertilizer per 100 square feet of bed area. Check mulch and add where needed. Consider using pine needles, pine bark, or other similar organic materials. Remember when starting and maintaining these varieties that soil acidity is a key factor. A good pH range is 5 to 6. Avoid locating next to concrete walls and walks.

Freeze-damaged beds of Asiatic jasmine ground cover should be sheared back just as new growth starts to encourage new growth from the base. Also, pruning of evergreens and summer flowering trees and shrubs should be completed in early March. Prune spring-flowering trees and shrubs as soon as they finish blooming.

Beware of closeout sales on bare-root trees and shrubs. The chance of survival is rather low on bare-root plants this late in the season. Your best bet at this time of year is to depend on container-grown or balled-and-burlapped plants for landscape use.

As mentioned earlier, planting of the home garden for this area should now begin in earnest. For the spring garden, delaying planting too long can run into yield and maturity problems due to the onset of higher temperatures as late spring and summer approaches. Besides, the hot weather can become too physically uncomfortable, therefore lessening the pleasure of working in the garden.

My experience in gardening has shown that improved and longer production will generally occur when the spring vegetable garden is planted as early as weather conditions allow. This is particularly true with slow-maturity varieties such as tomatoes, Irish potatoes, eggplant and melons that require 80 or more days to mature. The tomato sets fruit within a narrow temperature range with maximum fruit set occurring when night temperatures are in the 60 to 70 degree range for at least part of the night. The setting of fruit stops when night temperatures exceed 75 degrees. Higher daytime temperatures exceeding 90 degrees will also negatively influence tomato production.

If you haven't done so yet, now is the time to prepare the garden plot for actual planting. The Feb. 5 and Feb. 12 "Gardeners' Dirt" articles provided excellent presentations on garden planning, preparation and timing as well as raised bed construction. Please consult these articles along with all the other previous "Gardeners' Dirt" articles that can be found and referenced online at the Victoria County Master Gardeners Association's web page located at:

http://www.vcmga.org/2004_Feb05.html

http://www.vcmga.org/2004_Feb12.html

As a home gardener, one of the first major decisions is deciding which vegetables to grow. The table with this article lists crops and varieties suitable for small and large gardens for planting at this time. Although not listed in this table, lettuce and parsley transplants and beet and chard seed plantings should still have a reasonable degree of success. This table is meant to be a practical guide for selecting appropriate vegetables to be planted at this time and does not by any means include the total list of vegetables that can be grown in this area. There are many other crops that could be planted but are more suitable for planting either earlier in the season or in the fall/winter garden.

Choose vegetables that are family favorites, but that also return a good portion of nutritious food for the time and space required. Vine crops such as cucumbers, watermelons and cantaloupes require large amounts of space. Planting these on a fence or trellis will allow growing them in less space. I have excellent success planting cucumbers using a wire livestock panel which is supported upright between three metal fence posts. This provides high quality and easy-to-pick cucumbers while being space efficient enough to use in a smaller garden space.

Once you have decided what to plant you must next get your selections into the ground. If you have purchased seeds in packets to plant in your garden, refer to the package instructions for proper spacing and depth. However, if you are planting seeds purchased in bulk or given to you by a fellow gardener, a general rule for planting vegetable and flower seeds is to cover the seeds with soil equal to 2 or 3 times the seeds width (not their length.) This rule is especially true if you are planting in heavy soil with a high silt or clay content. The depth is not as crucial with sandy or highly organic soil. In fact, a band of sand, fine compost or vermiculite 4-inches wide by 1/4 inch thick placed over your planting in heavy soil will help retain soil moisture and reduce crusting, making it easier for seedlings to push through the soil surface.

If you are planting transplants into your garden, choose plants that have good roots and are stocky, healthy and free from disease. Water them several hours before transplanting and plant them into the garden on a shady day in late afternoon or early evening to prevent wilting. Dig a hole large enough to hold the plant's roots and slightly deeper than previously planted.

Tomato plants are an exception to this rule since they will develop roots all along their stems making it possible to plant them at a deeper depth or even tilted on their sides if they are leggy. Place the plant in the hole taking care not to disturb the roots. This is especially important when planting plants such as squash, parsley or cucumbers. Once they are transplanted, apply water. Remember extra care at beginning growth will result in more productive and healthy plants.

Now that you have planted, remember that adequate soil moisture is essential for good crop growth. During the first two weeks of growth as plants are becoming established see that they receive about an inch of water per week either from rain, irrigation or both.

Continued care in irrigation, weeding, insect and disease control, and fertilization throughout the growing season hopefully will provide you with a bountiful harvest of fresh and nutritious vegetables. Additional and more detailed information is available by accessing the Texas Home Gardening Guide Page within the Master Gardener's web site mentioned above or from the Extension office.

http://www.vcmga.org/TexasHomeGardeningGuide.html