March means the start of spring for Birmingham. Warmer days paired with cold nights delight many of our early blooming plants. And when April rolls in with even more warmth, our city bursts into full bloom. While daffodils, deciduous magnolias, quinces, and forsythia give us a taste of spring color in March, the real riot of color appears in April.
I do love gardening in March because I can bundle up for the cool mornings and then shed some layers mid-day as the temperatures rise. Throughout this month, I enjoy adding shrubs and trees to fill in my garden where needed. However, I always wait until mid-April or later to plant any tender summer annuals or perennials. Of all the bulbs we grow in our gardens around Birmingham, I think daffodils are the easiest and most critter-proof. Once planted, you can basically leave them alone until they are so crowded that bloom count is reduced. This signals the need for thinning and separating. Many people think that since you plant daffodils in the fall, you should wait until then to separate the clumps that are not blooming. I prefer not to wait. Once the foliage starts to yellow and die on the overcrowded clumps, I dig the bulbs, separate them either singly or in clusters, and then replant. It is certainly okay to separate and dry them for later planting as well, but I have found that this is not necessary. Before planting the separated bulbs, you need to prepare the soil for replanting. The better the soil is prepared, the better they will bloom next spring. When I plant at this time of year, I make sure the bulb tips are covered with soil and marked so that I won’t disturb them when doing additional planting in the area.
The two things that we all want to do in early spring are prune plants that need shaping and cut back hard shrubs that have gotten out of hand. My general rule is that plants that have not put out leaves can be pruned as desired, with the exception of florist/mophead-type hydrangeas that flower on last year’s growth. Of course if you want to prune spring flowering shrubs, I would wait until the flowering is finished. Also remember that if you cut back evergreens that fruit, you can expect a reduced number of berries produced.
With the warmer weather in early April, our inclination is to go buy summer annuals and perennials that are in the garden centers now. However, I like to wait until April 15th or later to plant these, as we will often still have frost a night or two before then. If you decide to risk it and plant earlier, be prepared to cover them to keep the tender plants from being killed by the frost. Also keep in mind that until the soil warms, these tender plants won’t grow much.
While marigolds, petunias, vinca, and other common annuals are great for this time of year, it’s also fun to try a few of the new things that are exceptional in our gardens like angelonia, portulaca, superbells, blue salvias, and all the new colors and looks of coleus for your sunny spaces. If your garden is shady, opt for some of the new colors of tried-and-true favorites like impatiens, begonias, and browallia. Or choose salvias, which are sometimes annuals and sometimes perennials. They grow very well in Birmingham gardens. Mexican sage is a must-have salvia for my garden and is a vital part of my fall flowering border. Other great bloomers include black-and-blue salvia, Victoria blue salvia, cirrus salvia (gray-white flowers), mystic spires blue salvia, and coral nymph salvia. Many garden centers carry a good selection of these plants, but don’t be afraid to use mail-order nurseries to secure unique ones.
While March and April are showstoppers when it comes to color in our gardens, these months are also the time to plan and plant your summer and fall garden annuals. After the danger of frost has passed in April, go ahead and make your choices while there are still good selections of plants available.
Floyd’s To-Do List: March/April
When cutting flowering branches to arrange indoors, cut the stems deep into the plant instead of just cutting the size you need. This will keep the plants attractive and will, in effect, prune them. Cut the branches that are partially open and showing color, place in tepid water, and bring indoors. When arranging them, be sure to recut the branches and remove any foliage or flowers that would be covered with water in the vase.
All gardens need a soil test, as it’s the best way to tell what you need in order to amend your soil for maximum plant growth. It’s easy to do, and the results are invaluable for plant health. Secure the soil test boxes and instructions at the Hanna Center at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. Once you collect the sample, mail it to the soil-testing lab at Auburn University. You can get your online results quickly.
Overgrown flowering shrubs that need to be cut back hard after flowering should be done now. Forsythia, quince, spring flowering spirea, deutzia, and kerria can be cut to within a foot of the ground and will essentially generate new shrubs. Evergreen hollies, boxwoods, camellias, and barberry should be stage-pruned over a series of years for best results. This means you should reduce their size no more than a third of the plant each year. Make sure you remove foliage and branches that will allow light in the middle of the plant to encourage new growth.
The last seeding of lettuce, spinach, and other spring greens can be made in March. In late April, green beans, squash, cucumbers, and other summer vegetables can be planted. It’s okay to wait on planting tomatoes in order to have fruit throughout July and August. The soil is still too cold to seed okra, so I wait until May for best germination of my seeds.
One of my favorite things to do in the spring is to share wandering plants in my beds with my friends. I survey my garden and remove out-of-place plants. Once I dig them up, I divide them and repot into small pots. I like to see the dug-out plants growing in the pots before I give them away. Many well-established perennials can also benefit from removing a section of the clump before they put out their foliage.
Don’t forget about the great selection of summer “bulbs” that can be planted now. Asiatic and oriental lilies, dahlias, callas, crocosmias, gingers, and pineapple lilies are exceptional additions to my garden and can all be planted now. All of these have specific planting requirements, so be sure to follow the planting directions that come with them. One tip on planting lilies in our area is to dig a hole much deeper than the bulb. Then I add a 2- or 3-inch layer of compost followed by a fourth- to a half-inch layer of pea gravel. Place the base of the bulb on the gravel and cover with fertile soil. This will allow the lilies to grow in your garden for many years.
John Floyd has been gardening in the Birmingham area for more than 30 years. In addition to his day-to-day experience, John has degrees in horticulture from Auburn and Clemson Universities and was editor-in-chief of Southern Living. For daily tips and more garden information, visit birminghamgardeningtoday.com.