Spring may feel like it has arrived as we enjoy warmer temperatures and more sunshine, but in reality, the cold snaps have not completely disappeared. The thermometer can still dip very low on some nights, resulting in early morning frosts. And while March 20th may be the official first day of spring, gardeners need to take notice of another important date—April 15th, which is considered the date of the last killing frost in our metro area. While the warmer days of March make us want to get out and plant our summer flowers, we need to wait until at least the third week of April to do so. But that doesn’t mean we have to wait to enjoy the beauty that spring has to offer.
March gives us much fulfillment with early blooming shrubs such as quince, forsythia, spirea, and the early flowering viburnums. In addition, between March and mid-April, most of our spring-flowering bulbs grace the garden. And favorite cold-tolerant bloomers like pansies, English daisies, sweet Williams, and foxgloves also contribute to nature’s palette.
During this period of high color, take a few minutes to evaluate the design of your garden. Does it appear as a haphazard blob of color, or is it more of a soothing palette of blooms that coordinate and flow into each other? These observances can help you plan better next year. The most effective garden colors do several things: They accent the beauty of the garden along with the flowering and evergreen shrubs and trees, they move the eye throughout the garden by creating a pleasing composition, and they do not compete with each other.
While March is a time to enjoy these early spring bloomers, it is also a time to handle certain chores that will improve the quality of your garden. And as you start your mid-April plantings, pay attention to which ones need warm soil to grow. I have a favorite list of outstanding plants that I treat as annuals and that generally give me lots of color. In sunny areas, these include lantana, marigolds, pentas, sun-loving impatiens, coleus, and zinnias. For the shady portions of my garden, I prefer impatiens, caladiums, wax begonias, torenia (also called wishbone flower), and sweet alyssum. I also have certain “wow” perennials that I keep adding to my garden as needed. The entire group of coneflowers flourishes in a variety of hot colors. Goldsturm coneflower reseeds heavily, but it’s very tolerant of our summer conditions. You also can’t beat hostas and their unbelievable leaf variations. Another fun plant is the native butterfly weed that, once established, just keeps enlarging its bloom show every year. And I never tire of the spark of color that a mass of daylilies offers with very little work on my part.
Finally, this is the time of year that I get really excited about my vegetable garden plantings, which are a mix of seeds and transplants. Most summer vegetables in the South don’t grow much until the soil temperature is above 50 degrees, so don’t plant too early. This year, Good Friday will be an excellent time to start sowing garden green beans (pole or bush), butterbeans, hills of squash (all types), and sweet corn. It’s also okay to add transplant tomatoes. Plant peppers and eggplants in pots since the ground soil is not warm enough until May. And if you grow okra, wait until May to seed. With a little forethought into the timing of all of these plantings, you’re sure to be feasting on the most delicious fresh vegetables all summer.
Floyd’s To-Do List: March/April
Divide daffodils If your established daffodil beds are not blooming like they should, they are probably too dense and need to be separated. Once the foliage yellows divide, separate and reduce the number of the bulbs in the beds by 50%. Allow the ones not replanted to dry out for planting in the fall, or replant in a new location now.
Prune As your spring-flowering shrubs finish blooming, decide whether they need severe pruning. If that is the case, do it now. Most need to be cut back within 6-12 inches of the ground. Fertilize with 5-10-10 when you finish pruning. If they only need shaping or a light pruning, wait until the first flush of growth, and then prune as needed.
Plant amaryllis bulbs If you have been growing these for indoor blooms and they just have foliage now, you can plant them outdoors. To keep them blooming year after year, plant them deep in a well-drained location with good soil. Make sure the top of the bulb is covered with at least 2 inches of soil. I have some in my garden that are 10 years old.
Start tomatoes from seed The key to growing tomatoes is warm soil. I start mine in clean, old plant flats filled with a damp seeding mix and placed in a sunny location. The trick to success is bottom heat. If you do not have a plant heating mat (mine was $12), use a waterproof heating pad turned down very low and placed under the seeded flat. Keep soil moist, and when the plant’s true leaves appear (they look like little tomato leaves), transplant to pots and grow a sturdy plant before putting in your garden.
Add a shrub or two When planting shrubs, remember that you need to dig a hole at least 1 ½ times the size of the container or root ball in depth and width. Remove the plant from the container, and loosen the roots if they are growing in a circle at the pot’s edge. Backfill with good fertile soil around the positioned plant, making sure the finished planted shrub will be level with the top of the soil of the shrub’s container. Water thoroughly, and mulch with a product like pine straw. Remember that newly planted shrubs need to be watered more often than those that are established. Water at least weekly if there is not a good soaking rain.
Visit the Birmingham Botanical Gardens Plant Sale April 11-14 to shop for all kinds of annuals, vegetable plants, shrubs, and trees. The Members-Only Preview Sale is 6:30 p.m. – 8 p.m. April 11. Public sale hours are 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. April 12, 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. April 13, and 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. April 14. The sale takes place in the Macy’s upper parking lot at Brookwood Village. bbgardens.org
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.