March in the garden
Mother Nature is holding her breath. She is calming her winds, lengthening her shadows and cooling down the sun’s rays in preparation for a seasonal change. Use the quiet and peaceful days of March to make the most of your late summer and early autumn garden.
Be an early bird and start buying winter bulbs now before they sell out. Then prepare the soil for them by working in loads of compost.
It is still a tad early to plant cold-season bulbs as the soil temperature needs to cool down some more.
Bulb growing tips: Sprinkle some insect powder over the bulbs when planting them to deter worms. Once planted, water deeply every 4 days and remember to feed with bulb food every 3-4 weeks.
Pull out summer annuals that have finished flowering and prepare your beds for annual winter colour – work in lots of compost and general fertiliser at a rate of 60g/m2.
Start the first sowings of Namaqualand daisies and bokbaaivygies in situ. Pick a sunny spot for a stunning display.
Apply iron chelate or a complete micro-element mixture to azaleas and gardenias that may be turning yellow and start feeding now with acidic food. Renew the acidic mulches around them with bark nuggets or pine leaves.
Sow peas and beetroot and plant garlic bulbs (available from bulb stockists too) in well-composted soil.
It is prime time for perennials like red hot pokers, grasses like Pennisetum ‘Fireworks’, pink muhly grass, Miscanthus and restios. More indigenous beauties to plant are plectranthus, honeysuckles, plumbagos, bush violets and ribbon bushes.
Hot tip: Although it is still too hot to plant bulbs from the northern hemisphere, you can start planting ixias, babianas and freesias at the end of the month in huge swathes. These endemic bulbs have the grace to ‘nationalise’ in the garden, which means they can just be left in the ground after flowering, to go dormant. You will see them again in full splendour in a future flowering season.
Lawn care: start mowing quick-growing runner-type lawns with the blades set lower. Gently rake to remove a possible thick thatch that might have formed. Spike lightly with a garden fork and fertilise with a lawn fertiliser high in potassium to strengthen into winter.
Sow: beetroot, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, kale, leeks, lettuce, onions, peas, radish, Swiss chard, and turnips.
There are two shrubs to plant in this region that are probably seen as old-fashioned, but are still worth their salt. Hunt down Mahonia lomariifolia (Chinese holly grape), a beautiful evergreen shrub that produces huge, dramatic chandeliers of small yellow flowers in winter. This plant has a slender growth habit with tall stems and leathery leaves with thorny edges. It is hardy to cold, frost, periods of drought, bad soil, and really deep shade.
Botanically speaking, Phormium ‘Yellow Wave’ can be described as a clump-forming perennial with wide strap-like leaves, yellow and green striped, in a curvy growth habit. In normal speak, all you need to know is that this is quite a tough focal plant to send to ground in the shade. Supply well-composted, fertile soil and regular water, and you will be A for away!
Hot tip: Although everybody elsewhere has been told otherwise, you should not remove the old flower stalks or leaves of spent perennials. Simply tie the whole lot together at the top with raffia. This will protect the ‘crowns’ or ‘hearts’, or any new growth that might sprout suddenly, from bad frost.
In the pink: fill your garden with waterwise ‘Cheeky Chimenii’ (Plectranthus chimanimanensis).
Sow: California poppies, cornflowers, godetias, Namaqualand daisies and bokbaaivygies in situ.
Sow: broad beans, leeks, lettuce, onions, peas, radishes, spinach (Swiss chard), turnips, all the cabbage types as well as Asian greens.
Also sow cool-season herbs: chives and garlic chives, calendula and rocket.
Feed the cabbage family and beans fortnightly with a water-soluble fertiliser rich in nitrogen, to strengthen them before winter.
Spread a layer of compost as a nutrient-rich mulch around all existing plants. Do not dig it in as this will just encourage weeds to germinate. Also prepare planting holes for new trees, roses and shrubs – early autumn planting gives most permanent plants the best chance to establish in still-temperate weather.
Lift and divide overgrown agapanthus, wild iris (Dietes), penstemon, campanula and asters. Cut them back, lift them out, split up and re-plant into freshly composted soil.
Sow Namaqualand daisies, sweet peas, poppies, primula, foxgloves, hollyhock, larkspur. Don’t be scared to sow the flowers that you love – it is easy and success is guaranteed if you just follow the instructions on the seed packet closely.
Sow seeds for new lawn grass, especially in colder areas where ‘Shade Over’ and ‘All Seasons Evergreen’ grow well.
A disappointing summer harvest might be due to poor soil. After digging up spent veggies, sow green manure crops in beds that will be left empty in winter: mustard, buckwheat, clover, linseed, lupins, lucerne or borage. When these flower, dig them into the soil. They improve the soil structure and increase the fertility of it for a next round of summer crops.
Feed hibiscus and gardenias with a balanced fertiliser.
Remove damaged leaves from gerbera clumps or divide them now if they are too overgrown.
Strawberry fields: Start preparing a bed for strawberries by digging in well-rotted kraal manure, compost, a dusting of flowers of sulphur (they like acidity) and general fertilizer.
Transform a large conifer with brown branches at the base into a standard by removing all the damaged side branches up to a height of approximately 1,5m or less. Lightly trim the top into a neat ball or teardrop shape.
Hot tip: Start spraying, or sprinkle insect granules around your conifers to combat the dreaded Italian cypress aphid, which becomes active in cool weather.
Plant patches of fiery red and silver shades amongst the boulders in the rockery with a mix of silver fescue grass (Festuca) and Crassula capitella subsp. thyrsiflora, a waterwise succulent with lime green leaves which turn bright red in cold weather.
Roses: In cold regions (like the northern Free State) this is the last month to fertilise the rose bushes, as the stems need to start hardening off for winter. Also, plant new roses now. There are many new hybrids released every year and now is the best time to hunt them down, as they will start an autumn-flowering flush soon.
The main call to action is to fertilise: use 3:1:5 SR all over your garden and then put your plants (especially the fruit trees) to bed with a generous layer of compost or old kraal manure. Feeding will strengthen the plant’s cells before winter and adding bulk loads of organic mulches will protect them and give them a jumpstart in spring again.
Make semi-hardwood cuttings of bougainvilleas, acalyphas, crotons, ixoras, hibiscus and Mackaya bella. Also take cuttings of rambling roses.
Start lifting and dividing overgrown perennials like daylilies, dietes and liriopes. Cut back heliconas and cannas and cover root areas with a mulch of compost, or well-rotted kraal manure.
Pest watch: Put out snail bait under the foliage of perennials, as snails will start looking for places to hibernate.
Fertilise bananas, mangoes and pawpaws and cut down asparagus foliage. Early citrus crops will start ripening now. Check citrus trees for red scale on leaves and stems.
Snap the magic dragon: Try your hand at growing something different in the flower department this year – try snapdragons! One can start planting them from March until October. They will flower in April and May, take a short rest in winter, and will resume again in August to October. They will succumb to the heat and (hopefully) summer rains then, but you will have had the pleasure of their pretty flowers for a while. Dry weather and temperate temperatures are their thing!
Plant and sow the storm troops of winter food so long. Some may take a while before the harvest comes, but others are hastier.
Plant and sow leeks, onions, spring onions, chives and garlic.