March: What Needs to Be Done in the Garden and on the Homestead in Upstate New York?

Updated on May 1, 2018
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Fredrick Vanek is a life-long amateur naturalist and former market gardener and homesteader.

Snowdrops (Galanthus)
Snowdrops (Galanthus)

March is the calm before the spring work really begins. It is a true transition month up in Upstate New York. Lately, we have come to expect both 70-degree days and blizzards almost back to back.

As always, the key is to use whatever the weather brings to our best advantage. Anything that you can get done in March is one less thing to do in April.

A new pattern is emerging here—one of dry springs. March is still quite moist, but beginning in April, the rains here cease until sometime in June. (Chalk it up to “climate change,” as this is not the historical norm for the last few centuries that records have been kept here.)

What to Do

Water tanks:

If you collect rainwater for watering as we do, now is the time to set them up to collect water from the roofs. Waiting until April is too late as the rains have gone dry on us. Not until June do we get any real rain again (and then we get too much).

Chickens:

They begin to stir further from their coop now as the snow pack disappears. They will walk in snow but don’t really care for it. Their feet do not seem to be as inured to the cold as native birds, though we’ve never seen one lose even so much as a single toe to freezing. Combs, yes; but not toes. Egg production will begin to slowly pick up again, but won't reach the same peak as in the fall.

Pruning:

If you haven't finished pruning your fruit trees, it is high time you got to it.

Pruning done in April or later risks the entry of diseases into the wounds with the warmer weather. That having been being said; the old-timers averred that summer pruning actually increased fruit production the next year. That has not been my experience.

Maple Syruping:

The season is drawing to a close. March used to be the month for sugaring, but now it is the tail end, at best. Once you see those maple buds fattening up, you'd best cease as the resulting sap will taste bitter.

Woodlot:

Time to finish the winter's task of cutting, splitting, and stacking before the spring chores overwhelm you.

It's the “mud season” now, which means by the end of the day you have churned the cold mud into something not solid but not liquid either. Your wheelbarrow tire will sink almost up to the axle as load after load is trundled to under cover. And you will curse yourself for not finishing this up while the earth was still as hard as iron.

Carpentry:

What you can do while waiting for true gardening weather is to go over your tomato supports, pea poles, bean poles, and arbors, repairing them as needed. Check your fence lines for breaches once the snow allows you to.

Starting indoors:

Now the itch to plant and to grow green things swells...But it’s too early for most crops. We can sublimate our urge by starting some types of plants indoors, and sowing some cold frames outside.

If you didn't start onion seeds in February, early March is time. Leeks too can be started now.

I do not recommend starting tomatoes indoors, especially this early. It results in weak, spindly plants that will always be behind later planted ones.

Satisfy your desire to garden by broadcasting spinach and lettuce seeds into a cold frame. When rain comes, lift the lids of the frames and let the rain set the seed. By May you will be eating fresh baby greens

Raspberries:

Once the snows are gone, it is time to cut out the old summer raspberry canes (the ones that fruited last year).

Wear eye protection and leather gloves as this is a prickly task.

The fall-bearing raspberry canes should be sheared right down as close to ground level as possible.

The resulting piles of canes burn hot and fast—great for starting a fire to burn your other prunings with (local fire department permitting of course).

Sow them like pearls or...
Sow them like pearls or...
scatter them tightly.
scatter them tightly.

Peas:

Traditionally, green peas were sown on Good Friday. Now, sometimes that does fall in March, and luckily, peas are one of the few plants who profit by being planted in cold, wet soil regardless of when religious observances occur. Other plants' seeds would rot with such treatment, but not peas.

Green peas, sweet peas, snow peas, soup, or dry peas: all can be sown now as soon as the snows are gone.

I find it best to decide the previous fall where the peas will be going the next spring.We make sure that bed is raked clean then.

A furrow is cut in the wet, clumpy soil about 2” deep and then the peas sown. Sprinkle them in thickly, as tight as pearls on a necklace. Peas 'like' the company of other peas.

No need to add inoculant to the soil to fix nitrogen. You can if you like, but in any moderately fertile soil there already is plenty enough Nitrogen for the peas, and they will begin to fix more themselves. And if you've grown peas or beans before in that soil the bacteria needed for the nodules is already there.

One of the many varieties of the Chickweed (Stellaria) genus.
One of the many varieties of the Chickweed (Stellaria) genus.

Weed:

Yes, weed.

In particular, the various chickweed species start growing by leaps and bounds as soon as it gets above freezing. It can easily overwhelm you if you don't get after it. The roots are fibrous and matting, and any piece left will sprout anew.

On the plus side; the flowers are about the first food for the overwintered Bumblebee Queens.

Kill Ground Hogs:

Cruel, but necessary. Find their active burrows (they are the ones with fresh soil at the entrances) and use smoke bombs to kill them.

They are setting up housekeeping now. You either need an impregnable fence...or you must hunt them down.

Sorry. Life has no mercy.

Rest assured, the groundhogs will not feel a single twinge of conscience for pillaging your food supply. It doesn't make it any easier to do though, does it? But just try and do anything without protecting it and see how long it lasts.

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