This article originally appeared in the Kildare Nationalist, County Kildare, Ireland.
March can be a frustrating month, inuring us to springtime days of sunshine and green fields and then plunging us into the damp and chill again. Its unexpected turns make it difficult to judge the last days to prune, or the first days to plant or put delicate seedlings outside.
If you haven’t planted anything yet, there still might be time to order seeds and plant something for later in the year; buy seeds for more than one year to be on the safe side, but not more than a few years ahead, as after that some seeds tend to lose the ability to germinate.
Your first concern should be soil; in some places here, the soil can be solid clay, while other people have a wet and acidic bog. Gardening soil should usually be dark and mostly compost – that is, well-rotted plant matter – with some clay and sand. You can make your own compost and enrich your soil by composting kitchen waste or manure for two years, until it is dry, crumbly and feels like soil – and then mixing it in. Alternately, you can mix it in now and wait just a year, but then you would not be able to plant anything in the meantime.
If you have particularly boggy soil, you might want to build raised beds and lay down mulch or branches underneath and rich, sandy earth on top. This allows the bed soil to drain properly and provides nutrition for the plants as the wood slowly decomposes. Boggy soil can also be acidic, and many gardeners “sweeten” the soil with lime or some other alkaline – although such measures are said to increase the risk of disease in potatoes. Outside the beds you could plant crops that like acid soil, like blueberries.
If you are experimenting with gardening for the first time, it is probably best to try small patches of the easiest crops – courgettes are famously easy and prolific. Other relatively easy crops that thrive in this climate include brassicas (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage), alliums (onions, garlic, leeks) and peas. All of them should go in the ground quickly if they’re not planted already, along with other local staples like carrots, parsnips and lettuce, as well as crops that more Irish should experiment with -- artichoke, celeriac, chard, beetroot and asparagus.
Check your saplings and young shrubs, especially those planted over winter, to ensure they have not been rocked by wind --- you might have to pound a post into the ground and stake them. Remember that they need extra water when they are producing leaves. If your trees haven’t begun to bud yet, this might be your last chance to prune them this year; some trees react badly to being pruned with leaves or buds.
Since the March weather is so variable, it helps to plant seedlings inside first – ideally you should have had them going for a month or two now. A greenhouse or poly-tunnel is an immense help in growing veg, and allows you to grow year-round. If you can’t afford one right now, build a cold-frame, a box with a window on top that allows sunlight to come in – ideally slanted toward the south and placed in a sunny spot.
Inside your greenhouse, this is a good time to plant tomatoes, chili peppers, bell peppers and other warm-weather plants. Feed and water them well to prepare them for summer – remember that a greenhouse needs to be watered no matter how much it rains outside -- and check for greenfly, whitefly and other pests. If you get slugs, you have treats for your chickens and ducks. If you get snails, you can experiment with French cooking.
Most of all, look around for larger areas to garden, for yourself or your neighbours, for when times get tougher. We are surrounded by fields, most of which are used for grazing if at all, and growing crops generally feeds more people than animals on the same ground.