March Gardening Tips

The rain last week was welcomed by all of us who like to watch things grow. There's a patch of grass growing beside a creek where I live that is the brightest neon green I've ever seen. Whether you call it apple green or lime green or chartreuse it shouts spring officially started on March 20th, the vernal equinox.

Spring weather here in the Santa Cruz Mountains can be warm and sunny one day, gray and rainy the next. Strong winds often blow last years crop of oak leaves all over the deck you've just swept but none of us would  live anywhere else.

Now that daylight savings time has started we have more time to spend out in the garden. One simple addition that makes being outside in the cooler evenings more enjoyable is a fire pit. For ideas search Google images to be inspired. You can install a simple metal fire pit for burning wood or get fancy with a stone pit surrounded with gravel and stone seat walls. I guarantee you'll be happy you set aside a space for this addition to your garden.

What other to-do's are there in the garden in March?

Fertilize – Take advantage of the moist soil to fertilize your garden.  Lawns and groundcovers are beginning their spring growth spurt and new leaves on trees, shrubs and perennials are starting to emerge. Spread compost, manure, or organic fertilizer to help plants get off to a strong start. Your citrus may be looking yellow from lack of nitrogen which has leached out of the soil through the rainy season and they may be lacking in iron.  Feed them with citrus and fruit tree fertilizer. I like to put out a granular or time release fetilizer before a storm and let the rains water it in for me.  Make sure you keep fertilizer off the foliage and crown of the plants. Wait to feed azaleas, camellias and rhododendrons until after they bloom.

Prune – Clean up winter damage on perennials, vines and shrubs.

Transplant –  If you need to move any plants in the garden, now is a good time.  Plants are full of growth hormones and recover quickly from transplant shock.

Divide perennials –  To increase your plantings, lift and divide black-eyed Susan, gaillardia, catmint, coreopsis, daylily, diascia, geranium, ground morning glory, lamb's ears, penstemon, shasta daisy, society garlic and yarrow.  Also I see my hostas are just beginning to come up so dividing them or transplanting them at this time is easy and you don't risk ruining their georgous leaves later after they unfurl.

Weed – Pull weeds regularly before they set seed. They pull out easily from moist soil. Think of weeding as free gym time.

Houseplants – Now that the days are getting longer and temperatures are inching up your houseplants can be repotted if roots are poking out of the bottom or are matted on the surface.  Houseplants rest in the winter and don't require much fertilizing.  You can resume feeding now with a balanced fertilizer. Your plants will benefit also from leaching the accumulated salts from the soil. Take them to the sink and run room temperature water through them several times.  Houseplants clean the air.

Our last estimated hard frost of the season is approximately March 15th. Sometimes we get light frosts into April so have frost blankets or any blanket or towel ready to protect seedlings. Even a cardboard box over frost tender new growth will work fine.

The World of Bonsai

I walked through an Asian inspired bamboo gate and entered another world- the world of bonsai.  Some trees were blooming, others just leafing out and some had trunks thick and gnarled like they've been alive 200 years- and they have. Here at the garden of the Santa Cruz Bonsai Kai  president, Ron Anderson, I was treated to a tour of 100 specimens in his personal bonsai collection.

The word bonsai comes from two Japanese words that provide the most basic definition of this living art form. "Bon" is a tray or pot , while "sai' means to plant.

At each turn, I marveled at yet another tree in training. Some already in classic bonsai pots while others were still in cut down nursery pots awaiting their day to be root pruned and given a shallow tray.  As living things, they are always growing, leaves and stems being pinched, the branches wired into natural looking shapes, the trunks thickening and sometimes developing nebari or that most sought after look when the surface roots of the tree or root flare are visible above the growing medium


Ron told me he has always been interested in Asian and Japanese gardening. It was only 5 years ago, however,  that his father-in-law took him to a bonsai show. He was hooked. His first bonsai? A boxwood that someone was going to throw out. He gets a lot of his plant material that way. Craig's List has been a great source of old, gnarled  plants. A giant rosemary shrub awaits dividing in a wooden box. A huge Tam juniper was on it's way to the dump. He also has many old, overgrown boxwoods in various stages of training that have much potential.Although many people new to the art of bonsai start with a little finished juniper or buy starter plants, collecting wild trees ( yamadori ) is one of the best ways of acquiring new material for bonsai. Ron found a Sierra juniper in a crevice in the Lake Tahoe area that is probably about 200 years old from the looks of the trunk. Care was taken to get most of the root system, otherwise the tree would have been doomed. A tree collected from the wild must be treated to the highest standard of care. But the reward or a unique yamadori bonsai is a worthwhile prize for spending days, months or years searching for potential material.

Ron also finds potential bonsai specimens in nurseries, looking mainly for 5 gallon or larger plants with an interesting trunk. That way the tree looks more like one found in nature. The oaks on Hwy 152, are good models for bonsai design, he says. Bonsai enthusiasts strive to evoke the ravages of nature in their trees. Except for young bonsai-in-training, most specimens seem much older than their small size suggests. And they may also appear to be veterans of years of struggle against natural forces. Actual age is of less importance in bonsai than the illusion of age. To that end, Ron will shave, cut and sometimes burn a trunk or branch to create the look of a lightning strike.

In Ron's collection are flowering quince, pear, elm, boxwood, juniper, azalea ( picky, he says ), cotoneaster, crabapple, olive, persimmon, dawn redwood, coast redwood, strawberry guava, Korean hornbeam, peach and "the cadillac" of bonsai- the black pine. Ron has two of these now.

Most bonsai live outdoors like they do in nature. There are very few that thrive inside. For his wife, Ron is training an olive tree that will eventually live indoors. Starting with a 7 ft tree, it's now 6 " tall. He is forcing new limbs to grow out from the trunk and it now has three branches.

What conditions do bonsai like? Ron keeps all of his collection outside year round. Some are under trees while others are out in the open even on frosty nights. During the summer they get morning sun and afternoon shade. He waters all of them every other day during the growing season but cautions that he knows his plants and their requirements and someone else may have to fine tune their own individual watering schedule. There is no soil in his soil mix, preferring a mix of small pumice, red lava and a few other things he's learned about but "can't give his secrets away". The most important thing is for the mix to have perfect drainage or the tree roots will rot.

Ron transplants his deciduous trees every year as they grow so fast. Evergreen trees are repotted every 3 years. A rootbound tree, with circling roots in the pot, won't be healthy and growing new root hairs. This will inhibit the growth of the trunk and it won't be able to increase in girth.

Deciduous bonsai, Ron explained, are grown in unglazed trays usually in soft, dark colors. Colored glazed containers are reserved mainly for shows although flowering and fruiting plants are sometimes grown in them also.

Santa Cruz Bonsai Kai meets every 3rd Saturday at 9am at the Live Oak Grange hall on 17th Ave in Santa Cruz. Workshops are held on the 2nd Wed of each month at 7pm at the Aptos Grange hall. Ron said that the club has increased its membership by 30 due to its presence on Facebook which is good as without new members, the knowledge won't be passed on.
Visit their website at

And don't miss the upcoming Santa Cruz Bonsai Kai show Saturday, March 24th and Sunday, March 25th to be inspired and have all your questions answered about growing bonsai from the experts. Both days will feature a demonstration at 2 pm by the famous bonsai sensei, Katsumi Kinoshita.  In the demonstration, Kinoshita will show where and how much to trim an ordinary piece of plant material, how to wire the branches to set their growth in the desired shape and how to pot the tiny tree. The completed bonsai will be the prize in the raffle afterwards.

At the show every plant sold comes with an invitation to Santa Cruz Bonsai Kai meetings, where new enthusiasts are welcomed and nurtured.  

Magnolia soulangeana or Saucer Magnolia

I went to see a million daffodils  but I was too early. Filoli Gardens in Woodside has suffered from lack of rainfall like the rest of us and the daffodils know it. The treat I got instead was a massive display of Saucer Magnolias that scented the warm air with a sweet, lemony fragrance.  This tree loses its leaves in winter and even in the summer, the large green leaves are not very showy. But come late winter and kaboom you see them everywhere totally covered with huge, spectacular flowers. A tree in full bloom with a carpet of petals underneath can beckon us to stay a while.

Magnolias are native to China and has been cultivated in Chinese Buddhist temple gardens since 600 AD. Saucer magnolias or magnolia soulangeana were initially bred by French horticulturist, Etienne Soulange-Bodin, in 1820 at his chateau near Paris. Crossing two types of magnolia both with impressive flowers themselves, his new tree produced in 1826 the spectacular flowers we know today. From France, the hybrid quickly entered cultivation in England and other parts of Europe and also came to the shores of North America.  Over a hundred names varieties are now known.

Magnolias, once established, are easy to grow. They are naturally adapted to areas with cool, moist winter conditions like ours.  If you have a lawn they make a good specimen tree and do well in very large containers. The roots are shallow and don't like to be disturbed once they are established so make sure you pick a good spot to plant them, a place in the garden where they can show off their spreading branch structure. If planted in a lawn  leave a grass-free area bare under the canopy as the fleshy roots can be damaged from constant foot traffic. Most varieties grow about 20-25 ft tall and as wide. Here are some of my favorites.

Of the many cultivars that are commonly seen, I'm always drawn to Alexandrina. Large, tulip-shaped flowers are deep rosy-purple with dark veins outside and white inside. Rustica Rubra is another stunner with deep reddish-purple cup-shaped flowers. The variety we call simply Saucer magnolia is beautiful, too. Planted in a woodland or Asian style garden it's white blooms, pink on the outside, are fragrant like all of the varieties.  Gamble Garden, in Palo Alto, has a beautiful Vulcan variety blooming in their woodland garden. Above the blooming hellebores, their ruby-red flowers completely covered this spreading mature specimen. At 10-12" across, the showy flowers glowed in the late afternoon sun.

Star magnolias or magnolia stellata also make a fine addition to the garden. Much smaller than its cousin this mounding shrubby plant grows only 10-15 ft tall but much wider. Often it is pruned like a small tree to show off the early profusion of striking flowers in white, pink or rose. Star magnolias are valued for their small scale in woodland gardens and are especially beautiful if you can enjoy the early flowering from inside the house.

Deciduous magnolias along with flowering plums are among the earliest showy trees to herald in the new season. Valuable for both their stunning flowers and also their sweet scent they make the late winter garden come alive.

Flowers, Edibles and Camellias

Every year the stirrings of early spring excite me. There's even a name for it – spring fever. There are lots of early season plants that can go in right now or you can spend some time planning for later additions to your garden. Both are great ways to kick-start this gardening season.

An article in this month's Sunset magazine talks about the "5- Mile Bouquet". How about a 50-foot bouquet using flowers from your own garden? There are flowers we can grow in every season around here. Who wants to put flowers doused in chemicals and shipped halfway across the world on the table? Plan to use your entire property as a cutting garden. You can have fresh little bouquets year round from your own backyard.

Winter flowering, fragrant sweet peas could be in your vase right now or bright orange and gold calendula. Stock blooms during the winter along with early narcissus. Both are very fragrant. Deer-resistant Sweet Violets are blooming now and smell wonderful in a tiny vase by the kitchen window. Anemone and snapdragons make good cut flowers and will be blooming soon. It's easy to plan ahead for a spring or summer bouquet because there are so many choices but make sure you have aster, scabiosa and gaillardia for those fall arrangements.

This year plan the edible garden around what grows best for you. It's not always cost effective to devote space in your vegetable plot for something that peaks at the same time as it's plentiful at the local farmers market. What makes sense for your taste, time and garden space? Easy to grow edibles like strawberries, blueberries, herbs, lettuces, arugula and peas are delicious freshly picked and don't take up too much room in the garden.

There are ways to make your whole landscaping edible. Fruits, vegetables and herbs can be intermingled with the ornamental shrubs and flowers in the yard. Plant an apple where a crape myrtle was going to go or an artichoke instead of a New Zealand flax. A border of parsley or chives around the flower bed would look and taste great. Or maybe French pole beans to grow up a bamboo arbor you tied together yourself. Take advantage of your entire property to incorporate your favorite edibles.

Now is a good time to pick out a camellia for that morning sun or shady spot that needs a shrub with year round good looks. Looking at pictures of camellia flowers in a catalog is nice but seeing them in person is even better. What better way to choose the perfect one? If you're partial to vivid flowers, Nuccio's Bella Rossa is right up your alley. An abundance of huge formal, crimson red blooms open slowly over a long period for an especially long bloom season. This brilliant camellia is believed to bring wealth if planted at the entrance to your home as are other red flowering plants.

A great camellia to espalier on a trellis is a sasanqua variety called Fairy Blush. Deep pink buds open to apple blossom tinted blooms with a sweet fragrance. Growing to a compact 4-5 feet this plant is perfect for a small courtyard or patio.

Then there's the soft blush-pink, semi-double flowers of Magnoliaeflora that can be the prized plant of the winter garden. It's deer resistant and the showy flowers are good for cutting. It would make a great privacy screen and looks natural in the woodland garden.

 requiring a regular watering schedule during the first growing season to establish a deep, extensive root system. Provide well drained soil, rich in organic matter. Feed with an acid fertilizer after bloom. Keep roots cool with a thick layer of mulch and prune them in spring after flowering.