March Garden Madness


Sick of winter, East Texas gardeners experience some sort of March garden madness. Meteorological spring begins March 1, and that seems to line up with East Texas weather. Even though there are frosts remaining, we will rarely have another bone-chilling cold spell. I know it’s (almost) spring when saucer and star magnolia bloom in shades from dark pink to almost white. They are accompanied in my yard by blooms on crabapples and plums (peaches are too fickle for me, and I’m still looking for a spot to plant a Warren pear). Vines like the native crossvine decorate fences and arbors, while wisteria, the scourge of the south, strangles trees, houses, and slow-moving gardeners.

Spring shrubs are the stars of March garden madness. Azaleas are a signature plant to much of East Texas, overlapping the final blooms of camellias. Viburnums such as the snowball bush and the native rusty blackhall pop their clusters of white flowers for the bees to find. Bridal wreath spirea will line its branches with small white ‘bouquets’, while mock oranges show their sometimes-fragrant dogwood-like blooms. (To ensure the mock orange you buy will be fragrant, try to buy while in bloom.) The rarely-planted magnolia relative called the banana shrub will start to open its small yellow blooms that carry the fragrance of ripe bananas. Look for a specimen of this shrub inside the picket fence at the Quitman Arboretum.

As a gardener, my March madness consists of all of the spring chores that await me. All those perennials that I left standing over the winter need to be cut back. If they were diseased, I remove them from the beds; otherwise I chop the stems into small pieces and drop in the bed, knowing they will be covered with a much more attractive mulch. If I’ve piled up mulch to protect a tender perennial, I pull all that off the plant’s crown. Any leaves that are piled up also need to be pulled away from the perennials; I consider them my first layer of mulch so I leave the leaves in the beds.

Oh, and weeding! I am lucky in that my yard is a woodlands, so weeds are few and far between. At the Quitman Arboretum, we are not that lucky – the beds are growing wonderful stands of henbit, a low-growing weed with purple flowers, and its cousin, purple deadnettle. If our beds were intact, we would have reduced these annual weeds with another dose of Preen in late fall or early winter. Dandelions have taken root where the hogs dug up the lawn; my grandfather would have pulled these for our spring salads or made wine from the blooms. Other spring weeds include chickweed, creeping buttercup, and wild geranium, which I keep expecting to be something I should keep (spoiler alert: it’s not).

March is also time to start your warm-season vegetable garden. Spend March getting your beds ready by weeding and adding soil improvements rather than planting your warm-season vegetables. Not only is another frost likely, but also the soil temperatures are probably too low for good growth. Local wisdom says to wait till after Easter, and I tend to agree. I have limited sun in my yard, and my sandy soil is full of root-knot nematodes, so I do limited vegetable gardening. This year we’re exploring some techniques for vegetable gardening at the Quitman Arboretum – we will once again plant some straw bale gardens, and for the first time we’ll be building a keyhole garden inside the fence to the north of the George Bridge.

The ‘Final Four’ in my March garden madness are four perennials for spring blooms. For shade, I recommend Texas Gold columbine, with its bluish-green scalloped leaves and bright yellow flowers with spurs a cowboy would envy. Texas gold retains a low rosette of leaves over the winter, providing some much-needed color. Another shade-lover is a ground cover called ajuga or bugle weed. Its leaves can be green, maroon, purple, or even variegated, but its flowers are generally blue-violet, on a six-inch tall stalk. Ajuga needs well-draining soil and prefers protection from hot sun. It is an aggressive grower that will cover a flowerbed if conditions are right.

For those sunnier spots, consider the native called Texas sundrops or Texas primrose. This evergreen low-growing plant with lemon yellow flowers is one of the longest-flowering perennials in our East Texas gardens. It will bloom on and off from spring through summer. You can see this plant at both the Quitman Library gardens and the waterwise bed at the Quitman Arboretum. The final plant I’d like you to consider growing in your sunny garden is yarrow, another evergreen with very ferny foliage. A long-time performer at the Quitman Library gardens, ‘Royal Tapestry’ yarrow blooms in various shades of pinks starting in March.

I hope I’ve convinced you that even if you’re not a basketball fan, you can certainly enjoy some March madness in your East Texas gardens.

About the author: Lin is a Texas Master Gardener in Wood County. Email her at for information about the vegetable garden projects she mentioned above. Join her and other volunteers each Wednesday morning at 9, at the Quitman Arboretum and Botanical Gardens.